The Okanogan – Hits, Misses and Gorgeous Country

I try to visit the Okanogan once every winter with some birding on the Waterville Plateau on the way up and/or back.  Temperatures and snow conditions can vary greatly and so can the birding but it is pretty hard to beat for many “specialty” species and for great scenery.  Lots of great local folks as well and usually there are other birders around although in the vast remoteness, paths do not always cross.  I usually stay in Omak which has an average of 4″ of snowfall in February.  This February has been much colder and snowier than usual and the snowfall has been at least twice that much.  The same was true on the Waterville Plateau.  I was amazed at how clear most of the primary and even secondary roads were in the Okanogan but many of the secondary roads were impassable on the Waterville Plateau.  Did it help or hinder birding?  Yes on both accounts.  But no complaints.  It was gorgeous!!

Okanogan scene 1

Snow may or may not help with some of the birds, but fog does not and there were intermittent areas of dense fog on the way.  My first “target” was the Snowy Owl that had been reported off and on on Heritage Road on the Plateau.  It was very foggy when I got there and I counted myself very fortunate to get even a distant glimpse of the bird about .2 mile further north than last reported.  It was in flight from one rock to another or I likely would never have seen it at all.  I hoped for a better look and photos on my return trip, but I could not relocate it then – more on that later.  Further along Heritage Road I stopped at a woodlot east of the road that has been a good spot for American Tree Sparrows – not a single bird.

Usually I find many hundreds or even thousands of Horned Larks on the Plateau.  The hope is always that a Lapland Longspur or Snow Buntings will be in with the flocks.  This first morning I found far fewer Horned Larks but there was a single Lapland Longspur in a flock of fewer than 100 birds just south of the junction of Heritage Road (L Road) and Highway 172.   I had not seen another car for over an hour – until I got to this spot and this flock.  One car came up behind me and another turned onto Heritage going south.  All the birds of course flew off.  If I had been quicker to spot the Longspur I may have gotten a photo as the Longspur was visible within the flock – although constantly moving and even flying up ahead  – for a few minutes.  This is usually the case with Longspurs in flocks on the Plateau – very hard to get sufficiently close for a good look let alone a photo op.

Horned Larks on Road

Horned Larks

So not great looks, but two First of Year birds and it was not yet 9:00 a.m.  Oh yeah, I had departed Edmonds at 4:30 a.m. and I was then more than 225 miles from home.  It would be a long day – an excellent day.  It was also a very cold day.  When I first hit the plateau the temperature was 5 degrees.  I watched as it went down to 1 degree.  It never hit zero and thank goodness the wind was not blowing.  I wondered though at what temperature fog might start freezing.  Fortunately it warmed into the teens so I never found out.

It really was not very birdy and I thought maybe there was too much snow.  I found no Sharp Tailed Grouse at Foster Creek – hopefully Scotch Creek would be better.  I had a weird experience at Bridgeport State Park – looking for Northern Saw Whet Owls.  I knew some were there and often a roosting tree can be found with whitewash on the ground below.  The snow made that a challenge.  After searching many spots I found an owl absolutely buried in the dense branches.  As I went to try for some kind of photo, I realized that the lens shield was not attached.  Figuring it would be a very lousy photo at best – showing maybe a tiny bit of owl –  I abandoned the tree and retraced steps looking for the shield.  It took 15 minutes, but I found it and decided that was as much good luck as I would get on this visit so headed north.

Heading north on Highway 97, I saw four raptors in flight.  At first glance I thought maybe some eagles.  I turned the car around and got a better look at a very fun interaction.  There were two eagles – my first Golden Eagle of the year. But the other two raptors were Red Tailed Hawks.  When I first saw them I had just thought they were much higher in the sky and thus only appeared smaller.  Now I could see that they were on the same plane and were harassing the eagles.  One of the photos shows just how much different in size they are.

Red Tailed Hawk Harassing Eagle

Eagle and Red Taile

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (2)

Rather than check in at the hotel in Omak I headed off towards Conconully stopping first at the Scotch Creek area along Conconully Road looking for Sharp Tailed Grouse.  My best luck finding them has been when they are feeding in the trees when there is snow on the ground.  There was plenty of snow, but despite a long look including going up Happy Hill Road into another area where I have seen them, nada.  Maybe it was already too late in the day.  There are many target species on my trips to this area, but the Sharp Tails are always on the top of the list – so a bad miss.  On into the town of Conconully itself.

The good start in the morning had definitely slowed down without the Grouse and Conconully was not cooperating either.  I did find a couple of FOY Cassin’s Finches (many had been reported the previous week) but none of the other “possibilities” like Canada Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, or Bohemian Waxwing all of which I have had there before.  But it was still beautiful and had warmed to the upper 20’s and I had fun talks with two local residents.  More birds would have been nice, but it was a really good time.  I did have lots of California Quail, Pine Siskins and Dark Eyed Juncos among other species seen.

It was time to head off to the Okanogan Highlands.  Another unsuccessful search for the Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek and an unsuccessful search for Canyon Wren at my go to spot along Riverside Cutoff road.  I had already seen 5 new birds for the year yet had also missed at least that many – but there were some sure things (probable things?) ahead.  The first stop was at Fancher Road.  I cannot say so for sure, but I believe the first time I birded Fancher Road was January 19th last year when it was stunning to find at least 35 Chukar there.  They are generally not easy to find – usually for me at least they are on rocky hillsides around Vantage or in the Yakima Canyon.  They had been reported at this location last week so it never crossed my mine that I would miss them.  At the beginning of the road just before the grazing area, I saw a couple and then a couple more but not the numbers from the previous year.  Until…I kept going and there were more and more and more.  In the cattle field and on the other side of the road in the hilly area.  I stopped counting at 110 and know there were many more.  I reported 135 on my Ebird report and expect there were at least 150.

Chukar – Fancher Road


And here is another one from my Hawaii trip just a couple of weeks ago.  Notice anything different?  Of course it is the snow.  So here is a bird that has been introduced as a game bird in these two very different environments.  It originates in Asia and the Middle East.

Chukar – Hawaii


The trouble with go to spots (see earlier reference to American Tree Sparrows) is that sometimes the birds forget to be there.  Not the case for me, but I later learned that while the Seattle Audubon Field Trip had Chukars at Fancher Road the previous week, the ABC Field Trip missed them there earlier.  Keeps us all on our toes I guess.

Another FOY at Fancher Road was a Ring Necked Pheasant.  I saw a second one later on the trip.  On to the Havillah Sno-Park with visions of Great Gray Owls in my head.  It has been a few years since I have seen one there and am not aware of other sightings this year, but I had hopes and it can also have other nice birds like Three Toed Woodpeckers and Clark’s Nutcrackers.  Just before turning onto the road to the Sno-Park a Clark’s Nutcracker flew by in front of the car – making up for one of the misses at Conconully.  It was the 8th new bird for the year this day – proof of the richness of the area far more than of birding acumen.  Would the Sno Park deliver a Great Gray for #9?

Ring Necked Pheasant – Fancher Road


Nope.  In fact it was far quieter than I think I have seen it,  Beautiful but quiet. Well at least I did not get stuck in the snow which I have done there before.  At the parking area I met two Westside birders – Pam Cahn and Jen McKernan.  They had been in the area a couple of days and were staying for more.  I was encouraged that they had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek – but earlier than my visit and also they had a few Bohemian Waxwings at Conconully.   In turn they were encouraged by my Nutcracker observation and wondered if a bird they had seen at distance or perhaps as a flyby might have been that.  Always more to look (hope) for.  No owls but as we were talking I heard a Red Crossbill, a species they had seen there not much earlier.  So FOY #9 for the day.

Red Crossbill (Photo is actually from a better observation later but fits here)

Red Crossbill1 (2)

They were heading off to the Nealey Road feeders, so I headed that way as well – leaving the parking area first.  It took a while after getting onto Havillah Road to notice they were not right behind me.  I figured they had stopped for something and debated turning back.  I decided to push on as the light was beginning to dim.  If it had been a Great Gray, I would have greatly regretted that decision.  I later learned that they had seen a Northern Shrike.  I saw several later on my trip so not a big miss.

About a mile from the feeders I saw a flock of smaller birds in flight and then landing behind a red barn.  In the bright but low sun, they flashed dark and then white.  Maybe Horned Larks?  No – my first Snow Buntings of the trip.  I hoped that Pam and Jen would arrive shortly.  They did not and then the flock flew off to a hilly snowfield above me when a pick up truck drove by.  I waited ten more minutes and then decided to move on.  Just as I pulled out, I saw their car coming from behind me.  I backed up and signaled them to stop.  Fortunately the flock of maybe 100 Snow Buntings had remained and were visible at least when against the darker rock outcroppings or grass.

Snow Bunting Flock in Flight

Snow Buntings Flight

Snow Buntings on Hillside

snow Buntings Ground

There were no birds at all at the Nealey Road feeders (which have been great in the past but not so much the last couple of years).  In fading light, I started back to Omak expecting to see a Great Horned Owl on the way as I have done in past years.  Not to be and there had also been no Gray Partridge which had been seen in good numbers by many other birders.  But any day with 10 new birds for the year and such spectacular scenery and no mishaps was a great day indeed.   It ended with a very cool talk with a clerk at the convenience store where I got gas.  He saw my binoculars and camera and asked what I was watching.  I described some of the birds and particularly the Chukars at Fancher Road which was nearby.  He knew about Sharp Tailed Grouse but had never heard of a Chukar.  He really enjoyed the photos I shared with him.

A local woman had overheard part of the conversation and joined in and also liked the Chukar photos.  She had lived in the area all her life and enjoyed the snow as much as the summer heat which can get over 100 degrees.  She wanted me to know about the Bighorn Sheep that can be found at Loomis.  I told her I had seen some there in the past and that seemed to legitimize my visit more than the birding did.  A really good way to end the day.

I was very tired when I finally checked in having been awake since 3:00 a.m.  A larger than usual dinner did not help and I wondered how I could stay awake past even 8:00 p.m.  I worked on photos and watched a little basketball on TV which enabled me to make it to just before 10.  CRASH!!  I am a morning person – always up early – especially when birding.  So it was very much out of the norm when there was light streaming in through a crack in the window shades when I first awoke.  OMG it was past 6:40.  That may be the latest I have slept in years.  But it was probably a good thing as I was not on the road heading back to Scotch Creek until after 7:15.

Again a lot of searching and no Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek.  This was beginning to feel too familiar as I had missed them last year as well.  I would try again after another visit to Conconully just a few miles further north.  Nothing exciting at Conconully but it was interesting that the day before I had seen more than 20 deer and this morning saw none.  And the previous day I had not seen any Wild Turkeys (neither had Jen or Pam) and today there were several groups totaling at least 35 individuals.  I would have traded them all for some Bohemian Waxwings but found none.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

It was now 9:15 a.m. and when I got back to Scotch Creek just north of Happy Hill Road — EUREKA!!  Sharp Tailed Grouse were feeding high in the trees below.  There were at least 25 and probably more.  They were actively feeding and within not more than 15 minutes all but a few were gone.  Timing, timing, timing!!  Terrible photos but ones I was happy to get at all.

Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp Tailed Grouse in Tree1

Sharp Tailed Grouse (2)

Very pleased, I thought I would try for the Canyon Wren again.  Not too far onto Riverside Cutoff Road heading southeast, rocky cliffs rise on the left side of the road.  I had one last year just past an iron gated road to a ranch on the right (and before two leather sofas that have been discarded on the left side of the road this year).  It had not been there yesterday, but then after the third playing of the familiar descending song, I had a response from high on one of the cliffs.  We had a “conversation” for a minute or so and then the Canyon Wren continued a solo without further encouragement for many more minutes.  I finally caught a glimpse of it on a rock outcropping but it never came in closer.  Another FOY and another example of how you have to just keep trying and how timing is so important.

Back on the main highway before heading Northeast into the Highlands again, I got a photo of a very dark Red Tailed Hawk.  It had been at the same spot the day before but traffic had prevented a try for a picture.  Truly a striking bird.

Red Tailed Hawk – Dark Morph

Red Tailed Hawk Dark Morph

I spent some time on North Siwash Creek Road hoping for a close up of Sharp Tailed Grouse in excellent habitat.  The Seattle Audubon trip had found them there and had great looks.  There would be no Grouse and no Partridge but I had my first of three Northern Shrikes.  Later on Davies Road on an unsuccessful search for the Northern Pygmy Owl that had been seen there repeatedly, I found a great small flock of Mountain Chickadees, Pine Siskins, Red and White Breasted Nuthatches and Red Crossbills.

Northern Shrike (N. Siwash Creek Road)

Northern Shrike (2)

Mountain Chickadee – Davies Road

Mountain Chickadee (2)

Pine Siskins – Davies Road

Pine Siskins

Red Breasted Nuthatch – Davies Road

Red Breasted Nuthatch with Seed

There may have been no owls on Davies Road, but I found a great “owler” as Khanh Tran was coming from the other direction.  Like many others, I drool over Khanh’s many fabulous owl photos – many from this same Okanogan area.  He shared some info and also told me his two secrets for finding owls: (1) perseverance and (2) great eyes.  There is no doubt that he has both.  He told me that the Davies Road Pygmy Owl was more likely to be seen closer to dusk.  I had other plans and considered changing them, but instead accepted it as another miss for the trip.

Including the time on the Riverside Cutoff Road, my visits to Conconully and Scotch Creek and then in the Highlands, I probably had traveled at least 60 miles that morning.  With the exception of the traffic (light) on Highway 97, Khanh’s was the first car I had seen and that would remain the case for most of the rest of the day.  The remoteness of this area is one of its great appeals.  We are so fortunate to share an activity that brings us to such beautiful places and at least at times to have the complete serenity of being alone in such wild country.  (As long as there is no car trouble, of course.)

More of the Countryside

Okanogan scene2

Khanh and I had talked about locations for White Headed Woodpecker.  Last year I had found 3 of them on the north end of Cameron Lake Road near the American Flag strung across the road.  The Seattle Audubon trip had missed them there this year.  Khanh said they were there – although better earlier in the morning and also in the Ponderosa pine area north of that.  Last year I had also had Gray Partridge and American Tree Sparrows on the road so I decided to head there next even though it was more than an hour away.  Less than a mile north of the “flag” just into the Ponderosa pines, I thought I heard a woodpecker.  I stopped and heard both tapping and some calls.  The calls were from a White Headed Woodpecker, but the tapping was different.  What happened next was really fun.  I played the 3 note “pred-di-dink” call of the White Headed Woodpecker which is what I thought I heard.  Immediately a male flew up from low on a nearby tree and posted on a nearby trunk.  Not more that a few seconds later a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers flew right at the White Headed Woodpecker and chased it away.  The male Hairy remained on that trunk and began tapping – the same sound I had heard earlier.  My assumption is that the two were a mated pair and were on territory with the White Headed the intruder.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker (2)

White Headed Woodpecker

White Headed Woodpecker

I added some Pygmy Nuthatches but was very disappointed as I found no American Tree Sparrows at the “go to” wetlands spot.  Jon Houghton had the same experience earlier in the month.  I had hoped for better luck.  The road was passable and I have had problems there before (as Shep Thorp did on the Audubon trip), but it was messy and had some serious ruts.  I traveled the lower few miles of Cameron Lake Road – hoping for Gray Partridge in an area I had them last year.  As I came around a sharp turn three Gray Partridge flushed off the road and disappeared into the distant snowy white.  If I had been coming up the hill in the other direction, I probably could have sneaked up on them for a good view and maybe a photo as had been the case last year.  Neither they nor I had any warning this time, so a countable but very unsatisfying look.

I hope to get a better look at Partridge with Deb Essman in Kittitas County later, but for now they are at least a check mark and FOY 14 for the trip.  The woodpeckers were the highlight of this visit and especially the White Headed – the 13th FOY of the trip and always a great bird to see.

Back to Omak and then a return to getting up earlier than I wished to start the next day caused in part by the visit of the garbage truck at 4 in the morning.  Ouch!!  I could have spent the entire day birding and gotten home late (after traffic since it was now Monday) but the wind had picked up and although no snow was predicted, I figured I would just head back spending time on the Plateau where “surely” I would find some Tree Sparrows and Partridge and then maybe look for a Sora at Rocky Ford where I had found two on the way home from this trip last year.  If all went well, I could then stop at the Stevens Pass Ski Area for Canada Jay as I had done last year as well.

No calamities but it was a strange day.  I started by revisiting the lower part of Cameron Lake Road, hoping for a better Gray Partridge intersection.  The wind was blowing much more than the previous day but at least the ruts in the road were “solid” as with the overnight freeze, they had not thawed into mud.  I saw a Cooper’s Hawk and some more Horned Larks and Snow Buntings but no Partridge or anything else of note.  Time to head south.

Snow Bunting on Cameron Lake Road

Snow Bunting (2)

Back on the Waterville Plateau it was now very windy with a lot of blowing and drifting snow – not falling, blowing from loose snow on the ground.  I stopped again at the woodlot on Heritage Road just south of Highway 172 where I have had American Tree Sparrows in the past and missed them on Saturday.  Not a single bird.  Now though there were lots of Horned Larks on the road – far more than the first day I came through.  In the same general area I had seen the Lapland Longspur on Saturday in a flock of maybe 100 birds, there was now an ever changing flock of more than 300.  I thought I caught a glimpse of a Longspur but lost it in the constantly reorganizing movements.  A few Snow Buntings were mixed in.

Much further south on Heritage Road, Shep had reported a good number of American Tree Sparrows on the west side of the road at an abandoned barn and grain silos.  I thought I found the right spot but as it was not possible to get near the buildings in the deep snow and there were fences.  I wondered if maybe I had miscalculated.  It was windy and cold.  I played all of the American Tree Sparrow calls I had.  There were two single responses from the brush near one of the buildings in the back.  I scoured the area with my bins but saw no movement.  The return call was right but a good visual would have been nice and a photo even better.  A reluctant check mark, but I hope for something better later this year.  I searched in vain for the Snowy Owl.  Maybe that fog had helped after all.

It was time to make a decision.  A good sized flock of Gray Partridge had been reported at the Withrow Grain terminals the previous day.  I have had them there as well.  This would take me in the opposite direction from Rocky Ford.  If all went well, I would find the Partridge there or better yet on the way and then could double back to Rocky Ford.  “Well” would mean finding them quickly as the trip back to rocky Ford would add an hour or more.  There was lots of grain on the ground at Withrow and many hundreds of Horned Larks were taking advantage of it.  They were very skittish, but I looked hard and saw neither Snow Buntings nor Longspurs.  And definitely no Gray Partridge.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (2) Horned LArk Flight

I made the executive decision that I would be able to find a Sora somewhere later this year – even though I will be out of state for the better part of at least two months – and headed towards home.

With little traffic, I got to the Stevens Pass Ski area a little after noon and found a great parking spot.  I looked out of place with camera and bins as everyone else had skis or snowboards and there were hundreds of folks having a great time.  A bit windy but clear.  I figured there would be lots of folks eating and the Jays would be coming in begging for food.  But the strange day continued.  A single Raven greeted me at the parking lot.  I think it was munching on a Cheeto.  Was this a good sign?


Junk Food Raven

It was the only bird I saw.  I was shocked not to find “Camp Robbers” getting free food.  Strange.  But there was a happy ending.  I got in my car and drove around to check all of the other parking lots.  Several skiers were having tailgate lunches at their cars.  One offered me a hot dog – I would have preferred chips as bait for a Canada Jay.  As I turned back onto Highway 2 to leave, a single bird flew overhead.  Not blue, gray.  Not a Stellar’s Jay – which are also there, but a single Canada Jay.  Amen!!

Traffic on Highway 2 was less bad than usual – until the awful miles between Gold Bar and Monroe and I was home before the bad traffic for the day on I-405.  A visit to this part of our State is always a highlight of the year for both birds and scenery.  All of the snow this year certainly added to the latter and I am unsure of its impact on the former.  I did not keep a running account of all species seen and my Ebird reports were not complete – in part due to the absence of cell coverage in most of the area.

In addition to the birds mentioned earlier, I also had many American Kestrels, a Peregrine Falcon, several Rough Legged Hawks and some of these and some of those.  Altogether at most 65 species of which 16 were new for the year.  Many nice specialty birds but many missed possibilities as well including Great Horned, Northern Pygmy, Long Eared and Great Gray Owls, Sora, American 3 Toed Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing, Ruffed and Greater Sage Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Gyrfalcon and Evening Grosbeak.  It is a great area!!  See you again next year…


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