Going Back East Before Going Back East

On April 28th I leave for a 12 state swing “Back East” as the next step on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I will be gone for almost all of May, and then in June I will be off again.  Since that project/adventure is my birding priority for this year, I knew I would not be able to amass a large number of observations in Washington as I have for each of the last 7 years.  But it would still be nice to at least hit 300 species for the State.  May is a great month for birding – the major reason behind scheduling my trip Back East.  Of course it is a great month in Washington as well – and I will miss it.  Over those past 7 years on average I have added 54 species during the month of May.  A big number to make up especially since I will be gone much of early June as well.

So I have been doing a lot of birding in late March and so far in April trying to get as far along as I can.  Yesterday was another big step in that endeavor as I went Back East as in back to Eastern Washington on a marathon trip through Kittitas, Yakima, Grant and Adams counties chasing some recent observations and looking for new arrivals as migration heats up.  It was one of my best days birding in the State despite yet again not being able to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Over 650 miles in over 16 hours.  Not so many species as I skipped a lot of good habitats but with a lot of luck and some assistance from Paul Baerny who was out birding in much of the same territory, I was able to find 10 new species for the year – FOY’s, and despite a day that started with clouds and rain and even a little snow, I got some of my best pictures ever.  And I had a lot of fun.

With a very early start, I got to the Ellensburg area before it was warmed up enough to get the sagebrush birds going, so I went for a sure thing – the active Osprey nest on Woodhouse Loop just off Canyon Road.  I had not had a chance to look for it on my last trip but knew the pair had returned.  Just as I pulled onto the turnoff, the male flew in with a fish still wiggling in his talons.  A terrible photo in terrible light, but you can see the fish and it was a good start with my first new bird for the year.  As it turned out I saw a total of 11 Ospreys at 8 nest sites during the day.

Osprey – Woodhouse Loop – Ellensburg, WA – Kittitas County


I replenished my coffee and headed to the sagebrush on Durr Road – just off Umptanum Road west and south of Ellensburg.  It was pretty cold and very grey.  A Prairie Falcon sped by as I turned onto Durr Road.  Would this be a good omen? I was not sure if the birds would be active or not, but as soon as I parked, I heard bird song.  However, it was confusing as one song sounded like a Western Meadowlark and another sounded similar but with a lot more going on.  The second was a Vesper Sparrow, common at this location but already seen last week.  My target was a Brewer’s Sparrow.  I had always found them here.  But I heard nothing and saw nothing.  Then just as I got into my car to drive to other spots on Durr Road – hoping to end my Loggerhead Shrike drought, a single little sparrow flew, landed briefly and sang its buzzy little song.

Brewer’s Sparrow – Durr Road – Kittitas County 

Brewer's Sparrow

I drove a few miles looking for a Shrike and saw only a couple of Mountain Bluebirds and Meadowlarks.  I went back down to Umptanum and drove a few miles south with the same goal and had the same experience except this time with Western Bluebirds.  This was the fewest Bluebirds I had ever seen on this road – often thick with both species.  I hope it was just the chilly start to the date and not something more ominous.  Paul Baerny got to Durr Road shortly after I had left and also found it light on birds.  He had not stopped at the first place I had and when I told him I had several Vesper Sparrows there (his target) he returned to that spot and found the same birds I had – including no Loggerhead Shrikes.

Knowing I had to cover a lot of ground, I went to Yakima via I-82 rather than my normal but much slower route through the Yakima River Canyon.  I reached Randall Park where a Blue Jay has been seen regularly for quite a while.  I had never been there before and wondered where to start looking (and hoping).  I was greeted by woodpeckers drumming – two Downy Woodpeckers and two Northern Flickers.  I walked along the creek in the rain leaving my camera in the car since I had forgotten its rain shield.  In a very few minutes I heard the “mobbing call” of the Blue Jay.  I could “count it” but could I find it?  I was helped by its continued calling and then by the sight of a large brown bird flying between two trees along the creek.  It was a Great Horned Owl – explaining the Jay’s call.  I took a pathetic picture of the Jay with my phone and then raced back to the car for the camera figuring I could shield it under my rain jacket.  By the time I got it and returned, the Jay was silent and both birds were gone. Rats (or something like that…).

After another 5 or 10 minutes, I heard a different call from the Blue Jay and was able to find it buried in branches.  Not a great photo – heck – not even a good photo – but unmistakably a Blue Jay.

Blue Jay – Randall Park – Yakima

Blue Jay1

The weather was getting worse if anything and I wanted to go to three different places in three different directions and none were on the way to each other.  Mostly I wanted to find a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  They were a sure thing at Fort Simcoe State Park and would have been a sure thing at Oak Creek but the road up along Oak Creek had been closed and if still closed would require a hike in (and up).  I was sure the woodpeckers would be there but how far would I have to go on foot if closed?  I gambled it might be open (after April 1) and opted for that choice as it was also closer – sort of.  Since as it turned out I would next head to Kerry’s Pond near Sunnyside, either choice would have been about the same.

When I got to Oak Creek, the gate on the road was indeed closed and it was cold and miserable.  I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and headed up hill.  Then it began to snow with the rain.  Not cold enough to stick, but it was a bit eerie and did not help finding birds.  After about a half mile – having passed all the snags close to the road I spied two woodpeckers high up in a bare tree.  Bad light and a lot of distance but it is such a great looking bird that even with those drawbacks and with rain and snow clearly visible – still a nice photo commemoration of the trek – and another new bird for the year.  I took the photo and got back to the car as soon as I could.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's WP in Rain and Snow

There would be a lot of retracing of steps on this journey and now I headed back east heading to Kerry’s Pond where I expected to find Black Necked Stilts.  I could see some Stilts as I drove by the pond and parked.  I had seen this hotspot on many Ebird and BirdYak postings but had never visited it.  I can see why it is a popular and productive place.  I watched 10 or 11 Black Necked Stilts feeding and playing along the edges of the pond with a little bit of aggressive interaction.  I also noted several duck species including a Bufflehead which turned out to be a first for me in Yakima County.  More appealing though was a lovely pair of Redheads – the duck kind.  A gentleman on a small tractor was working the area and had a pair of dogs which came up to me at the fence (electrified) to let me know I should keep out.  (As an aside – with no dogs and if the fence were not electrified entry would have been tempting – but the sun was now out and photos were available from the fence line).  The man came over and we had a nice conversation about the pond, his dogs and his working.  A nice add to the day.

Black Necked Stilts – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

2 Stilts

Redheads – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

Red Head Couple

Long Billed Curlews were high on my list and some had been seen on Lewandowski Road – my next destination.  Along the way I found my first Swainson’s Hawk of the year.  Deb Essman had one the day before on Brick Mill Road.  I had shared her info about it with Paul and he had found it earlier.  I had planned to stop on way home to see it but now that was not necessary at least for the list.  I would later see another one not far from there.

Swainson’s Hawk – Lewandowski Road – Sunnyside

Swainson's Hawk1

Unfortunately no luck with Curlews on Lewandowski Road although there were miles and miles of grassy fields – great habitat – and I very well might have missed them.  But Paul Baerny came to the rescue.  He had just seen four Long Billed Curlews on the North Frontage Road just east of Silica Ponds along I-5.  My original plan had been to head to Para Ponds next and look for Tricolored Blackbirds.  The combination of REALLY wanting the Curlews and needing gas convinced me to change plans even if it meant more miles.  It could not have worked out better.  Over an hour later, I arrived at the spot Paul had described.  it looked right but with landmarks in sight, I called Paul to confirm – and just as I did, I saw a Long Billed Curlew flying over the field to my left (north).  Then I heard another calling.  Then another.  I walked out into the field and was treated to quite a show of birds singing, feeding and flying.  Six Curlews altogether – all sang at one point and two cooperated coming close and even flying right over me.  Photo ops!!!  Pardon this indulgence as I include many photos – my best of this species ever.

Long Billed Curlews – North Frontage Road – Quincy, WA East of Silica Road

Long Billed Curlew Ground Long Billed Curlew Landing

Long Billed Curlew Flight Wings Down1

Long Billed Curlew long-billed-curlew-flight-wings-up1.jpg

The Curlews were definitely the highlight of the day and were the 7th new species for the year.  There would be more of both.  Now it was back to the original plan – head off to Para Ponds about an hour away if I went through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge which would give me yet another chance to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Again no Shrike and instead of stopping at the ponds – always birdy – I went directly to the grain terminal on McManamon Road further east and overlooking the ponds.  This is where the Tricolored Blackbirds were now being found and that was my target.  When I arrived there were blackbirds everywhere:  Red Winged Blackbirds (a few); Yellow Headed Blackbirds (at first only two but later joined by a flock of more than 40); Brewer’s Blackbirds (dozens) and most importantly Tricolored Blackbirds (many).  A veritable Blackbird Bonanza with some Brown Headed Cowbirds thrown in for good measure.

Now this is not the most natural or picturesque setting and often many of the birds were behind a fence, but the light was good and there were many photo ops including the chance to see the different species next to each other highlighting some of their differences such as in the thinner bill of the Tricolored compared to the Red Winged.  It was also my first time really noticing any Tricolored Blackbird females.  The Tricolored Blackbird was also new for the year.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellowheaded Blackbiird

Tricolored Blackbird – Another FOY and My Best Photo of this Species

Tricolored Blackbird1

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird with Brewer’s Blackbird

Tricolored and Brewer's Blackbirds

Brown Headed Cowbird

Brown Headed Cowbird

Late Arriving Flock of Yellow Headed Blackbirds

YHBB flock1

It was just a little after 3:15 so lots of birding time was left and I headed North to the Rocky Ford Fish Hatchery.  Many years ago I used to go there flyfishing for trout, now the quarry was a Sora.  I had them there last year and they had been reported frequently this year.  It was about an hour away – without stops.  Just over a mile south of the turnoff onto Trout Lodge Road from Highway 17, however, there was an important although unplanned stop.  As I was speeding along close to 70 mph, somehow I noticed a small blob on a post on the east side of the road (my right).  My brain processed it as a Burrowing Owl – completely unexpected and seemingly too close to the busy highway for it really to be that.  A quick U-Turn and the bird was still there and the bird was indeed a Burrowing Owl – my first for 2019. First I got a photo and them called Paul as I knew he had been looking for one.  He was probably too far west to seriously consider coming, but he thought about it.

Burrowing Owl – Highway 17 just south of Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl Post Horizontal

With an unexpected new bird for the year, I continued on towards Rocky Ford.  About 200 yards in on Trout Lodge Road, it was deja vu all over again.  This time the blob was on some rocks and since I was only going maybe 50 mph, I was positive I had another Burrowing Owl.  Another quick U-Turn and now I saw a second owl which quickly flew off as I approached in the car.  Probably a pair with a nest right behind the rocks somewhere.  More photos and another call to Paul.  He was torn by the certainty that these birds would remain and the probability that since a nest was likely they would be there on a return visit later as well.

Burrowing Owl – Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl1

Not quite, but this almost overtook the Long Billed Curlews as the highlight of the day.  If I could find a Sora, I would have ten new species for the day – even without that darn Loggerhead Shrike.  There were several fishermen at the creek but I did not see any fish being caught.  I remembered this place and catching some nice trout there years ago – and also remembered days with no trout at all.  I was more interested in a Sora and I walked out onto the boardwalk/fishing platform where I had a Sora last year.  A single playback got a response and a quick peek as it ran between some reeds and that was that.  A great topper for a great day!!

I could not have dreamed of 10 new species for the day especially without the Shrike.  I made one last try for it on the way home, driving along Vantage Highway and stopping at the Wind Farm – very quiet with only a Sage Thrasher, some bluebirds, another Vesper Sparrow and another Brewer’s Sparrow.  I was very tired when I got home but very, very pleased with the day.  And very thankful for folks like Paul Baerny in our wonderful community of birders.

2 thoughts on “Going Back East Before Going Back East

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