On March 12th the weather report for the next day in Ellensburg, Washington called for clouds and rain turning to snow maybe that night. Not perfect but Jon Houghton and I thought we would be okay to look for newly arrived birds in the area east of Ellensburg in the sage and shrub steppe habitats along Vantage Highway especially Sagebrush Sparrows which are early arrivals and are actively vocal in March. We also considered birding in other locations nearby maybe even venturing south to Oak Creek to find some always present and always beautiful Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Well, weather forecasts are not always accurate.
Lewis’s Woodpecker – from March 16, 2017
A light snow started to fall not long after clearing Snoqualmie Pass and while not a travel concern, we wondered about its effect on birding if it continued. It never got real heavy, but continue it did for most of the rest of the day and it definitely impacted the birds and our birding. Our itinerary would normally begin with birds at Bullfrog Pond east of Cle Elum and then a swing by the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum but since we both had seen all the birds resident and likely at these spots and it was too early for migrants, we moved on directly to Umptanum and then Durr Roads just south of Ellensburg and the first really good sage habitat. The snow continued.
By now both Western and Mountain Bluebirds are almost assured along Umptanum Road and we found both species albeit in smaller numbers than usual and the snowy conditions made photos less than worthwhile. Durr Road heads up into thicker sage and is often good for Brewer’s, Vesper, and Lark Sparrows and sometimes Sage Thrashers. We had none of them and our “best birds” were three male Common Mergansers flying over – go figure.
We met up with good birding friend Deb Essman in Kittitas who joined us for the next couple of hours. We started with the pair of Great Horned Owls that are nesting in the shed across from her home. Unfortunately the snow and birds were no kinder to Deb than they were to us and we were unable to find some of the birds that had been seen locally in better conditions like a Prairie Falcon or Wild Turkeys which were targets. Not going to give all the details, but essentially we struck out on almost everything along Vantage Highway, Recreation Road, Frenchman’s Coulee and Huntzinger Road. We had no wrens and only a pair of uncooperative Say’s Phoebes at Vantage and a surprise Vesper Sparrow on Lyon’s Road in a spot where Jon had them in previous years, but that was about it. The good news though was that we had a great visit with Deb as we always do and never thought about politics or COVID-19 the whole time. Jon ended up with 4 FOY’s (both Bluebirds, the Phoebe and the Vesper Sparrow). I had the same plus a Horned Lark which Jon had seen in the hundreds when he visited the Waterville Plateau earlier this year. Since 10 or 12 First of Year birds had been possible, this was not a big success. We aborted the trip early and returned to Edmonds driving through Seattle at what would normally be the peak of the rush hour. There was no traffic at all – a nice consolation.
Great Horned Owl – Third Year on Nest in Shed – Photo is with Young in 2018
The good thing about weather is that it changes – sometimes really quickly. After our snowy day on March 13th the wind blew heavily that night – not unusual there – and then it began to warm up – just in time for Spring. On Thursday March 19th, Cindy and I were supposed to fly to Fort Lauderdale, FL for four days of birding and tourism before joining Naturalist Journeys on a long awaited trip to Cuba. The following month we were planning a trip to see friends and then some birds in Southeast Arizona. My daughter and grandson were going to come visit in April and then in May Cindy was scheduled to visit England and I was going to join Bruce LaBar birding in Texas. But COVID-19 vetoed all of that and all of those trips were cancelled.
Knowing that the 19th would be a real downer day and anticipating that travel in Washington might be shut down at any time, when I noted that the weather in Kittitas County was going to be beautiful on March 18th, I opted for the antidote of a return to birding and to try again for birds missed the previous week. No surprise, weather really does matter and I had fabulous birding. I skipped Umptanum and Durr Roads and headed straight to areas near Kittitas that Jon and I had birded with Deb Essman the previous Friday. I could not relocate the Vesper Sparrow but did find a FOY Prairie Falcon nearby on Venture Road. I was then surprised to have a male Ring Necked Pheasant scurry out from a farmyard and got a great look and a photo. Then about a mile away as I turned around a curve, I saw another Ring Necked Pheasant on a fence not more than 10 feet away. It remained motionless as I got probably the best picture I will ever get of one.
Ring Necked Pheasant
From there it was on to Vantage Highway with the first spot being a personal hotspot where Deb Essman had shown me a Sage Thrasher several years ago. No Thrasher but I had my First of Year Sagebrush Sparrows, both Western and Mountain Bluebirds and a surprise pair of relatively early Brewer’s Sparrows. I was particularly pleased with the finds of both sparrows as I first identified them by song, something that is not my strength and then tracked them down.
Retracing Friday’s route, I next stopped at the Whiskey Dick/Quilomene Corrals and this time had much better luck with visuals of Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes, Sage Thrashers, Vesper Sparrows and a distant Sagebrush Sparrow.
Distant Vesper Sparrow
Continuing to retrace Friday’s route, I turned onto Recreation Road and pulled off to walk into the Canyon and look/listen for wrens. A bird was singing and I thought it might be a Cassin’s Finch – a little odd for this habitat, but sure enough it was in a tree right by the parking area. Very pink including onto its streaked back. I could not get a clear shot and it flew off across the road. I started my hike and as soon as I got onto the trail, two Chukar flushed and flew into the rocks across Recreation Road and gave their familiar “chuck” and “chuckar” calls as they climbed out of sight. No wrens in the Canyon but it was a beautiful walk and I had already added two new year birds.
I found singing Rock and Canyon Wrens near the boat launch at the end of Recreation Road. This is a regular spot for them and I have had both species there many times. I just wish they had cooperated for Jon the previous week. Weather clearly continued to matter. Having added the Canyon Wren to my year list I now could skip a second try at Huntzinger Road – perhaps my most reliable spot for them. I decided to return to Ellensburg and head south on Umptanum Road and onto Wenas Road to try for White Headed Woodpeckers. I stopped the car near an area of pines and firs near Kindle Lane, a private road, where I have had these woodpeckers before. As soon as I got out of the car I heard the unmistakable chattering of some Pygmy Nuthatches. There were at least six in the trees above me. I also heard at least two drumming woodpeckers. One was a Northern Flicker behind me and far off but identified by the calls that would follow the drumming. Another was a White Headed Woodpecker that was in the trees on the private property on Kindle Lane. I got a quick response from playback and saw the woodpecker uphill but I could not get it to come down for a good look and a photo. This would not be my only woodpecker frustration of the day. Stay tuned – and yes I am talking about you Williamson’s Sapsucker.
A little further up the road, I again heard some tapping and had a Hairy Woodpecker right overhead. It may have been the most active Hairy Woodpecker I had ever seen, flitting from one tree to another, drumming and then flying off again. One picture was all I got. I also heard another sound. At first I could not recall what it was but knew it was something good and distinctive. Then I remembered the call I had heard and the bird I had seen while waiting for the Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – a Townsend’s Solitaire. It was perched high on a distant conifer. It would not sing in response to playback – only continue to call and to remain far uphill indifferent to my pleas. I also had two more Cassin’s Finches (in more appropriate habitat), some Mountain Chickadees, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Kestrel at this location – quite a worthwhile stop.
Hairy Woodpecker – (No offense, but I would Have Preferred the White Headed Woodpecker)
I was happy to get back on to pavement as Wenas Road ended and then I turned onto Maloy Road, again unpaved. I have had multiple White Headed Woodpeckers in perfect habitat near BBQ Flats and really wanted a photo. But it was quiet and birdless. However, as I retraced steps I saw two raptors circling above and one was decidedly larger than the other. The smaller one was a Red Tailed Hawk and the second was an eagle. I assumed it was a juvenile Bald Eagle. My assumption was wrong as proved by a close look and my photo. It was a juvenile Golden Eagle – always a welcomed find.
It was only about 1:15 p.m. and Oak Creek and its Lewis’s Woodpeckers were only 30 minutes away. The sun was shining; there was no wind; plenty of gas…I was off. I had forgotten how beautiful the drive along the Naches River on Highway 12 was. Truly gorgeous. I arrived at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area and found the gate closed. Instead of driving up Oak Creek Road as I usually do, I would have to walk. As long as I found the woodpeckers, I didn’t care and in fact looked forward to a quiet visit and some good exercise. Finding woodpeckers was no problem and the hike was exactly what the doctor ordered to forget politics and plagues. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are often very close to the road perching on the many snags along the creek. This time, the woodpeckers seemed to favor the trees across the creek but they were plentiful and a few were sufficiently close for good photos. This is a wonderful place.
Oak Creek Canyon is also perfect habitat for Canyon Wren with steep rock cliffs in abundance. At what I expected to be a perfect spot I played its beautiful mellifluous descending song and almost immediately got a response from high above on top of one of the cliffs. I could see the white throat and long decurved bill with my binoculars but too far for a photo. My experience has been that these wrens are very territorial and very responsive. This is particularly so in response to their “jeet” call. And so it was this day as the Canyon Wren moved closer and closer and closer probably travelling at least 125 yards. In good light I got my photo.
There were at least 15 Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the lower half mile or so of the Canyon and another half dozen along the river back on Highway 12. Fort Simcoe is the only other place I know of in the state with so many individuals of this truly beautiful species. It had already been a good woodpecker day but I wanted one more so I made one more stop – at Bethel Ridge – further down Highway 12. I believe it is the best place in Washington for the biggest variety of Woodpeckers and it is also good for Flammulated Owls and Poorwills in the late Spring. I have had every species of Washington woodpecker there except Acorn Woodpecker – all on the same day. That feat requires going to the top of the Ridge – a challenging road and can only be done later in the year. My quest today would be a Williamson’s Sapsucker. And as I hinted earlier, it would be a very frustrating experience.
I have heard and/or seen Williamson’s Sapsuckers at the “corrals” on Bethel Ridge Road – maybe two miles in at most from Highway 12 and that is where I planned to start my search. White Headed Woodpeckers have been found on the way up so I stopped a few times to try playback for them. No success. As soon as I got out of my car at the corrals, I heard the distinctive “chyaah” call of a Williamson’s Sapsucker and then some drumming. Then I heard a second call from the other side and further up the road. I tried playback to draw one in but only got intermittent responses and no visuals. For the next 20+ minutes this continued and I heard calls and drumming from numerous different spots, back and forth and up and down along the road. There were certainly at least two and possibly more. I ran back and forth thinking I would find one for a photo, but all I got was a single visual of one flying over a hill and into more trees. There was no question that I had found my target, but I was disappointed and frustrated not to get the photo. As the photo below from the same place a couple of years ago shows, they are really spectacular.
I finally gave up and headed home – 176 miles away. It was around 3:45 and with the light post Covid-19 traffic, I actually made back to Edmonds at 6:30 in time to join Cindy for dinner.
So yes weather does matter. The Williamson’s Sapsucker made it 11 FOY’s for the day and 16 FOY’s adding in the birds seen with Jon Houghton. I hope there will be a chance to return to this favored area as migration continues and more birds arrive. They will not be affected by the Covid-19 virus, but we will. Will travel be allowed? Don’t know. With that in mind Cindy and I squeezed in one more trip – not focused on birds but they were included as we visited the Washington Coast – a respite from the depressing news, a day in the sun and a chance for Chica to run loose on the beach. We visited Tokeland, Grayland and Westport.
The Willet flock cooperated at Tokeland but we did not see any Marbled Godwits. A treat, though, was a dozen or so Greater White Fronted Geese mixed in with Canada Geese just as we came to the marina. There were several Western Grebes in the marina and I checked each as I have had Clark’s Grebes there before.
Greater White Fronted Geese
We found only a single Snowy Plover on the open beach and it flew off with Sanderlings and Dunlin which were plentiful. At the end of our drive on the open beach, I found two FOY Semipalmated Plovers but there were no other shorebirds. Chica did have a chance to chase a ball on the beach and we all enjoyed those carefree moments.
Cindy had never been to Westport before. We drove through and looked for rockpipers at the “groins” but found none. Charters are not going out of Westport and that includes the pelagic birding trips. Restaurants are closed. A pretty grim place at best of times, it was moreso now. Cindy might be willing to return if pelagic trips are available again, but not interested otherwise. We headed home and there would be one more notable bird for the trip as we found a First of Year Turkey Vulture soaring above us about 10 miles west of Olympia.
Now we will practice our social distancing and try to ride out this difficult time. It is going to be a long ride and probably a rocky one. At least we had some wonderful weather for a few days. Next week the rains are due. Sigh…