Most years I spend two or three days in January or February and then again in December birding in Okanogan and Douglas Counties in North Central Washington. There are species more commonly seen in these two counties than elsewhere and often add to year lists. Generally, my visits first cover the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County before heading further north to the Okanogan Highlands. I usually access the Plateau via Highway 2 which means travelling east up over Stevens Pass (Elevation 4060 feet) rather than via Interstate 90 which can be quicker but requires going over both Snoqualmie Pass (Elevation 2725 feet) and Blewett Pass (4100 feet) – less appealing in the winter. Unless it is a very early start, a problem with the latter route is dealing with commuter traffic in and through Seattle. On this trip I chose Highway 2 getting on the road at 5:30 a.m. which meant two hours of driving in the dark but being able to get to the Plateau which is about 175 miles away from my home in Edmonds around 9:00 a.m. giving me about 7 and a half hours of birding for the day.
The Waterville Plateau rises almost 2000 feet above the Columbia River which to some degree bends around it. It is wheat farming country where the roads mostly form a grid of gravel section line roads with lettered roads running north and south and lettered roads running east and west – at least somewhat. The land is very flat with rocky outcroppings scattered about. Usually by mid December, the entire plateau is covered in snow. Some roads are paved, but most are not. Almost all are at least mostly cleared by snowplows but melting and freezing cycles usually result in a lot of ice. While crisscrossing the roads, I might see thousands of Horned Larks accompanied by hundreds of Snow Buntings and occasionally Lapland Longspurs. Each winter it seems that at least one Snowy Owl finds a rocky outcropping or two to its liking and attracts birders eager to see that rare winter visitor. Gyrfalcons are sometimes found, but it is a huge area – depending on definition over 1,000 square miles – so they are usually missed. Gray Partridge are in the area, at times near grain terminals like those in Withrow, but they may be anywhere. A Snowy Owl had been seen regularly in the Atkins Lake area of the Plateau – southeast corner, and although I had seen in Seattle earlier, they are always a treat and that area is also good for Partridge and possibly Gyrfalcons. The latter was the most hoped for bird of the trip, but I also wanted a better look and hopefully a photo of a Gray Partridge. I had seen some earlier in the year but it was a distant and fleeting view only.
On any birding chase looking for a special bird known to favor a specific location, a good rule of thumb is to look for another birder already there who is hopefully looking at the bird you want to see. Even in a remote, spacious and mostly empty and uninhabited area like the Waterville Plateau, this is good guidance. As I approached the intersection of M Road and One Road, where Ed Pullen had reported the Snowy Owl last week, I saw a single car maybe a half mile away, the only sign of human presence against the miles of snow covered fields. It was standing still. Could this be a birder with binoculars or camera trained on the Snowy Owl? As it turned out – no but just as good. I approached the car slowly and pulled up next to it. We each rolled down the opposing windows of our cars. “Could this be another birder?” I asked. It was. Debbie Sutherland is an excellent birder who lives in Cashmere, WA maybe 60 miles away. We had last seen each other at Rosario Head in Skagit County a couple of years ago. She was looking for Snow Buntings but had seen the Snowy Owl earlier on an outcropping very nearby and she gave me directions. We shared a few more stories and then I went off to see the owl and she continued her search for buntings.
Just as Debbie had said, the Snowy Owl was distant and only its head could be seen among the rocks. Still good to see. I spent the next couple of hours driving around the Plateau with more than 25 miles on icy roads, checking every outcropping hoping for a Gyrfalcon. No such luck and all in all, there were far fewer birds than I had seen on earlier visits. Noticeably low counts were Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings. I doubt I saw more than 500 Larks and fewer than a dozen Snow Buntings and I did not see any Partridge. Raptors were fewer than expected as well with only a half dozen Rough Legged Hawks and even fewer Red Tails. A single Northern Shrike was perhaps my best bird. Granted it is a big area, but I cannot remember another visit where I did not flush Horned Larks on nearly every road. One year I wondered if I had seen more than 10,000. And I have often seen flocks of more than 100 Snow Buntings.
It was a beautiful day with no wind, no fog, lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 30’s. If only there had been more birds. Maybe things would change further north in the Okanogan. I dropped down to the Columbia River and then headed north on Highway 97. There was not as much snow as I would have liked thinking more would at least make finding Sharp Tailed Grouse, a main target, easier to find. I watched for birds in the many orchards along the way hoping for a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. Alas, bird numbers remained small with House Finches being the only small birds I saw. I went through Omak where I would be spending the night and headed to Scotch Creek around Happy Hill Road where I had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse before. When there is enough snow on the ground, the Grouse climb into the Water Birch to feed and thus become visible from Conconully Road. Some snow but not lots and the trees were bare. It has been best to look early in the morning, so I figured I would return the next day and try again. I continued on to Conconully checking fields along the way where I have had Gray Partridge, California Quail and Pheasants. Nothing in the fields and only House Finches and House Sparrows in Conconully. VERY QUIET…
There were some raptors, however. American Kestrels on the power lines, some Northern Harriers, a few Red Tails but mostly Rough Legged Hawks soaring, hovering and perched. Rough Legged Hawks are striking birds, much appreciated for photo ops in the winter.
It was decision time. I wanted to check out Cameron Lake Road and I also wanted to get into the Okanogan Highlands to look for owls and hopefully visiting northern finches. There was not sufficient time to do both. Jon Houghton had detailed significant fire damage along Cameron Lake Road when he visited earlier so the birding prospects were not great, but I had always had good luck there (except for those two flat tires some years ago) and although it would take at least an hour, there was time for that before dark. The fire damage was depressing indeed with wide swaths completely burned – both brush and large trees. I wondered if the trees would still be there at my White Headed Woodpecker spot near the flag over the road. The trees were there but mostly charred and lifeless. I found no Woodpeckers or any other birds there. It was not much better elsewhere along the road. The Tree Sparrow woodlot was essentially gone. I had a couple of Kestrels, some Magpies and some House Finches. A couple of Ravens flew by and there was a single Northern Harrier. As I descended back towards Highway 97, two birds rocketed out from the snow next to the road. They were the Gray Partridge I had hoped to see, but not this way as they were gone before I could even stop the car.
The absence of birds and the impossible to miss fire damage did not make it a great trip, but I love Cameron Lake Road for its quiet serenity as I rarely see anyone else on the almost 20 mile journey on a snowy/icy road. I cannot recall another winter visit without Snow Buntings and not seeing the American Tree Sparrows was a disappointment, but there would be at least one more day and with darkness approaching it was time to check into my motel – the Omak Inn. Perfectly adequate and there was a great price through Hotels.com which I use on almost all my birding trips. Dinner would be a take out salad from Subway and then I would check in with Cindy, watch some basketball and read. It was getting cold and I expected to have to scrape off ice the next morning.
It was another early start the next morning as I wanted to get to Scotch Creek as the sun was coming up and yes there was thick frost on the windshield. I was hoping to find Sharp Tailed Grouse in the Water Birch. No go. The only patches I saw in the leafless trees were some old oriole nests. I searched for 30 minutes and then went to Plan B which had worked once before. I drove up Happy Hill Road watching every tree and every turn. I went in almost 3 miles and saw only Ravens and Black Billed Magpies. On the way out I stopped at the WDFW Audubon site and parked. I scanned every tree and every hill again and saw two distant grouse across a ravine half hidden in some brush. This is a good and protected area for Sharp Tailed Grouse and I would bet that is what they were but the views were pretty poor and it was possible they could have been Ruffed Grouse I guess. I checked the water birch off of Conconully Road along the Creek when I left just before 9:00 a.m. and saw nothing. Maybe it was too early, but I had a full day ahead of me so I carried on.
Perhaps I should have returned to Conconully and birded in town and up the west side road as I have had Gray Crowned Rosy Finches there before and I have yet to see any this year. But I thought birding would be better in the Okanogan Highlands with a chance for Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings and even the Rosy Finches plus maybe some owls. I knew I wanted to get to the Havillah SnoPark and the Nealey Road Feeders, bird along Swash Creek and Fancher Road and otherwise just cover territory. It was 16 degrees when I left Omak, about the same at Scotch Creek and I would be going to much higher ground. The sun was out which might provide some warmth, but I was glad I had put on my long johns.
I will not go into all of the details, but again despite very few birds, it was a very satisfying morning. The country is beautiful with rolling hills, forest, a few VERY small settlements, and ever changing vistas. All roads were snow packed but plowed, some paved but more gravel. I was glad to have my GPS as roads twist and turn and stop and go, circling back on one another or dying out only to start up again elsewhere. The blanket of snow was beautiful, erasing all of man’s scarrings and cushioning every sound so that all I heard was my car on the snow and then just silence when I stopped. I enjoy being with others and have greatly missed birding with friends in this horrible COVID-19 year. But I also enjoy time alone and the solitude without a care, focused only on the possibility of birds and the road ahead is heartening for me.
There were maybe 500 Rock Pigeons and 50 Mallards at the fields and feedlots on Fancher Road but no California Quail, Pheasants or Chukars. On one visit there a couple of years ago during calving season, there were more than 100 Chukars. No owls at the SnoPark, but I heard an American Three Toed Woodpecker as soon as I arrived. Unfortunately a car with some snowshoers arrived at the same time and the gleeful cries of the two young boys did not bring the Woodpecker in closer. Their unfettered fun was very enjoyable to see and hear though.
I drove the length of Siwash Creek road which was beautiful and quiet. I stopped at a couple of places and searched for Northern Pygmy Owls without success. Birding would probably have been better if I had gotten out of the car and really looked for passerines but I had a lot of ground to cover and it was now 12 degrees. In previous posts, I have often stressed that when we get out into nature and are open to them, there are often surprises and even when main targets are missed, there are usually consolation prizes. It was time for one. Two fairly large birds appeared in the sky in front of me and to my left, maybe 30 feet above the treeline. At first I thought they might be ravens but as they drew closer I was pretty sure they were game birds even if their altitude above the trees seemed odd. I was in a forested area by the creek and as the birds continued their flight, my sight line was temporarily blocked by the trees but their flight path looked like they might be coming in for a landing. I got lucky and both birds landed on tree tops maybe 75 yards away. Through my binoculars I could tell only that they were grouse and with terrible backlighting I could make out no details other than a small crest. Were they Ruffed Grouse (which I had seen on tree tops like this before) or Sharp Tailed Grouse which I had never seen in anything but short low flights? Even through my scope with no direct lighting, I just could not tell.
I take photos for many reasons – to preserve memories, to share with others on checklists, Facebook or blogposts and just for my only records and enjoyment. Often they are diagnostic as well. Such was the case here. Really terrible photos but with lots of magnification and enhancement, it was clear that these were Sharp Tailed Grouse. Much better than my earlier views at Happy Hill and now without any doubt. Quite a surprise – a very pleasant one.
The feeders were gone at Nealey Road, and in general birding remained slow except for several groups of House Sparrows and House Finches, and numerous Magpies and hawks, especially Rough Legged Hawks with more than a dozen seen. I took a lot of photos of the Rough Legs and these are my two favorites with the latter hopefully not being a criticism of my presence.
By the time I got to Chesaw the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees. Maybe it was too cold for birds as well as very few were seen. My original plan had been to stay over a second night but a few clouds were starting to gather in the distance. I had put on almost a hundred miles over snowy roads and even without many birds seen and targets definitely missed it had been exhilarating because of the solitude and scenery. It would be around 5 hours to get home (or so I thought at the time) and if I cut the trip short, I could be there well before dinner. Besides getting a photo of the Sharp Tailed Grouse was wonderful and there would still be a chance for some birds on the way back. It was a surprise to see no northern specialties especially since many trees were packed with cones. That’s birding.
I did not keep track of the exact route but I did retrace some steps back along Havillah Road. At one of the few homes along the route, directly across from some small grain silos, I noticed a number of small birds flitting around. Would I finally find some of the sought after northern finches? No – only a large flock of House Sparrows, but then two larger birds flew past and landed by the silos. I had seen a number of Eurasian Collared Doves but these were Mourning Doves but more importantly they were “guide doves” as they took my eyes to a small structure near the grain silos where on the ground were several Gray Partridge. I maneuvered my car nearer to them and watched and took many photos with ultimately a dozen Gray Partridges appearing and disappearing maybe 40 feet in front of me and with light behind me and on them when they were in the open. Now I had really good views and photos of this species – perhaps a good close to the day.
Feeling very pleased I continued back to Tonasket and onto Highway 97 heading south. Just north of Cameron Lake Road a posted raptor caught my eye (even at 60 mph) and a U-turn brought me face to face with one of the prettiest Red Tailed Hawks I have seen – a very cinnamon colored western form. According to drawings in Sibley it is an adult intermediate. Truly a gorgeous bird. I am sure I have seen one like it before but I cannot recall a specific incidence and do not have any photos like this one.
I continued to check fruit orchards hoping for waxwings but saw none. There were lots of waterfowl on the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. I did not stop to identify them, but could for sure make out Trumpeter Swans, Scaup, Mallards, Buffleheads and at least one Common Loon. There were also several Bald Eagles, more Kestrels, Ravens, and Hawks but I guess I will have to return early next year if I want those northern specialties that I missed this trip.
There was one stop along the way that I wanted to make. Cindy and I are planning a few days away in January and have booked a condo near Leavenworth at the Kahler Glen resort. We want some quiet time and also to try snowshoeing which I have not done for over 30 years. Near Lake Wenatchee west and a bit north of Leavenworth, it was about 10 miles out of my way home back over Highway 2. It looked great on a quick trip and I was very pleased to see it was very close to the Nason Creek SnoPark. I think we will like it.
I don’t know if it was due to an accident or if my detour to Kahler Glen made the timing bad, but my return trip was the worst traffic mess I have ever seen – including Los Angeles at rush hour. It was pretty icy coming down from Stevens Pass with some nervous drivers causing a little delay but that was nothing compared to what would follow just east of Gold Bar. There are three horrible little towns along Highway 2 starting with Gold Bar 36 miles west of the Pass. Then comes Startup and finally Sultan. It is just over six miles from Gold Bar to Sultan. There are several traffic lights in each miserable town and it is a two lane road with no opportunities to pass. Even on good days, there are delays due to the lights which usually means it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through them. I hate this highway even though the scenery on both sides of Stevens Pass for many miles is spectacular.
About 3 miles from Gold Bar, the traffic came to a dead stop. There was no movement for a full five minutes. My GPS said there was a 25 minute delay on this route. From this point, there is no alternate route. Go with the flow, right? But there was no flow. Originally I thought I would be home by 5:30. My first call to Cindy postponed that until 6:00 p.m. Start and stop – 30 feet at a time – start and stop. The details are brutal and I refuse to curse on this blog so I will not revisit them. Bottom line, it took a full two hours to get from just east of Gold Bar to just beyond Sultan. My calls home postponed my ETA to 6:30 and then to 7:00 and then to 7:30. I ended up opening the door home at 7:35. Did I mention that I hate Highway 2, Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar!!! There was never any indication of an accident. No sirens, ambulances, police or flashing lights. Aaargh!! Thank goodness for Sirius XM so at least I could listen to radio during the ordeal. Anger at Trump for yet more malfeasance and corruption was a distraction from anger for the traffic.
But I survived. It was good to be home. Dinner was waiting and excellent and I was pleased with some of my photos even if there were more misses than hits on the trip. I doubt I will head out again this year, so this was the last fling for 2020 – an all around awful year in so many ways. Yet, I am happy because of the things that are really important. Far fewer birds than any year in the past ten. Almost no birding with friends. The year started well with ABA Lifers Barnacle Goose and Dovekie during a super trip to see may daughter, son-in law and grandson in Boston in January. A marathon trip for a Lifer Ivory Gull in Montana followed in early February. Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head and plans for trips to Florida, Arizona and Texas vanished. I managed a few Lifers in Arizona last month and that was it. Washington birding was much reduced as well. The Sharp Tailed Grouse was Washington species #330 for 2020, my fewest in many years. There have been two new state lifers this year, the Siberian Accentor on February 7th just before COVID restrictions and the Least Tern at the Montlake fill in June – taking care to wear a mask and to maintain social distance. Yes it could have been worse, but it was intended to be so much better,
I wish I could see my kids and grandchild. I wish I could travel. Hopefully next year. Being with Cindy has been the best and has gotten me through the year and we have solidified and deepened our relationship. Black Lab Chica helps as well – at least usually although I could do without so much barking. No health issues although the pounds added during our COVID inactivity are a negative and yes, I need to get more exercise. Next year…
Seasons Greetings to all. Good riddance to Trump and fingers crossed for 2021.