Sunday, March 27, 2011

To Othello: Saturday morning 3/26

Came down with a fever on Thursday, so I stayed home Friday and rested up in preparation to drive our team to an invitational meet in Ephrata on Saturday.  In the late afternoon, I got a call from one of my coaches - illness, injury, and ineligibility had reduced our team considerably (and we're not huge to start with!), so that we were facing a 15 hour day with 6-7 athletes, and no relays, rather than 12-15 athletes, several relays, and lots of reasons to cheer.  I'd actually looked into what might be flying around as we drove, and was hoping to catch some cranes passing overhead during the meet, or maybe some Long-billed Curlews in the fields on the way home.  Life gave me a lemon here, so I decided to make a lemonade trip to Grant County!

Almost dawn - East of Ellensburg
 One idea I've concocted in this whole process is that it's good to get where I want to go by daylight.  Spending the first hours of dawn in King County in a car and arriving after the morning chorus was done would be less than ideal!  So I left reeaally early, and found the sky starting to light as I got on the Old Vantage Highway headed east from Ellensburg.  I was happy to hear my first Western Meadowlark of the year at an early pull-off.  Hundreds more of them would be the soundtrack to my day!

Loggerhead or Northern Shrike?
 It's spring, so the birds are just starting to change.  One change that I should have prepared for a bit better was the changing of the shrikes.  There are Northern Shrikes (which I've seen), and Loggerhead Shrikes (which I haven't).  Both of these hang out in the part of Kittitas County I was driving, and both of them are possible at this time of year.  I pulled over at the visitor center at the Gingko Petrified Forest, and was greeted by a shrike.  A quick look at it and at my Sibley, and I called it a Loggerhead Shrike - enjoyed a new life bird for a few minutes, took a picture, and continued on with my short walk.  These things are harder to tell apart than that, however, and when I got back, I had all kinds of reasons to doubt the ID.  It's on top of a tall tree, for one, which isn't what the Loggerheads usually do, and the breast in this picture is looking pretty gray - should be whiter in a Loggerhead.  I will lean towards Northern, and more importantly, leave it unidentified for now, and be better prepared in the future. 

Fossilized wood - Gingko Petrified Forest State Park
All of that aside, they really are cool birds.  The only songbirds, I believe, that will eat other birds!  They eat a lot of insects as well - nabbing them, then saving them for later by skewering them on anything sharp they can find, like thorns or barbed wire.  On the Christmas Bird Count back in December, we saw a Dunlin skewered on barbed wire, and puzzled over whether it had done that to itself or if a shrike had done it...

Petrified wood is also very cool - although I didn't do the full walk today, I snuck up the trail far enough to take a peek at some Douglas Fir that grew millions of years ago.

Dawn from Gingko PFSP

Read your signs, Tim!
 Off and away!  I made my way across the Vantage Bridge to enter Grant County for the first time this year.  On the far side, there were a few choices:  I-90 and Hwy 26 are the big east-west roads through the county, but I took a right and went further down the Columbia River to Lower Crab Creek Road.  I stopped along the way to scope the Columbia, but found very few ducks from the places I stopped, including Wanapum Dam.  Snapped a picture of a very informative sign that was too much reading for me at that hour (at right).  Was worth a read later, though, and I kind of wished that I had gazed over to the other side and thought "Firing Center", as it would have helped knit together my mental map of the state.

Saddle Mountains, sagebrush, and sand dunes

Okay, got this straight - if you head east on I-90, the Frenchman Hills are on your right.  If you head east on HWY 26, the Frenchman Hills are on your left, and the Saddle Mountains are a bit farther off on your right.  I was on Lower Crab Creek Road, which hugs the Saddle Mountains tightly.  The view above was most of the drive - beautiful dramatically sloping hills with clouds easing over their tops.  My only real stop along the way was at a short hike to Nunnally Lake, a fishing spot on the north side of the road.  Meadowlarks were still everywhere, and I also heard my first Ring-necked Pheasant of the year, calling from deep in some brush when I startled it.  The lake was also not incredibly birdy, although I did hear the chattering of Marsh Wrens.

Western Meadowlark - Grant County
Lower Crab Creek Road at its most primitive - not so bad
The road was a very easy place to bird - you could see things and pull over!  There wasn't much in the way of traffic, and the people that did come through would give you the raise-a-finger-off-of the-steering-wheel wave - very friendly.  Pulling over when I saw things flitting around in the trees helped me to find a lot of songbirds, including some Townsend's Solitaires, also the first of the year.  At one point, the road stopped being paved.  "Primitive road ahead" is not usually a good sign, but this turned out to be very drivable, even as it wound up into the Saddle Mountains a little bit. 

As I came back down from high points, and got close to the Adams county line, I saw something I was hoping to see - hundreds of Sandhill Cranes filling the sky in the distance, then coming down on a field.  From here, I couldn't make my way over to where they had landed, and I didn't get a shot of them in the air.  I'll include my Sandhill Crane picture in the next post (oh it's something to see...).

The Grant/Adams county line from Lower Crab Creek Road

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