Monday, May 30, 2011

State Track trip, day three - Whitman and Adams Counties

Sunrise on the Palouse
4:30 AM on Steptoe Butte.  As far from people as I could possibly get.... or was I.....?

Californians - 4:30 AM
I woke up to a couple of vans pulling up the winding road to the top of the butte.  They stopped, and 15 photographers got out and started setting up tripods!  The wind was pretty bad, but not as bad as it CAN get, by all reports.  This was a photography tour group from California, coming out to catch the rolling hillocks of the Palouse in the light of dawn.  While I had intended to leave a little earlier, they seemed to know what they were doing, so I stuck around, watched, and shot some pictures myself.  If I thought I was missing birds by staying there, those thoughts were removed as I watched a Rock Wren hop around the rocks in front of me for the next 30 minutes - the first one for me. 

Rock Wren - 5:30 AM
 The bollards preventing one from driving off the butte have some little holes which can be seen in this picture - they make wonderful wind flutes.  I looked around in all directions to see Mt. Spokane, Kamiak Butte, and other hills off in the distance.  Gratuitous shots below.

I finally started making my way down Steptoe Butte, and got my second life bird of the morning before 6 AM - a Gray Catbird!  I sat for a bit, and listened to quite a few different vocalizations - the Western Wood-Peewee, and cat sounds were among my favorites.  House Wrens, Flickers, Townsend's Warblers and Cowbirds were found that morning, and seemingly dozens of Ring-Necked Pheasants by the time I left.

Colfax - the riparian area at the bottom
of this hill was good for passerines.
I went from here to Colfax for coffee and a place to change clothes.  The Rosauers in town got me my coffee and a maple bar.  I didn't have time to order any of "The Stuff" - a potato and pepper and onion concoction made by their deli - but was mightily tempted.  Colfax itself was actually pretty birdy.  Following the signs to "City Park" brought me to a brushy area where there were flycatchers and warblers and a Western Tanager.  Some time around here, I actually started missing crows.  When was the last time I saw a crow?  Tons of Black-billed Magpies and Ravens, but no plain old American Crows!  I gassed up, and made my way back towards the town of Steptoe.

On the way, I saw a lovely barn, and who should pull over in front of me?  The Californians!  This barn really was worth shooting - one of many such during the next few hours.
The hills were beautiful, but they were so green... too green...and I started to harbor worries that the Teletubbies lived here (they always scared me).  Several glances at the sun showed me that it was not, in fact, a large giggling baby face, so I knew I was in the clear.

Bank Swallow colony
Driving the Highway from Steptoe to Sprague was quite productive too.  I was able to find raptors that I had not seen yet on my trip (Northern Harrier and Swainson's Hawk), and some warblers (Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow), and a first-of-year Lazuli Bunting.  I also found another Bank Swallow colony, and found them at several more stops that day.
Bank Swallow

St. John - in the middle of wheat country
I stopped in St. John for another cup of coffee, and continued up the road to Crooked Knee and Sheep Lakes.  Here disaster struck!  At some point, I left the binoculars on the car, pulled away and ran them over.  For what it's worth, a monocular caaaannn work, and it had to work for the rest of the trip, but I was bummed to not have them fully functioning.  Thank goodness they weren't expensive. 

The lakes I visited in Whitman County and Lincoln (I stopped briefly in Sprague at the sewage treatment plant, but missed any of the rarities that people have seen lately) were birdy enough - more Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Ruddy Ducks, among others - but still no Avocets!  I was hoping to find those on this trip, and I was giving up hope! 

After Sprague Lake, I was easily able to make it to the track for day two of competition, my girl won the mile (4:46 was a meet record), and the 800!  At this point, I was done as the head coach... well for now.  This was a difficult decision, with a program that I started, but during some of this time on the road, I've been able to clear the head and think, and I feel like it's the right time to hand it off to the next head coach, whoever that may be.  I pulled away from Cheney for my tenth and last time as the head coach at peace with the decision, and with tears;  It's been such a wonderful time building something that's so good for kids.  There's a lot that I will miss, and the job now will be to become clear on what other good things I will do with the extra time.  Three or four things come to mind. :)

Ritzville - driving down I-90 I saw an American Avocet in a little pond right off the road..... and there it went, leaving me at 70 miles per hour in the other direction.  Not a life bird for me, but it was one I haven't seen in the state before, and this was as good a view as I got during the whole trip!  Then it was off towards Highway 26 and a return trip to Othello.  I hadn't gone through Columbia NWR the last time, so I was excited to see some new spots.

On the way to Othello, I had a Swainson's Hawk on a post, and a Barn Owl dead on the side of the road.  I'm not too surprised with the Barn Owl, as I've had them buzz my car before.  Heading  tnorth from Othello to Para Ponds, I passed these Cliff Swallows, gathering mud from a tiny puddle to build their nests.  The ponds themselves had a Sora and a Great Egret, but nothing else out of the ordinary.

Columbia NWR in Adams County was pretty quiet as well!  At Morgan Lake, I had Vaux's Swifts high up above the cliffs, and I also found a Red-tailed Hawk nest with youngsters waiting for food.  I had just over 40 species before crossing the county line - 50 would have been nice, but 40 would have to do - mission accomplished!  On the Grant County side, I had a Western Kingbird, and a Rock Wren, but none of the sage-steppe species that I'd seen back at Swanson Lakes two days earlier.

Blue-winged Teal
My final stop in Grant County on the way home was Birder's Corner on Frenchman Hills Road.  Here I found one more first-of-year bird - a pair of Blue-winged teals, before heading towards home. 

Grant County sunset - Kittitas County wind farm in the distance.

On to State! Davenport to Steptoe via Cheney - 5/27

Davenport Cemetery
I'd made arrangements with the folks at the B&B to have breakfast at 7, so a 5AM sunrise gave me time to hit the Davenport Cemetery and Reardan Ponds before leaving Lincoln County.  I have one picture from this morning - the one above.  Here's the lessons I learned 1) Don't grab batteries from a shelf at home if you don't know whether they're dead or not.  2) Don't buy cheap batteries.  I bought a cheap 2 dollar four pack of batteries for my camera the day before, put them in my camera and got the low battery warning, took one picture, and was asked to change the batteries.  Frightening to think that a whole factory somewhere is producing these 'heavy-duty' batteries and selling them... have they tried to use them?

So, my pictureless report: The cemetery in Davenport is a nice migrant trap - a bunch of trees in the middle of not a lot of trees.  There were quite a few passerines in there - Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend's Solitaire, Townsend's Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Robins, House Finches and Goldfinches.  In the fields surrounding it were Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks.

The Reardan Ponds gave me another life bird - Wilson's Phalarope!  A small flock of them darted indecisively back and forth in the water - pretty birds.  A Sora also called from the marsh, and 8 species of ducks, as well as Eared Grebes, were using the ponds that morning.

When I returned, I was asked if I liked Sausage, Eggs, Toast and Hash Browns.  I love easy questions!  Chatted with the owners about birds (they had a hummingbird feeder which wasn't getting any action), had a solid breakfast, and hit the road.

Field of mustard greens - Highway 2, Spokane County

Yellow-bellied Marmot
I wanted to be in Cheney at 10:30 for an 11:30 race, so I wanted to be fairly direct on my way through Spokane County.  I birded a little in Airway Heights, as well as the Medical Lake area, on the way to Cheney.  I didn't find anything too surprising, but still came out the other end with 20-25 species.  The most interesting species I saw was not a bird, but a Yellow-bellied Marmot!  As with nearly every non-bird animal I see on these trips, I had noooo idea what it was, but got a good picture to look at later.

The track meet was great.  I love being at the small schools' meet, because I get to see all of the schools from the towns I've been through - Pe Ell, Rearden, Zillah, Kittitas.  On many a trip to state, I've given the athletes their heat sheets and a map of the state, making them find all of the cities where their competition attends school.  It's great to see how much of the state is covered in these maps! 

What gulls are red underneath....?  ;)
Barely visible in the picture here is the field which is brighter than the brightest red Slurpee I have ever seen.  This led to an interesting effect with the Ring-billed gulls which fly over the field.  I was tempted to post this picture and ask for help in identifying the bird, but couldn't bring myself to do it.  Happy to say the meet started well, with a win in the 3200!  At that point, it was four hours before the next race - athlete and coach went back to the hotel, and I went to Turnbull NWR!

What finch do I have here...?
Turnbull was another great stop for me.  The first few stops before I even got to the headquarters were very productive, with my first-of-year Pygmy Nuthatch, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Partridge, Red Crossbills, House Wren, and Willow flycatcher.  I also think I caught a Pine Grosbeak in this picture!  I am very doubtful, because it would be odd to have one at low elevations at this time of year, but I'll put the picture in here and see what people think.  I can't figure out what else it might be!
Meadow - Turnbull NWR

With over 30 species at Turnbull by the end of my visit, I made my way back to the meet for the prelims of the 800 meters - through to finals! - and then grabbed dinner at Lenny's in Cheney.  This is a great Italian place, and stopping there the last two years has been a very good decision.  Dinner table conversation turned to how hard it would be to live in Cheney, because it appears that there's nothing to do.  One person noted that they knew someone who had come to Eastern Washington University in part because they'd be able to hunt nearby (this reported with horror.) 

I think I mentioned in a previous post that I don't hunt - I'd much rather look at the pretty birdies than shoot them.  That said, some of them do taste pretty good, and it seems to me an honest way to earn your spot in the food chain.

Silo and "Fingers of God" (crepuscular rays)
Whitman County
Dinner got done late, and I was facing a decision.  Should I try to make it down to Kamiak Butte to camp, or Steptoe Butte?  Here again, lack of preparation and information led to unexpected accomodations.  I went to Steptoe Butte (much closer than Kamiak), and found that there is no camping in the park!  Fortunately, there were people shooting photos of sunset from the butte, and one of them was planning to stay the night in his car so that he could shoot stars later that night.  I parked nearby, and made my car the tent for the night.  The stars were amazing, and I was even treated to a shooting star which took 10-20 seconds to cross the sky as it broke into 4-5 pieces before disappearing behind the other side of the butte.

Birding the Columbia Basin - Kittitas, Grant and Lincoln counties - 5/26

Dry Falls - Grant County
I've been watching more and more birds come back to the neighborhood, the county, and the state in the last few weeks, but May has always been a time when more time and energy needs to go to coaching track, as we move towards the end of the season and the state track meet in Cheney;  I hadn't really gotten out much, but the Memorial Day weekend was bringing us to Cheney once more.  We were only able to get one athlete through to state this time (next year!... next year...), and this was my last year head coaching, so I made this a birding trip, joining my distance coach and distance runner for all of the meet in between.

Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River
 Thursday began with a trip across I-90 to Wanapum Dam State Park.  There has been a family of Long-eared Owls seen pretty reliably there for the last few months, and this is a bird I've never seen.  Many people had seen them in the same tree for the first months of the year, but with the owlets getting bigger, they had started to move around a little. 

I checked a tree where they had been seen recently and found my first owl pellet!  Owls eat their prey whole - bones, hair and all - then hack up the mother of all hair balls, the owl pellet.  I checked the tree for owls - no dice.  I kept walking the campground, and saw several first-of-year (FOY) birds, including a Cassin's Vireo and Bullock's Oriole.  Finally, I found a tree with something in it.  It was not good news, and I'm still waiting for someone to help me make sense of the picture I took, but I think I found a dead owl (adult? fledgeling?) in a tree branch.  An owlet had fallen out of the tree during a storm last week, before it could fly;  It was taken to rehabilitation.  I don't know if this was adult or fledgeling, or what would have caused this, but it was very sad to see (and not the last dead owl I would see on the trip, even more sadly.).  I saw no other owls, which may speak more to my inexperience with finding day roosting owls than anything else.

Common Loon pair

Moving to the boat launch, I found the Columbia was fairly empty, although there was this beautiful pair of Common Loons, and another FOY bird - Bank Swallows!  Most of the other swallows show up in a lot of different places, but for the most part, Bank Swallows are just found at their colonies along river banks.  I saw one here, and one two days later in Whitman County, so it was a good trip for those swallows.  Also, without really "doing" Kittitas County, I'd passed 39 birds there just by making stops while passing through.

Oasis Park - Ephrata
I ate the lunch I'd packed and crossed the Columbia into Grant County.  I was aiming for Highway 2, which meant driving through Ephrata.  The day before I left, a report had come in that a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen at Oasis Park, right on my route, so I made a stop at this nice little migrant trap.  This was a good stop, with lots of warblers, including a MacGillvray's which I got to see quite well.  I was looking around for a warbler with a black cap (oops... didn't know that this was a female I was looking for), and had time, so I walked the park picking over the birds.

One bird puzzled me - the wing bars and olive coloring, hint of an eye ring, and short dark bill had me thinking it was a Dusky Flycatcher... but it was not acting like a flycatcher!  It was picking its way silently through the branches in the right area where the warbler had been sighted.  Flycatchers will usually take a perch on a branch, making occasionally sallies out to snag insects, and returning to their perch.  Dusky Flycatchers will also flick their tail in an up-down motion - something I never saw this bird do, despite several views of it... When I returned from my trip, I found a video had been posted of the Blackpoll.  That was my bird!  I'll have to ask next time I'm hunting down a rare bird if I'm looking for a male or female! 

Sundial - Soap Lake
 From here, I went up the road to Soap Lake.  "The Healing Waters of Soap Lake" are very alkaline, which some bacteria don't like.  It was kind of cool to dip my hand in and see that it did feel soapy!  The big find here was a sundial!  I have brought my ninth graders to see a sundial at the University of Washington, have one in my room (an analemmic sundial, btw) and have several students checking out the "Seattle Sundial Trail" as a project for class.  Running into this one was a pleasant surprise, and it was one of the more interesting ones I'd seen!

There is a winged human figure that points north, and an array of posts that are numbered IX, X, XI, XII, I, II, III.  Here you can see the shadow cast - this was a little after three.

A little after 3PM at Soap Lake
It wasn't incredibly birdy at Soap Lake - this was the first stop where I was hoping for an American Avocet, but none were here that I could see, just Killdeer and a Spotted Sandpiper working on the shore, in addition to the gulls, swallows and blackbirds around the lake.

Cliffs at Dry Falls
 Farther up the road, I made my last Grant County stop for the day - at Dry Falls State Park (better picture at top).  This was once the site of the largest waterfall in the world.  During the ice age, the Missoula Ice Dam would periodically break, sending huge amounts of water across Eastern Washington, and much of that down these very cliffs.  As a birder, I get additional enjoyment from it, because I know I can find White-throated Swifts here.  I had been there about 15 minutes, and was worried that I'd miss them, but one zipped overhead and grabbed an insect, diving back down the cliff face from there.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
 The day was moving along, and I had some stops planned in Lincoln County, so I started off again down Highway 2.  Soon after crossing the county line, I saw my first Yellow-headed Blackbird of the year.  This was a bird that I had only seen once in the state before - in Lincoln County when I first started birding.  At the time, it was such a bizarre bird to see - with hundreds of birds I'd never identified in the state, this one was very showy, and I was scrambling through my recently purchased bird guide.  I was asked later in the trip what the black birds with the yellow heads were, and I was able to tell the person without laughing, because I was asking the same thing once!

Stopped for grub in Wilbur, at Constantine's Alibi Pub and Eatery.  I had a delicious Teriyaki Burger and a pint brewed at Airway Heights over in Spokane County.  This gave me a chance to get my lists straightened out.  I found that Grant was over 50 species now, and I also figured out which birds I had added for the year, and which I might be able to find down the road.  It was also nice to stop in Wilbur, as I knew someone in college who we called Wilbur, because he was from this town.  Now what was his name...!?

This could say - WARNING!  Lottery tickets!
When asking about the birding in the area, I was discouraged from going to the Swanson Lakes, south of Creston.  I had plans to camp at Hawk Creek - down the road and to the north - and I knew there would be a lot of new birds for the year, and possibly some life birds on the 10-20 mile circuit, so I made the trip, and was not disappointed!  I did not go in with hopes of finding any of the Sharp-tailed Grouse in this area.  From all accounts, only the people managing these populations actually see them, the other birds I found made me quite happy though.

Old Schoolhouse - Swanson Lakes
As soon as I left farmland, and entered the sage-steppe habitat that used to dominate the landscape, I pulled over to listen.  This was my best sage-steppe stop of my three day trip - I picked up a Sage Thrasher, Brewer's and Grasshopper Sparrows, and a Say's Phoebe down this little side road.  It was maddening to have so many unfamiliar songs going at once, but I was able to get good looks at each of them singing and perching to connect the sounds to the birds.

Black Tern... can you see it? :)
The lakes themselves were not incredibly productive, but I did pick up Canvasback, and lots of Ruddy Ducks.  Wilson's Snipes were winnowing at several stops as well.  The highlight of this swing was a pullout at a little lake where I had 7 Black Terns.  It was my first time seeing these lovely birds. I got a lousy picture, tried to take another, and my camera batteries gave up on me!  So I spent some time just enjoying them hovering and diving, and then they gave me a treat and flew right past me to a lake across the road.  This was a great lifer, and I'm hoping to see more down the road.  The next day, I got a text from another birder, Randy Bjorklund, who saw his first at Nisqually NWR in Pierce County!  He got a sweeeet picture of one dipping its bill in the water in his Picasa album.

Okay, so at this point, I was ready to hit Hawk Creek Campground, where I wanted to hear Poorwills at night, see a Dipper in the morning, and start finding more flycatchers and birds of the Ponderosa Pines.  Sadly, the Miles-Creston Road was closed for repair, which would have added many many miles to my trip... and it was getting dark... so I spent the night in Davenport, at the Morgan Street Bed and Breakfast.  During this decision, in the faint light of dusk, I passed a Great Horned Owl which flew from a telephone pole.  Several more were heard from the B and B itself, where I slept verry comfortably after a long day of driving.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spring Birding in Southwest Washington: Lewis, Cowlitz and Clark 5/7

A Saturday of birding!  On the condition that I go with someone!  I was in contact with a few different people who were planning some interesting trips, and decided to join Guy McWethy for a trip down I-5.  Guy's from my neck of the woods, and has also taken to birding the counties in the state - he's hit 100 species and is working on moving each of them up a little this year.  We met up at 6:00 and headed off to our first stop.

Lewis County:
Goodrich Pond is a place I'd never been to before this year, and I found myself making my third visit! Guy and I discussed the ominous Great Wolf Lodge that we passed on the way (your kids will love it... your money will go away quickly... very quickly), and I picked up two more Thurston county birds on the way through (Brewer's Blackbird and Eurasian Collared-Dove).

The bridge along Goodrich Road still held Wood Ducks, but there were a few Hooded Mergansers as well - Woodies and Hoodies sharing the river.  We started what would be a warbler-filled day with a Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warbler.  More Collared-Doves (I think we had them in four counties), and then we reached the "pond".  Goodrich Pond had shrunk quite a bit since my last visit!  Least Sandpipers circled it indecisively and left.

Rather than leave (as I had done the last two times I visited here), we made the walk to the Chehalis River Discovery Trail.  Along the way, we passed a barn swarming with Cliff Swallows - the eaves already crowded with little nests of mud. 
Wilson's Warbler

The trail itself was beautiful, and even without walking the whole length of it we found several species that I had not yet seen this year - including Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Wilson's Warbler and Swainson's Thrush.  These three birds are all distinctive, and all can be tricky or very easy to identify.

The Pacific-slope Flycatcher is a member of the Empidomax family - a bunch of birds that look identical at a glance, but have subtle field marks that can help you to identify them by species.  If they call, it becomes easy!  They have very different calls that make it easy to separate them.  This one wasn't singing for us, but Guy was able to help me pick out the important field marks on this one.  Wilson's Warblers, by contrast, are easy identify if you see one!  Their song... well... each year I start hearing juncoes singing fairly early in the year... then Orange-crowned Warblers start singing... which sound a little like juncoes, then the Wilson's start singing, and they sound a little like Orange-crowneds.  It gets tricky.

A distant Swainson's Thrush sang.  90 percent of the time, I only hear them sing, and never see them, and the song is amazing. While I usually hear Varied Thrush on winter mornings, Swainson's Thrushes seem to be loudest on summer evenings.  Summer's coming!

We left from there for Galvin Road - a stop I had made during my last trip through.  Lots of shorebirds there, but not the really rare ones we were hoping for.  I had five species of swallows swarming around, and Guy found a sixth - a Bank Swallow that I never could pick out of the crowd.  Farther up the road, another first-of-year bird - Warbling Vireo.

Willapa Hills trail near Chehalis

From here, Guy and I hit a spot that neither of us had been to before - the Willapa Hills Trail south of Chehalis. We had a report that Sora and Virginia Rail were "easily heard" from the trail, but were a little skeptical.  Neither of these species really make their presence known all that often.  Today we were pleasantly surprised, and I finally heard a Sora call!  Well... more like 10 of them.  A Ring-Necked Pheasant called from the fields behind the road.

Cowlitz County:
30-35 birds for the year in this county at the start of this day, and 80 by the time I left!  We had some good luck with ducks (many of which have left), songbirds (many of which aren't here yet), and shorebirds (which always require a little luck in these counties).  Our first stop here were retention ponds behind the Mint Farm outside of Longview.  First of year bird here was a Cinnamon Teal - it flew, unfortunately - very pretty bird! 

Red-breasted Sapsucker at nest
 We were hoping for shorebirds, and were a little sad that we were only able to find one Wilson's Snipe.  By the end of the walk, however, we were over 30 species for the day in the county.  Walking along the trees on the way back to the car, we found a Red=breasted Sapsucker nest.

Here was our next stop.  Guy had directions, I didn't know exactly where we ended up, but we had a short walk to some flooded fields with more Least Sandpipers, and our first Purple Finch of the day.

Next we hit Woodland Bottoms - a place I'd hit before, but this time it was very, very birdy.  The flooded fields at the far north end of this area had shorebirds, Bonaparte's Gulls, Caspian Terns, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Great Egrets.  A walk down to the Columbia helped us find some Wilson's Warblers, Golden-crowned Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows.
Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper

Kuhnis Road, south of Whalen, was one of the best stops of the day.  Hundreds of Least Sanpipers were in a flooded field - picking through them, I was able to find a Semipalmated Plover, and Guy picked a Western Sandpiper out of the bunch.  8-10 Greater Yellowlegs were on the other end of the field, and one of them turned out to be a Lesser Yellowlegs.  A Solitary Sandpiper was also in the same part of the field!
Kuhnis Road

Behind us, along the side of the road in the trees, was the loudest bunch of Wilson's Warblers I'd ever heard - dozens of them calling from the trees all along the road.  A careful look helped us to find our first Western Tanagers of the year, as well as our first Western Wood-Peewee.  Guy's eyepiece was a bit bigger than mine, so I tried a camera shot of the Peewee through his scope.  Camera phones would have been a bit better, but not bad!

Clark County

Carty Unit - Ridgefield NWR
 Our last stop of the day was the Carty Unit at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.  We got caught in some heavy drizzles, but in between them, we found some trees with some nice mixed flocks of warblers.  One of them had Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Orange-crowned, and a bright Townsend's Warbler.  There was also a little walk through some conifers - giving us the species you'd expect - Brown Creeper, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

If you run into this...

...use some of these.

White-breasted Nuthatch

I liked the interpretive signs along the way - especially nice to see Stinging Nettle and Sword Fern with signs.  It would have been nice if they had noted how important it is that these two plants often grow near each other.  Growing up, we knew very well that a run-in with the nettles could be remedied with the spores from the ferns.  No rash if you rub it on there right away.  After we made it out of the conifers, we also found a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches, a bird hard to find on the west side, but fairly common here.

Very very good day of birding.  90+ species for each of us for the day, and the rain was never unbearable.  I could have added more counties if I had run off by myself in some other direction, but was very glad to have done some exploring with a pleasant Guy.

Proooobably no big trips until the state meet in Cheney on Memorial Day Weekend!
Oak to Wetlands Trail - Ridgefield

Scarecrow - Woodland - Cowlitz County