Saturday, July 2, 2011

Big ol' Trip: Day One

Let me explain...

Okay, I just couldn't decide on another title for the first of these entries, so this is what they're going to be: Day One, Day Two, etc.   For the most part, too much went on every day to sum it up with one title, and the idea of listing all of the counties I visited (King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Chelan and Okanogan on this particular day) would drive me up a wall, so it's just Day One.  Hopefully the contents will be more interesting than the title, and you'll be tricked into reading Day Two, etc. 

I'ts Saturday the 25th of June;  My wife, Bre, has given me this huge gift - eight days (Saturday to Saturday) to go on a trip through the state that I've been imagining for about a year now.  I've always been sucked in by maps, and in the state of Washington, the corners are especially interesting to me.  How far can you go into the Northeast corner of the state?  What's it like in Anatone?  The interest in birding magnified this.  There are birds that just barely reach into our state from the North (Boreal Chickadee), from the East (Clay-colored Sparrow), from the Blue Mountains in the Southeast (Green-tailed Towhee) and from the Oregon Cascades (Lesser Goldfinch).  Giving the state a big 'hug' in one big swing could give me a chance to really explore these corners, look for some birds, and really clear the head.  I teach, so the time is there, but it still meant leaving Bre solo with our two kids for eight days, and I wanted to start off by saying thank you, and I love you.

What to pack?

Clothes - too many, because something will happen, and I'm bound to get wet.  I couldn't find my rubber boots the night before the trip, so I'd have to forego tromping through the wet stuff up at Bunchgrass Meadow... (Note, I will only use the ellipses when I'm doing some foreshadowing.  I normally overuse them, and I still may here, but usually in this series of posts, it means there is more to come.  No explanations will be given, but you've really got to read on, even if it's several posts in.)  The adventure hat is important - a gift from my Dad from his time in Chile; raincoat, windbreakers, and t-shirts galore.  The weather for the first few days looked like it would be good, but I thought I was ready for anything.

Lists - all of the county checklists for the counties I was visiting, and my year list.  The goal is 39 birds in every county in the state this year, and it would be a bummer to fall short in a county just because I didn't know what birds I'd seen there earlier in the year...  Lists of birds that people had seen on recent trips and where, including some GPS coordinates on a few!  That would make it easy...

Food - I figured most meals would be done on the cheap.  I packed my camp stove for boiling water every morning... (...all right I'll close those ellipses right now.  I neeevver boiled water in the mornings.  It was too easy to hit a gas station at 7AM after a few hours of birding to fill the water bottle with ice water, and to fill the thermos with boiling water) some oatmeal, and instant coffee, fruit, and PB and J for sandwiches.  I'd have to support the local economies a little and hit some diners too, though!  Last minute, when Bre was making a shopping run, I decided a summer sausage and some cheese would be great to pack in the cooler too...

Equipment - camera, binocs (plus an extra pair of binoculars, I didn't want to have it end up like last trip, where I had none after I ran over a pair!), and spotting scope.  Field guides and journal, and pens.  Just any old pens... We also got fancy and bought a GPS unit for the trip.  The old one a friend of ours had loaned us developed a short in the cord, so it wasn't working.  It was old enough that the folks at Frye's were shocked to see it.  No replacement cords in the store.  We got a Garmin, and got it all set up with Jill ready to tell me where to go... I also brought my big Washington gazetteer, just in case... (I swear, the ellipses will end soon, but there was too much early on that was funny in retrospect). 

Camping supplies - most of my trip would be camping, although I knew that showering would be nice now and then!  I had planned one night in a motel in Metaline Falls, with the rest of the nights camping... Nothing fancy, but a sturdy tent, tarp, sleeping pad and bag.

Fascinating, but can we get going now?

Fobes Road - Snohomish County
I had plans on leaving at 4 AM, but 'slept in' and didn't leave until 4:30 - ah well.  I wanted to make quick stops on Snohomish County where my life list was just short of 100, and get up to Highway 20, back down, and all the way through Okanogan County to Sherman Pass by nightfall.  I was planning on quick stops here and there, and ideally had wanted to leave Okanogan County incomplete, with plans to return for a winter trip to take it well past 39...

Said my goodbyes to Bre, kissed the kids on the forehead, and got going.  Traffic was pretty light, and I arrived at Fobes Road near the city of Snohomish at 5:30 AM.  This is farm country, and there is a field way down below the road where Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal had been seen.  It turned out that the light at this hour was not going to allow me to see these birds!  Still, there were others that were singing, and in 10 minutes I had pulled it up to 99 with Rufous Hummingbird, Warbling Vireo, and a Pied-billed Grebe (visible as a sillhouette, and calling quite loudly). 

Down a small trail from Fortson Mine Road
I passed through Arlington, where our family drove to church for many of the first years of my life growing up in the Seven Lakes area, and then hit the Mountain Loop Highway towards Darrington.  Fortson is, well, I don't know if it's a city, town, or 'locality', but it has a mill road that leads to ponds where some birds could have put me over 100.  I got befuddled and ended up on Fortson Mine Road instead, but it was not a problem.  A Brown-headed Cowbird put me over 100 almost as soon as I got out of the car.  A Pacific-slope Flycatcher (or should we just call them Western Flycatchers..) gave a SWEET! call, and several Townsend's Warblers sang overhead.  101, 102.  I didn't see either of them, but had enough experience with these birds to count them...

Thimbleberry - as familiar to me as the call of a
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
On to Skagit County!

Eastern Kingbird - Rockport, Skagit County
Lazuli Bunting - Rockport

Skagit County was technically 'done' with exactly 39 species for the year, but some interesting birds have been seen recently right along the route I was taking, and I knew I might actually be able to hit 50 in every county without much more work.  I made my first drive up Illabot Creek Road near Rockport, then Martin Road, and finally up a dirt drive near Corkindale Creek.  These are some back corners in Skagit County that Ryan Merrill and other birders have been digging through in the last few weeks and finding all kinds of rarities - Northern Mockingbird, Least Flycatcher, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.  Most of those were in migration a few weeks back, and I didn't see any of them;  Not today...  The Eastern Kingbird was a nice surprise though, as were the Lazuli Buntings, which were seemingly everywhere. 

Empid sp?
I also thought I had a Dusky Flycatcher, but Ryan caught that one when I submitted it on eBird.  Fortunately, I had a picture to show that it was not likely to be a Dusky.  Empidomax Flycatchers are a family of birds that are difficult to tell apart by field marks, and easier to tell apart by voice (although that isn't always enough!).  Six of your friends show up to the Halloween Party with Green Lantern masks and costumes... you can tell them apart by looking at them, but it's easier if they say something.  That's what these birds are like - Willow, Least, Western (which may be two species - Cordilleran and Pacific-slope...), Dusky, Gray, and Hammonds.  The standard thing to do when you can't nail down a bird all the way to a the exact species, is to leave a 'sp?' on the end.  Gull sp? warbler sp? empid sp?  The latter is where I left this bird, since it sounded and acted like a Dusky, with a soft 'whit' call, but had no distinct eye ring.

Whatcom County - Newhalem Aggregate Ponds

Newhalem Aggregate Ponds - Whatcom County
All right, this is early in the trip, but this place exhausted me.  I could recognize the thrushes, flycatchers, chickadees, and vireos calling in the trees, and I could recognize some of the warblers, but others were not as familiar.  MacGillivray's, American Redstart, and Nashville are all a little less common in my neck of the woods.  It is quite possible that alllll of them were singing at these ponds on this morning.  Not a problem if the birds are out where you can see them... but it's June, the leaves are big, and I am getting only glances at a few of the many singing birds.

I'll keep going with the analogies - this would be like meeting twins, working hard to tell them apart, then finding out that they are actually quintuplets at the family reunion.  Clarice, Clarissa, Carissa, Larissa and Clara are all there, and they're hiding their name tags.  And I'm out there solo, so there's nobody to help introduce me.  Also, I don't have an iPod.  With an iPod, it's like having a recording that calls out "Clarice!", and then Clarice responds, says hello - warblers will respond to recordings of their songs, coming out where you can see them.

So I'm writing down careful notes on the songs that I'm hearing - writing down my take on them, and the timing, and the cadence, the quality of the sounds.  With some work... way too much work for a bird I never got to see... I got my first life bird of the trip - an American Redstart.  They're more common as you go farther east, so I decide I'll get my life look at them later.  Many warblers on this visit get left as warbler sp?  This was really a shame, as warblers are beautiful birds, but I had a long day ahead, so I moved on.

It got easier to see beautiful things as I climbed into the North Cascades on Highway 20.  They are so much more dramatic here than farther south, where individual mountains dominate the scnery.  Here are some pics, including ones of huge lakes made by dams for hydroelectric projects.

North Cascades - Whatcom County
(Yes, the same county I visited in January!)

Ross Lake

Diablo Lake
Back into Skagit

Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Nope - I didn't forget anything.  Highway 20 curls back south into Skagit County.  I made stops at Hardy Mountain and the Easy Pass-Cutthroat Pass Trailhead.  The first stop was the best - Singing Hermit Thrushes, a booming Sooty Grouse, and my first Cassin's Finch of the year were all at the entrance.  There was a burn here years back that used to bring in more woodpeckers;  There are a lot of woodpeckers that I've never seen (White-headed, Black-backed, American Three-toed, and Williamson's Sapsucker), and several of them like to hit trees where there have been recent burns.  Not much luck here today on any of those, and it was too snowy to try up any higher.

Chelan County? really?

Gray Jay - Washington Pass
 Yes indeed, Highway 20 barely cuts into Chelan County for a little stretch, and that's where I ran into this little guy and some friends.  This Gray Jay (or Camp Robber) actually tried to fly off with a bag of potato chips, and was happy to land in my hand for a corner of a piece of bread when it was offered.  Another bird that I saw for the first time this year.  At this point, I had made a lot of stops, and it was time to stop birding, start driving and get some ice cream.

Okanogan County... just a quick stop...

I know, the day's getting along, and I was hoping to rest my head in Ferry County!  But I couldn't not stop in Winthrop.  It's a cowboy, western, salloon-y kind of town that also happens to have a good ice cream place, which happens to have my favorite ice cream flavor (licorice).  I looked at this picture just now, and realized that I got a souvenir mug for Three-fingered Jack's Saloon for a buck in Ephrata (I'm trying to also get a mug from each county;  No need to tell me how odd that is.)

A delicious cone, but would it cost me a Great Gray
Owl this year??
 As I walked the streets, disaster struck.  I started hearing birds, seeing birds... this was not supposed to happen!  Okanogan was supposed to be under 39 when I left, so that I could make an excuse to come back in the winter.  I had a dozen or more 'junk' birds (crow, starling, house sparrow) before even getting to the two stops I wanted to make.  If I was just careful enough... 38 might still be possible...

Cameron Lake Road
Cedar Waxwing - Cameron Lake Road

Cameron Lake Road in Okanogan County runs through some great sage-steppe habitat, and is great for Brewer's Sparrow, and Sage Thrasher (both of which I found here), and Lark Sparrow (a lifer which I did not find).  Matt Bartels had made a run through here recently and found several birds that I was looking for for my life list (White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Flycatcher) or my year list (Least Flycatcher).  None of them!  Now, to be fair, I had come in the late afternoon when the birds hunker down and get quiet.  It's too hot to be out!  On future days, I vowed that I would get to the sage before it got too late in the day...

Aeneas Valley

Swainson's Hawk ready to go for dinner

Bobolink - Aeneas Valley Road
Dinner in Tonasket, then off to one of the totally random places that I really wanted to visit.  The Aeneas Valley was always there on the map, and I'm sure I've driven by the exit for it on Highway 20 during one of the many trips Bre and I took, but I could never dig up a reason to go there.  Now I had a reason - Bobolinks!  These blackbirds live in wet hay fields, and one of the ones that they particularly like is right here.  I waited and watched the field patiently, then got impatient and drove up 1/4 mile.  On the wire were 5 of them!  My second lifer of the day!

Mountain Bluebird
Driving along Aeneas Valley Road, I already knew that I was ridiculously far from Sherman Pass, and I was going to lose daylight soon enough.  Jill, the GPS voice, would have chirped in with "recalculating" at this point if she had more of a sense of humor.  I looked at campgrounds, and saw that Lyman Lake, while in Okanogan County, might have to work.  On the way there, I had my first Mountain Bluebird of the year. 

I pulled in to the campground, and was so happy for this turn of events.  On Lyman Lake, I watched 50 or more Common Nighthawks circling low over the lake.  Others ventured out from the lake, including a few that buzzed within feet of me with their 'peent' calls.  Never in my life had I seen them better.  It was a great way to end the day as I set up my tent.  What would I hear as I woke up in a strange place tomorrow morning!?  I wondered this as I looked over lists and maps, considering tomorrow's trip through Ferry and Stevens counties.

Near Lyman Lake, and yes it's a morning shot, not evening.  I thought of passing it off as an evening shot,
but I teach astronomy, and I'm looking at a waning crescent moon:  this must be facing east in the morning.

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