Monday, November 7, 2011

Benton, Franklin and Columbia Counties: 11/5

Bridge over the Columbia - from Pasco
In January, one of the few dates that I had already nailed down for a trip was this weekend;  The Washington State Cross Country Championships were happening in Pasco, so I knew I'd have a chance to see some of the kids from my school compete, while also getting out to do a little birding to get to 39 species in Franklin County.
As I did back in April, I stayed at my brother's home in Yakima, so I would have a nice reasonable drive after conferences were done on Friday afternoon.  I pulled in to Yakima around 8:00 and passed several sets of Friday Night Lights on the way, as football teams were working through early rounds of playoffs. 

Benton County
Columbia Drive early morning
Dark and early on Saturday morning, I made the drive down to the Richland area to visit W. E. Johnson Park.  I had read that this was a good spot for owls, and I thought it would be nice to get a few more Benton County birds in the morning, as I was at 47 for the county for the year.  This was a theme for the weekend, as Columbia and Adams county were also over 39, but not to 50 yet;  50 was more than I had set out to do at the start of the year, but if it was reasonable and reachable, I thought it would be worth spending  little more time planning things out to visit these counties nearby.
A frosty morning!

It was c-c-c-cold on this November morning and just starting to get towards civil twilight as I parked and walked.  I wasn't sure exactly which area to try for the owls, so I walked along the trees in the parking lot (no luck), and then to an archery range past the end of the parking lot.  I tried a Great Horned Owl call, which at first just stirred up some Killdeer, but I did eventually get a low response from what was probably a male. 
Yakima River Delta

Unsure of where to proceed from there for other owls, I hopped back in the car to try one more spot before crossing the Columbia.  The Yakima River Delta is a very birdy spot, and I'd seen a report for a Black-crowned Night-Heron, so I made this my destination as the sun got closer to rising.  I had several sparrows on the way in: Song and White-crowned, as well as Spotted Towhee and Dark-eyed Junco. 

Fog rising from the pink river - Yakima Delta
The river itself was not terribly birdy, but certainly beautiful, and I finished just over 50 species in Benton for the year, before I left.  Growing up in Yakima, I've been to many different stretches of the Yakima River, but never to this part where it finally gives up being called the Yakima, and joins in with the Columbia. 

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It was fun to think of the waters here continuing on and passing by other places that I have stopped this year, especially in Klickitat and Skamania.  How long does it take a drop of water to get there...?  No sign of night-herons, and appointments to keep later in the day, so after a couple more pictures, I left this county for the year.

Franklin County

Backlit ducks on a beautiful morning - Pasco
I had seen 26 species in Franklin this year, just from passing through during the Pasco Invitational in April, then briefly again during my Big Ol' Trip in June.  I knew I hadn't seen many ducks yet, so my first stop was the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter in Pasco, where a pond right next to the Columbia was supposed to have quite a few ducks.

Did they use the hill to design the bridge?
The advice I got here was very good.  As I walked around the pond, I was able to pick out about a dozen species of swimmers (including a few on the Columbia - it was a short scramble up from the pond to the running path along the Columbia.).  Lighting was the only problem, so I had to make my way around sometimes to get a good view of the ducks.  I knew there were American Wigeons in there, but it took a while before they weren't backlit.

Great Egret - Pasco
On the south end of the pond, as I was wrapping up, I found a Great Egret - beauuutiful bird.  I kept scanning along the edges of the pond here, and found a bird that I had hoped to find on this trip, a Black-crowned Night-Heron.  This was a juvenile - I'd love to see the adult plumage some time - and it stayed very still, letting me get some good views in the binoculars, and a few good pictures.
Black-crowned Night Heron!

Leaves at Sacagawea State Park
Over 39, but short of 50, I made my way next to Sacagawea State Park a mile or two away.  I had been here before, but thought November might give me different birds than April.  I hoped to find Bald Eagles, but didn't.  There were a few nice birds though, including some Killdeer on the Columbia, an American White Pelican, and some Wood Ducks in the marshy habitat in the park. 

At almost ten o'clock, I checked over the list in my hand and counted up 51 species... although I didn't realize until later at home that this was my life list for the county I was looking at!  My year list was actually still at 49 when I left for the cross country meet!

The meet was wonderful - kids ran hard, and some from our school made the podium, as well as the girls' team.  I had a chance to talk with some parents, and saw that there was a lot of excitement for track in the spring, with some of the new athletes joining the school this year. 

Without some of this time this year just to get out and think, I don't know if I would have been able to hear that without second-guessing my decision to stop coaching track.  As it was, I just came away excited to see these kids running track in the spring, and quite content with my role as Advanced Fan in the approaching spring.

Columbia County
Highway 124 - Walla Walla County
Lyons Ferry Road - Walla Walla County
The meet ran a little late, but after the boys were done, I hit the road.  I was happy that I had 'finished' Franklin County with over 50 species, so I made a beeline for Columbia County through Walla Walla County.  "Jill" (the name of the voice we picked for the GPS), did some good work here.  I would not have chosen Highway 124 through the north end of Walla Walla County, then onto Lyons Ferry Road.  It was a fairly desolate, and beautiful stretch of road, and I hope I get to drive it again some time!

Most of the drive was a long series of magpies, red-tails and kestrels, but as I approached Columbia County, I slowed for a bird on a wire.  Nothern Shrike!  I went to get my camera to get a shot of this beautiful bird, when it flew off to the southeast.  I watched it go, and said 'drat', but upon checking my map, realized that it was perched in Walla Walla County, and had flown into Columbia County - I laughed, knowing that this is one of the strange celebrations that are inevitable once a person gets interested in county bird lists! 

With my better understanding of county lines in Southeastern Washington, I continued a short ways up the road and actually got my whole car into Columbia County, ready to find some ducks before the sun went down.  The Northern Shrike (2:45) was my 40th bird in the county for the year, and it became a bit of a challenge to get the next ten, so in my field notebook, I jotted a time next to the new birds as I found them.

Lyons Ferry KOA - Columbia County
First order of business:  I saw a sign to a marina next to the KOA campground and restaurant.  I drove down to the end of the drive, hopped out and walked to the edge of the water.  Nothing!  A magpie called from the trees - not new... I peered across the Snake River and saw not a single bird.  My eyes got a little big, as I realized how difficult this might be! 

Double-crested Cormorant
I went back to Highway 261, and followed it along the Snake River for a little bit.  At one pulloff, I spied a Double Crested Cormorant (3:00) in the water below.  A Western Grebe was off on the far side in Whitman County, and it didn't seem interested in heading over, so I had to take number 41 and keep going. 

Tucannon River - Columbia County
The highway cuts off south from the Snake as it gets closer to Starbuck, and follows a smaller river (the Tucannon?), with a lot of small pulloffs.  These were some beautiful spots, although most of it looks just like this here - empty, glassy water without a bird in sight!  A flock of Canada Geese (3:14) flew overhead, however, and a single Pied-billed Grebe (3:15) was making dives in the river as well.  43!   Before I left, I also found a few Dark-eyed Juncos (3:22) in the bushes putting me at 44.

Finally ducks!
Approaching the turnoff for Little Goose Dam, a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants dove off of the side of the road for number 45 at 3:27.  I was feeling good at this point, figuring that there would be more ducks up by the dam.  The first stretch when I finally got to the river again had me pretty hopeful!  Buffleheads at 3:32.  How long could it take to find four more birds?

Snake River Canyon - Little Goose Dam Road
I made a stop at a small park, and found a handful of birds that I had seen before - Pied-billed Grebe, Song Sparrows, American Robins...  almost 20 minutes passed, and the sun was starting to dip behind the canyon walls.  A Great Blue Heron flew along the far side of the water in Whitman County, and I strolled back to the car.

The rest of the way up to the dam was beautiful, but the cliff walls were getting pretty dark - a few more birds showed up:
Mallards (47) at 3:51
California Gulls (48) at Little Goose Dam at 4:01
Western Grebes (49) above the dam - 4:10
End of the road?
At this point, I'd driven to the end of the road, basically.  I took it a little farther to a campground.  It had a little dock, and I walked to the end of it.  A Red-tailed Hawk shrieked from the hills, and I waited to hear or see anything else.  Nothing new, but another Pied-billed Grebe.  I kind of figured at this point that I had run out of luck on 50. 

A little light left...
End of the road with it getting dark, but I looked up and caught a little sunshine hitting the crest of one of the hills.  I figured it would be good to get back to the highway - I might catch something else while it was light, and I needed gas!

At this point, the closest gas was not in the direction I wanted to go!  I wanted to get to Palouse Falls before dark, and Dayton was the closest gas, according to Jill.  Heading through Starbuck (no, I didn't get a mug there... not yet, but anyone looking for birthday ideas...) I thought I saw Eurasian Collared Doves, but wasn't sure.  I pulled over, got out of the car, and had a White-crowned Sparrow staring at me from a fence post.  Number 50 at 4:45!  The Collared-doves emerged immediately thereafter and made it 51.

I'd had a lot of goals for the day, but it appeared that getting a nice shot of Palouse Falls was not to be.  I gassed up, and got dinner (chicken strips and jojos... with some Odwalla fruit/vegetable juice concoction... to make it healthy), then turned back around for the falls.  It got darker and darker as I drove, but I considered camping so that I could see the falls in the morning...  Got to the turn off, and made the familiar drive to the park.  I don't think I'll ever believe that I'm on my way to a waterfall during this drive.  It just feels like you're driving through a bunch of scrub on your way to nowhere.  As I drove, I stirred up a dozen Gray Partridges that had come out into the road at dusk to gather up gravel to grind up their meals.  Didn't realize at the time that these were the 50th bird for me in Franklin!

I got to the falls, and saw we were in astronomical twilight.  Sundown starts civil twilight, when there's still enough light to go about your business.  When civil twilight ends, and you start running into things, but there are still some lingering signs of light in the sky, it is astronomical twilight.  That's what allowed me to get the moon (top right), Jupiter (a little lower in the sky on the left), and Palouse Falls (bottom) all in one shot.

Palouse Falls, with Jupiter and the Moon.
 Jill the GPS told me that I was 4 hours from home.  I knew I couldn't stay long enough in the morning to see it in full light, so I decided to make my way to Othello for the evening.  A room can be had in Othello for about $40 bucks, and you will get what you pay for. :)  Bre and I texted back and forth as the Huskies tried to hold on against Oregon, but hope only lived through the first half.  I fell asleep in Adams County planning to try for some owls again the next morning.

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