Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Going Big, and Going Home - Skamania County 12/11

Marble Road - Skamania County
Nina, Jon and I were staying at the Sanctuary Inn, a B and B in Ridgefield.  It had a nice central room for us to talk until late (I actually fell asleep on the couch - whoops).  Breakfast was actually perfect for people leaving early.  A communal kitchen was simply well stocked with juices, coffee, yogurt, bread, jam, fruit, hard-boiled eggs.  There were quite a few staples giving options to make more if there was time or inclination.
We got packed up and met up with Les and Wilson at the gate to Stiegerwald.  I usually leave last names out of here, but Wilson Cady is a pretty well-known birder in the state!  He lives in Skamania County, and has birded it more than anyone.  At one point during the morning, he pointed out that "If my yard was a person, it would be 12th on the Skamania list (138 species!).  Best of all, he was willing to help me out in wrapping up my goal of trying to find 39 species of birds in each of the 39 counties of Washington.

It can be a tough place to find birds!  From East to West, the whole county is in the Cascades, so there are a lot of east side birds and west side birds that slide off to one side or the other of the county.  There's not much mud for shorebirds, and the heavily treed highlands push almost all the way up to the Columbia, so there's not much in the way of wide open fields.  Waterfowl are plentiful in December, though, and the five of us thought it might be fun to see if we could find enough other birds to break the December Big Day mark of 61 for the county.

Marble Road

Walking the line...

We started the day by going to a wide open field right on the Clark/Skamania line.   As we made our way down Marble Road, Wilson and Les stopped their car after seeing a Great Horned Owl fly across the road in front of us.  We were hoping for Barn, but were happy to try for a GHO instead!  Calling didn't get a response from it, however, and we eventually decided to move on to the county line. 

Some of our first birds were Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, and a Pacific Wren that just barely hopped out to the right side of a fence to be in Skamania.  The group also added another bird that I didn't see with a Hairy Woodpecker.  Sparrows were plentiful, with Golden-crowned, Fox, Junco and Towhee. 

38 - Red-tailed Hawk that crossed into Skamania
 Nina spotted an American Kestrel on the Clark side of the county line, and shortly thereafter, we also found a Red-tailed Hawk.  We saw the hawk chased by the kestrel, and waited to see if it would make it's way towards us, which it finally did.  Western-scrub Jays, Steller's Jays and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers rounded out the stop. 

Franz Lake

Mission accomplished!  Tundra Swans - Franz Lake

Franz Lake was our next stop, and it was a very good one!  We first saw a Great Egret on the far side, and hundreds of Tundra Swans in the lake.  During our stop, we also heard  a few calls from Trumpeter Swans mixed in, coming from the closest shore. 

Canvasback, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, Ring-necked Ducks, Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Cackling Geese, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron and a beautiful pair of Wood Ducks made this a pretty productive stop!  I was well over 50 for the year by 8 or 9 AM, which made the rest of the day a fun group effort to see what we could find.

Walker-Sams Park

On our way to Skamania Landing, we stopped at Walker-Sams Park for Hutton's Vireo (which we didn't find) and bathrooms (which we all did).  The trees had Varied Thrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, and Steller's Jay.  Jon and I picked up the Golden-crowned Kinglets a little more quickly, but we all got them eventually.  Here's hoping the hearing stays intact for me to enjoy them for many more years!

Skamania Landing
Skamania Landing

This was a stop that included some salt water, some trees and a little bit of mud (but no shorebirds today).  We actually spent a good deal of time scanning all of the habitat here, picking up some ducks, our first gull of the day (Glaucous-winged), Canada Geese, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. 

It took me a while to find the nuthatch.  Not the first or last time of the day that people had to say things like "in the middle of the branch... the ooonly branch... in the only tree... Well, I can be thankful for good ears, anyway!  Wilson was able to point out the details that identified this nuthatch as the Pacific subspecies, which is only found in this corner of the state.

Bubo Plasticus!  Couldn't count it...
We watched a juvenile Bald Eagle fly out across the water, and moved on.

Beacon Rock State Park

A return to the majestic Beacon Rock! :)
I climbed this whole dang thing on the first of July, looking and listening for a Canyon Wren, and hoping to stumble on a Peregrine Falcon.  Apparently, Wilson has been here a few more times than that himself, trying to find the Canyon Wren.  We got out the Ipod and played a Canyon Wren song, and within a few minutes got quite a response - a Peregrine Falcon swooped across the face of the rock and disappeared from view!

A little more waiting, and we started to get a buzzy response!  This is a bird that I had only heard before, so I was hoping to see it.  "There it is!" called Jon.  He pointed to a part of the rock, described it perfectly, and I honestly tried to get a bead on where he was looking.  How the four people on this trip tolerated my inability to see annnnyyything is beyond me!  After all four of the others had been watching the bird pop in and out of a little indentation in the rock for several minutes, I finally got it.  A little wren was visible... then gone.  One more time... and gone for good.

Les asked, "So this is a life bird?"  The five of us got into that good discussion - when you add up your birds, do you count ones that you've only heard?  I do.  Canyon Wren was one that I had always felt good about.  It was in a canyon in Eastern Washington that I heard their strange descending song, and their buzzing call, coming down from the cliff walls on a summer evening.  After minutes and minutes of hearing something so distinctive, and not seeing a starling nearby, I felt just fine believing that Canyon Wrens were skulking up above me on the rocks.  For today, I had only heard the buzzing call, and had seen a wren-like bird pop its head out.  It was still, I think, enough information to get it down to Canyon Wren, but the first time was the more confident ID, even though it was a heard-only! 

Just out of curiosity, I looked at my state list - 283 birds - which had I only heard?  Dusky and Ruffed Grouse, Northern Saw-whet, Flammulated, Barred and Spotted Owls, Common Poorwill, Least Flycatcher (twice, now, I've heard the 'che-bekking' from a bird that refused to show itself!), and American Redstart (see Big Ol' Trip, Days One-Four for more on that).

But I'm digressing in the middle of a Big Day!  Next we moved on to...

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam - Skamania County
Here we found our first Double-crested Cormorants of the day, as well as a few gulls, including a Western Gull - quite rare this far up the Columbia! 

Double-crested Cormorants - Bonneville Dam
Les and I walked up the path a little to investigate things floating around in the water.  One duck-sized object got our attention, and we started to discuss what it might be.  It was a ways off, but we started to consider Ruddy Duck.  We got the binoculars up at the same time to look for it again.  We had them up for a second or two, then dropped them, looked at each other and had a good guffaw at ourselves about the sea lion that we had just watched surface.  It had been swimming with only the head up, and something about the profile had us thinking it was a Ruddy... I can't explain my way out of this one, so I'll move on to...

Rock Creek Park

But here's the bad news - the camera batteries went kaput right about now.  This was a  good ducky spot, and we picked up a few birds we hadn't seen yet, including Killdeer, Ring-billed Gull, and our best views yet of Gadwall, American Wigeon and Common Goldeneye.

Stevenson waterfront

Here's where the camera was most missed, I suppose.  We had thousands and thousands of Greater and Lesser Scaup on the Columbia at this pull off.  We walked up to the viewpoint, and Wilson called out "Tufted Duck" so quickly and matter-of-factly that I was sure he was having us on.  We quickly found the duck in question... then it dove, and was lost for a bit.  I refound it, and we got the scopes on it.  I saw my first Tufted Duck a few weeks back, less than an hour from home at Bradley Lake in Pierce County.  This duck made for a nice comparison - a lot more white on the sides, and a slightly longer tuft hanging off of the back of his head.  This was a lifer for Jon and Nina, and a great find by Wilson.

Drano Lake

I had heard of this lake before - nearly on the Eastern end of the county - from a few years back when another Tufted Duck had been seen here.  I can see why it would be found so easily!  The lake is arranged so that it is easy to get good views of birds in most parts of the lake.  This was also the lake where Wilson knew we would get our first Barrow's Goldeneyes of the day, and those birds were there in good numbers - 10-15 easily.

Who wants to find a turkey!

We continued down the road nearly to Underwood, and turned up into the hills as it started to get late in the afternoon.  Cooper Road was the spot where we would look around for Wild Turkeys, which can be found roaming around the rural residential area.  We didn't have any luck on that, but we did find our first California Quail, and I had my first House Sparrow of the day, something others had seen back at Rock Creek.

Spring Creek Fish Hatchery

Near Spring Creek, we pulled over and immediately Jon and I heard the call of a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  In the decreasing light, we weren't able to locate it before it left a minute or two later - our last new bird for the day.  Wilson sent along the list of birds found that day - 70 for the group, and 65 of those shared!  It was a December Big Day record for the county, and a great way to finish up my year.

The Skamaniacs
That obviously took care of 39 for the year, and 50 to boot!  The year list for Skamania had actually gone up to 84 by the end of the day, despite the birds I'd missed (Great Horned, Hairy Woodpecker, Rock Pigeon).  Thankfully I already had an American Robin for the year, because we didn't find a single one all day!  Varied Thrushes were found at many stops, but not a single American Robin.

We chatted into the dusk for a little bit at the hatchery, then shook hands and exchanged our congrats and thankya's, and made our way west on Highway 14, back to the B and B, and home.  During the drive with Jon and Nina, I felt like I was quiet - like there was some satisfaction that had not been gained by the trip. 

It wasn't until that night or maybe the next day that I put my finger on it and got exactly what I was looking for.  I emailed Wilson and asked for a list of the places we'd been, and he sent back with that list, along with a single bird that was significant at each stop.  It would have been nearly impossible to blog this without that list, and I honestly would have had all of the places slip out of memory without a name for them - without being able to find them on a map.  I'm thankful to have the notebooks I used to keep, and now the eBird lists to jog my memory if I ever start to forget birds, and places and days.  And of course I've got this blog!

I may throw in a final entry later down the road to highlight my favorite birds, places and days, and maybe to include statistics on how crazy cool the year was.

Going Home

Best part of every trip is getting home in one piece and finding Bre, Declan and Maura there in one piece.  Sometimes asleep, sometimes ready with hugs.  It's been a lot of time away from them this year, and I don't know if all three of them will ever know what a gift this truly was. 

Happy birding, and happy trails!


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