PacNW 2016: Episode V: High and Dry

If there's one experience shared by every birder, it's that of waking up in the dark, packing one's gear, and waiting for headlights to appear outside. That Friday's experience was therefore a familiar one, with the added deja vu of having been dropped off in last night's darkness by the same car that was coming for me in today's predawn darkness. Luckily, it wasn't a long wait, and when I clambered back into Tina's passenger seat, I could almost feel my own body warmth still emanating from the upholstery.

We made the necessary stop for coffee and sped out across the floating bridge over Lake Washington, watching lights twinkle off the surface from Bellevue and Mercer Island. I knew we were heading uphill from there, along I-90 and through the Cascade Range via the Snoqualmie Pass, but I had to take Tina's word for it: there wasn't enough light to see anything but the barest hint of mountains ahead. We blazed past Issaqua, where Kelly was doubtless still sleeping in the con hotel, and I settled in for the next hour, gradually watching the snow on the peaks become visible, then leaving it behind as we descended into the interior.

Our first stop came near Bullfrog Road's crossing of the Cle Elum River, where even in the dim grey glow of early morning, Tina was fairly certain we could spot one of her favorite birds, the American Dipper. I'd seen one only once, and very briefly, in Glacier National Park, so I was quite happy to take some time to look for my second one. Sure enough, we discovered several perching on logs in the stream, making their telltale teetering motions.

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By the time we were done, the sun was peering up over the horizon, and we took a short drive north to pick up the road into the town of Cle Elum. First, however, Tina had a little treat for me:

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As longtime readers may recall, Kelly and I were devoted fans of Northern Exposure, a TV show we followed rabidly for several years. I had mentioned that fact to Tina, and she decided we had enough time in our itinerary for a quick stop in the little town of Roslyn, Washington, which was the location for the outdoor shots of the fictional Cicely, Alaska. Nothing was open yet, so I was unable to stop in at Roslyn's Cafe (the apostrophe S was added for the TV show and removed later) or the town's other Cicelian landmark, Holling Vincoeur's bar & grill, the Brick:

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The Brick, as it turned out, is Washington's oldest continually operating tavern, which made me even sadder to miss a chance at sampling its wares, but we had things to see elsewhere. The first stop was the residential area in Cle Elum, where Tina had a line on some feeders where a Cassin's Finch might be. We drove around for probably thirty minutes before we spotted them, in the best possible location: in a yard where House Finches were also flying around, giving us the chance to make direct comparisons. In terms of color, patterning, and bill shape, the Cassin's is an almost perfect compromise between a House Finch and a Purple Finch, so once we actually spotted the bird, it was mostly a matter of checking our guides and working through field marks before we confirmed the sighting, which gave me my first lifer of the day.

Tina was obviously feeling a degree of personal responsibility for my list. In addition to her own extensive experience in the Evergreen State, she also brought a technological savvy I'd never had in a birding guide, using her smartphone's eBird app to keep her apprised of sightings, times, and locations all over the eastern side of the Cascade. She was also not a bit shy about pulling up her phone's birdsong app to see if what we were hearing matched what she had on record. (And yes, once or twice the phone got into a conversation with the bird.) She was also completely at home behind the wheel, and though I kept mentioning that I'd be happy to take a turn driving, the only contribution she asked for was for me to pay for the first tank of gas. From there on, we'd be splitting the cost of fuel.

After a bit more tooling around the Cle Elum river, she decided it was time to quit messing around and hit the high desert. This involved jumping back onto the interstate toward Ellensburg, which led to one unexpected discovery: at a local coffee stand, we encountered the Opal, a buttery-yellow apple variety that I'd never seen before. Despite its casual resemblance to a Golden Delicious, it was almost a diametrically opposed fruit: crisp, sweet, with just a hint of tartness, and nothing remotely mealy or bland about it. I grabbed several for the road, and we headed out into the countryside south of town on the improbably named Umptanum Road.

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As you can see, Umptanum Road led us up through a canyon to a dry plateau covered in sagebrush, which seemed to stretch all the way back west to the Cascades, interrupted only by a stand of windmills on the far slope. Scrub and grass were the only foliage, but there was bird life everywhere. Robins perched on branches and fence wires, and Mountain Bluebirds were flycatching everywhere we looked.

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Nor were the bluebirds alone. A Western Meadowlark made its appearance, firing off a definite non-Eastern call out in the scrub. And before long, from a shrub some yards off the road, we heard a relentless stream of birdsong, snippets of various species' calls remixed into a rhapsody by a bold male Sage Thrasher--my first. A bit further along, Tina pulled out her phone to confirm the presence of two rather shy sparrows, one a lifer (Brewer's) and one a welcome returnee to my list (Vesper). I was beginning to understand why she had been so insistent on showing me the high desert.

Neither of us was prepared, however, for the slim grey bird I spotted on a roadside power line. "Is that a shrike?" I asked, whipping my binoculars up to my eyes. Sure enough, it was, and not the fluttery-winged Loggerhead Shrike I'd seen in the southeast, but a long-billed, direct-flying Northern Shrike. It was still well before lunch and I'd seen three lifers on Umptanum alone. Unfortunately, our hopes of following the road up into the forested hills, where several woodpecker sightings had made, were stymied by a very simple sign, one reading "Road Closed." Like it or not, we were done with Umptanum.

Luckily, Tina wasn't done. We turned back toward the interstate and headed south toward Yakima; there were White-throated Swifts down there. She was sure of it. And yes, in fact, there were. We found this out when we pulled off I-82 where it crossed the canyon of Selah Creek. 

The canyon walls there are home to a breeding colony of White-throats, and we were treated to another great comparison, because there were dozens of Violet-green Swallows flying in amongs them. The swifts had the standard stiff-winged flight motion seen in the eastern Chimney Swift, while the Violet-greens made the same nimble twists and turns that--hey, where'd they all go?

Our birds, along with their comparisons, had suddenly vanished, and it took only a few seconds to see why: sailing down from near the bridge was a Cooper's Hawk, and everything else with feathers had taken rapid refuge in the nooks and crannies of the canyon. The sky, like the hilltops surrounding us, had gone totally clear.

DSC03180.JPGAfter such a satisfactory quest, one might have expected Tina to rest on her laurels for a bit, but that's not her style. It was time for another eBird pursuit, this time up to the west from Yakima. We followed US 12 up to Naches, then peeled south into the canyon of the Tieton River, passing the Oak Creek State Wildlife Area. We parked at a bend in the river where several not-entirely-lively-looking trees stood beside the road.

"This is it," said Tina. "There was a Lewis's Woodpecker here yesterday."

If there was one here today, I couldn't tell, but I took out my binoculars and scanned the area. Nothing was visible along the rock wall across the road, or in the trees across the river, though there did seem to be a crow flying into one of the dead trees near us, and--wait a minute.

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Though it looks dark and crowlike at first glance, it doesn't take long to recognize the improbable Lewis's Woodpecker. Its greenish-black back isn't especially startling, but its red face, dirty white collar, and boldly pink belly combine to make it one of the most bizarre--and memorable--birds of North America. This was my first and so far only look at one, so I'm glad it was cooperative enough to pose for me.

Sane persons would probably have called it a day at this point. We had, after all, driven nearly 200 miles, logged several dozen species (including over a dozen first-of-year birds for me), and picked up six new birds for my life list. It had been a triumphant day by any reasonable measurement.

But we are birders. We don't know the meaning of the words "sane" and "reasonable," at least in a context where birds are involved. And besides, the trip down the Vantage Highway would only add about fifty miles to our return trip. No problem!

The highway parallels I-90 on its way west from Ellensburg to Vantage, but it cuts through sagebrush desert as it goes, eventually running smack into the Columbia River. Other than windmills, there weren't a lot of landmarks, but the ones we saw did have fairly distinctive names:

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We pulled over at one trailhead and scanned the sagebrush gamely, spotting familiar friends like the Mountain Bluebird. Before long, we got a look at not one, but two Northern Shrikes sailing from shrub to shrub. And then a pair of Say's Phoebes--the first I'd seen in years--flew up for a look at us as well. But the best moment was the arrival of yet another Vesper Sparrow. And this one was remarkably unafraid. It flew up close, landed, and hung out on the ground near us for some time, giving us long clear looks at its field marks: the eye ring, the white borders along the tail, and even the chestnut wing patch that neither Tina nor I had seen anywhere but in our Sibleys.

And then, eventually, there it was: the Columbia, a river whose mighty stature often goes unappreciated by Easterners like me. There was no denying it now, however: it was a huge, sprawling piece of water, stretching as far as I could see from the top of the cliff on the western shore.

DSC03191.JPGThat was as far east as we would go. Tina and I climbed back into the Forester and headed back. There was still plenty of daylight, though, and as we came back near the Cascades, she decided we could take one last gamble: the chance of seeing a reported White-headed Woodpecker at the Cle Elum ranger station.

We arrived after the station had closed, so we were left to wander the parking lot and grounds alone, and there wasn't much to be seen. Birds were just about absent. The only sounds were the rush and roar of rush-hour traffic, or what passed for it in rural Washington. We ambled to the back side of the station, our steps cushioned by years' worth of pine needles, hoping for something to turn up, but after about thirty minutes, Tina was starting to check her phone and I was wondering if we'd be back in Columbia City by dinnertime so I could get Flying Squirrel Pizza to deliver a pie for me.

Naturally, it was at that moment that I was startled to see a largish bird light on the trunk of a ponderosa pine. It was quickly followed by another, and then by a third. I was just recognizing the birds' clear, inimitable field mark--a head of pure white, unlike that of any other woodpecker--when one of them flew into the sunlight and landed, perfectly lit, on the siding of one of the station's outbuildings. The White-headed Woodpecker was mine, the seventh lifer of the day.

We celebrated our good fortune with a second stop at the bridge on Bullfrog Road--and the Dippers were still there--and as the sun sank over the Cascades, we made our way back through the Snoqualmie Pass.

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It had been an all but perfect day, I knew, and one that couldn't possibly end better than it had begun or than it had continued. But once Tina had dropped me off, with promises that she'd be back at six the next morning, I should have expected that something would, at long last, have to go wrong.

And it did. Flying Squirrel Pizza, I was crushed to discover, does not deliver.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 21, 2016 7:08 PM.

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