Last week I took an overnight trip to Eastern Washington. It was my first birding trip there since my Okanogan Adventure last August. Needless to say it was a completely different experience. Snow blanketed the ground, day time temperatures hovered in the mid-20s, and birds were scarce.
Why would I travel over the icy mountain passes for two days in this frozen landscape? Winter is when some avian residents of the high arctic descend from the subzero darkness of mid-winter Alaska and northern Canada into the relative warmth and light of 47 degrees north latitude. If you want to see these birds in Washington state, January is prime season.
I started in Yakima County, where I picked out three Bohemian Waxwings from a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Cedar Waxwings are relative common year-round residents of Washington, but the Bohemians are their bigger, beefier northern relatives. They usually only venture down in the dead of winter, and then only in small numbers. Both waxwings love to eat fruit, so if you can find a large crop of winter berries (like mountain-ash), waxwings will probably be close at hand. The Bohemian is the larger, grayer bird near the middle of this photo facing to the right.
Not visible in this photo (but I saw it in the field) is the yellow Harry Potter-style lightning bolt that adorns each folded wing on the Bohemians. A few seconds after I snapped this picture, a Kestrel chased out the waxwings and took ownership of the tree.
I traveled on to Vantage, where I-90 crosses the Columbia River. The lower elevation and moderating effect of the water meant that there was less snow here.
I stopped to visit Gingko Petrified State Forest, which is a remarkable area where you can see many kinds of well-preserved petrified wood. Millions of years ago, trees and logs were buried in sediment (perhaps volcanic ash from one of our nearby volcanoes). The low-oxygen environment prevented decay and bacterial decomposition. Over the eons, the organic material in the wood was replaced with minerals. The resulting petrified wood was exposed by floods and other erosion events. You can see over a dozen different kinds of ancient trees at the park’s Interpretative Center overlooking the Columbia River, and at the nearby hiking trails.
Travelling north, I birded my way to Wenatchee where I spent the night. This Northern Shrike was a fun find along the way.
The next day I continued northeast up to the Waterville Plateau, an area of rolling hills in Chelan and Douglas counties. The snow was several feet deep here, and the low clouds and fog created white-out conditions. Looking over the landscape, you could not tell where the ground ended and where the sky began – everything had a uniform pearly glow. Driving east on US-2, out of the blinding whiteness a half dozen dark shapes streaked across my path. They were Gray Partridges, flapping their wings furiously as if their very lives depended on it. They did, in fact, depend on it – for in hot pursuit was a Gyrfalcon. This largest of the North American falcons spends most of its time in the high arctic, but a small number of them winter in Washington state where food is easier to come by. This Gyrfalcon was planning on a partridge lunch, and was gaining fast on the poor chubby game birds. I screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the deserted highway to watch. Just at the last second, the partridge found cover – a short hill of chest-high sage brush covered in another three feet of snow. Lunch disappeared in a poof of powdery snow, as the little birds quickly scampered through the maze of snow-covered sage and were gone. The Gyrfalcon was pissed. It circled three times overhead (giving me great looks), screaming the whole time. Then it landed some distance away in a snow bank, where I managed a ghostly photo through the fog.
After a moment, it raced off to find a different meal, and I continued my trek north, turning from US-2 onto icy back roads. Near the town of Bridgeport, I passed one of the many Columbia River dams – the Chief Joseph Dam.
Near the dam overlook, a Short-eared Owl was making good use of a convenient perch that was so thoughtfully provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Short-ears are not strictly nocturnal – they are often out at dawn and dusk (and sometimes even midday), so they are one of the easier owls to get a good look at. The “ears” are just tufts of feathers on the tops of the head – owls have no external ears, but they do have internal ears and excellent hearing. Large, asymmetrically-placed holes in the sides of the head allow them to pinpoint a sound’s direction and range with amazing accuracy. Experiments have shown that Barn Owls can hunt successfully in total darkness using only their hearing. This Short-eared uses both sight and hearing in combination.
Just up the road was Bridgeport State Park, my final stop for the day. Like many Eastern Washington state parks, it is officially closed in the winter – meaning no services of any kind are available. But you are allowed to park outside and walk in.
The park had a number of unexpected treats, included some Western Bluebirds – common in the summer, but very unusual in winter east of the Cascades. I also found quite a number of owl pellets under at least a dozen different conifer trees. Owls swallow their prey whole, but have a hard time digesting the bones and fur of the small rodents that make up much of their diet. A while after they eat, most owls form an aggregate of indigestible material and cough it back up. These owl pellets provide an excellent record of what owls eat, and can be a good clue to finding where an owl roosts during the day.
By searching under trees for pellets and owl droppings, birders can often pinpoint an owl’s daytime roost. Counterintuitively, to find an owl in a tree, you should study the ground. I looked and looked for roosting owls, but I didn’t find any. These conifers had amazingly dense networks of branches, and it was hard to see more than five or so feet up into the tree. I’m not positive what kind of owl made this pellet, but I suspect it was probably a Northern Saw-whet Owl – it’s a rather small pellet, and Saw-whets (named thus because their call is said to recall the sound of a saw being sharpened – ya, whatever) are known to winter in the park.
I had a long drive home, and the sun was rapidly setting on this frozen landscape, so I headed back towards I-90. It was a great 36 hours, with the highlights being Bohemian Waxwings, Gyrfalcon drama, petrified wood, and owl pellets.
I’m currently packing like mad for my next trip – more soon!