Tag Archives: geology

The Kenai Peninsula

Travelling south, I passed through Anchorage and continued down the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula.  This area is in many ways very different from Denali, but just as spectacular.  It borders Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, so for one thing I’m back on the coast.  The Kenai area is also home to the Harding Icefield, which spawns several dozen glaciers.  I visited a number of them on a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.

Exit Glacier

The photo above it Exit Glacier, which is one of the most accessible glaciers in the park.  You can drive to within a mile of it, and hike right up to its “toe.”  Exit Glacier is retreating, probably due to global climate change, having become over a mile shorter since 1895.

Glaciers are the outflows (the “drains” if you will) from the Harding Icefield.  The Icefield is a basin area that gets well over 30 feet of snow per year on average.  Over time this snow is compacted into very dense ice.  The ice slowly slides downhill, forming glaciers and carving out new valleys.

Yesterday I took a 9-hour boat trip out of Seward to tour Kenai Fjords, to see the glaciers and the wildlife of the area.  I was not disappointed.  The scenery was impressive.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords

Sea Otters were common, and not shy at all.

Sea Otter

We saw five Humpback Whales, including this one very close to shore:

Flukes

And this one farther out:

Humpback whale

A transient Orca swam by, making some of the smaller marine mammals a bit nervous.  But these Harbor Seals in the shallows didn’t look too concerned.

Harbor Seals

Nor did these Steller’s Sea Lions high on the rocks:

Steller's Sea Lions

Steller’s Sea Lions are one of several Northwest animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, who travelled with Vitus Bering on his 1740s expedition to Alaska from Russia.  Steller was a doctor and naturalist, and described a number of new species of flora and fauna unknown to the Old World.  Several of Steller’s namesakes are now extinct (Steller’s sea cow) or endangered/threatened (Steller’s Sea Eagle and Steller’s Eider).  Steller’s Jay, however, is doing quite well and can be seen in my yard back home in Washington state (and throughout much of the American West).

Glaciers were another highlight of the boat trip, and we spent some time at the incredible Holgate Glacier.

Holgate Glacier

Holgate is a tidewater glacier, meaning it flows directly into the ocean.  You could hear thunderous cracks and booms as it calved giant boulders of ice directly into the sea.

Whole Lotta Ice

The bluish color of the glacier comes from light that gets scattered by the densely packed ice.  Most frequencies of light pass through the ice, but blue tends to be absorbed and re-emitted by the electrons in the water molecules, scattering the light and making the ice appear somewhat blue.

Nearby, we could see the much smaller Surprise Glacier.

Surprise Glacier

Birds, of course, were also a highlight.  I saw eight species of alcids, seabirds of the puffin, murre, and auklet family.  Seeing hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins was a highlight, as well as a half-dozen Parakeet Auklets up close –  a new bird for me.  The heavy clouds, drizzle, and rocking of the boat made photography difficult, and most of my bird pictures didn’t come out at all.  But I did get a few pictures of some Common and Thick-billed Murres resting on a cliff:

Murre lineups

And hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes swirling around their nesting colony:

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are a kind of gull.  They make their nests on sheer rock walls on offshore islets to protect them from predators.

Kittiwakes nesting

Returning to Seward, we passed huge rafts of murres on the water – thousands of them.

Whole Lotta Murres

Despite the cold and wet weather, and some difficulty in finding some of my target species, I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kenai Peninsula.  I’ll be here another day or so, and then I’m headed northwest to Nome and Gambell.  I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update this blog again, but I will when I can.  I’m about to head into parts unknown (at least unknown to me!).

AK warning sign

1 Comment

Filed under Birding

Denali

Denali landscape

I had heard a lot about Denali National Park in Alaska, but none of that prepared me for the sheer magnitude and majesty of this place.  Denali is six million acres of protected wilderness in the midst of some of the most breath-taking geology in all of North America.  Almost everything about it is at least a little fantastical.

Denali peekaboo

For starters, I’m just a couple hundred miles south of the arctic circle.  Sunset tonight is at 11:51pm, which is followed by several hours of twilight, and then sunrise again at 3:51am.  The sun rises in the north (NNE, actually) in an almost horizontal motion, slowing creeping above the horizon.  After five hours or so, the sun is halfway up in the eastern sky.  By midday (five hours after that) it’s swung around nearly overhead and slightly to the south.  For the next 10 hours it treks westward and then northward, finally setting again in the NNW, not too far from where it rose.

Even though tomorrow is the first day of June, in some ways it still feels like winter here.  The Denali lowlands got 9 inches of slow last week.  While daytime highs have been climbing into the 70s, I see ice and snow all around me, sometimes several feet deep.

Denali landscape

Just getting here was an adventure.  Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage, most of it on a two-lane road, the George Parks Highway.  I was swerving around moose in the middle of the road less than 10 minutes from the Anchorage airport, and things only got wilder from there.  On my journey north, I could see that spring is indeed late this year.  Many of the rivers were still in various stages of breakup, as the long winter’s ice cracked and buckled under the warming sun and the surrounding rush of meltwater.

River Breakup

I stood on the bridge over this river, and watched icebergs of various sizes and shapes float by, as thunderous cracks upstream heralded the arrival of new chunks of loose ice barreling downstream.

River ice

I stayed in the tiny town of Healy, about a dozen miles north of Denali’s main entrance road.

Healy

Aside from this sign, there are a few hotels, two restaurants, and one gas station in Healy.

There are a couple of different ways to experience Denali National Park.

Me at Denali

There is a visitor’s center and some trails right at the entrance, and you can drive in the first 15 miles on the park road in your own car.  But if you want to go beyond the Savage River at milepost 15, you need to take an official park shuttle or bus.  The narrow and sometimes treacherous road that snakes west for 92 miles just isn’t built to handle the 400,000 people who visit Denali annually.  I bought a ticket to Toklat at MP 53; the road beyond that was still closed due to snow.  At 7am, I boarded the bus for the seven-hour round trip.

Denali bus

While Denali does have some interesting birds, the highlight here is mammals.  And what a highlight they are!  In two days, I got great looks at Dall’s sheep, moose, caribou, collared pika, hoary marmots, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, a gray wolf, and a lynx.

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare – still turning from his winter whites to his summer browns

Dalls sheep

Dall’s sheep, with babies

Caribou

Caribou

Bad moose

WHY did my camera freak out and refuse to focus right when mama moose and her two cute mooselings appeared right next to the road??  I guess I’ll never know.

While Denali is the best place in North America to see large mammals, I saw a few birds too – including possibly my new favorite bird, the Willow Ptarmigan.

Willow Ptarmigan

They are just so comical and charismatic, perched in the top of spruce trees and muttering their cackling chicken-language under their breath.  I found them utterly charming.

Willow Ptarmigan in the rain

Even aside from the animals, there was so much to look at in Denali.  The landscape itself was breath taking.

 

 

Denali landscape

I even got to see Denali itself (or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. Congress still insists on it being called).  This 20,320 foot peak is the tallest in North America.  During the spring and summer months it’s often wrapped in clouds (it creates it own weather), but for a few hours yesterday you could see its glaciated summits.

Denali

And this was from some 80 miles away!  Later it rained, and I got to see my first Denali rainbow.

Denali rainbow

With near 24-hour daylight, it’s tempting to stay up all night walking the trails, reading my book, or planning the rest of my Alaska trip – but I think I will force myself to go to bed now.  It’s been 3 days since I’ve seen darkness (the blinds in my room don’t close all the way), but my body still needs sleep.  I think.  Right?

3 Comments

Filed under Birding

The Colima Warblers of Big Bend

I will confess that I didn’t come to Big Bend just for the scenery.

Toll Mountain

I also came to search for the Colima Warbler.  There are about 52 regularly occurring species of wood warblers in the US and Canada (depending on how you count), and I have already seen 48 of them since June of 2012.  The three hardest to get are the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (check), the south-of-the-border vagrant Rufous-capped Warbler (check), and the Colima.  Colima Warblers are not endangered like Kirtland’s, but almost all of their natural range lies south of the Rio Grande.  Perhaps a few dozen trickle across the border to breed in the high altitude mountains of Big Bend.  In order to see a Colima, though, you need to hike up to where they live.

Up there.

To Pinnacles Trail

It’s not a trek for the faint of heart.  The traditional spot to find Colimas is Boot Spring, about 9 miles roundtrip from the trailhead in the Chisos Basin.  The hike starts at over a mile above sea level, and climbs another 1800 feet or so, mostly in the first 3 miles.  Not being as physically fit as some hikers, I started before dawn so I could reach the Colima’s habitat while they would still be active and singing in the cool mid-morning hours.

I started up the Pinnacles Trail.  The turnoff to Boot Spring is just past the junction with the Colima Trail.

Pinnacles Trail Sign

On the way up I listened to many calling Gnatcatchers, and admired the blooming cacti.

Cactus

The trail is well-maintained, although it is steep and rocky in places, and the switchbacks near the crest are tiring.

trail

As I climbed, I could see out over the entire Chisos Basin area.  The morning sun bathed everything in a golden glow.

Halfway up Pinnacles Trail

I stopped to rest and eat a little trail mix, and a chummy group of Mexican Jays came down to request that I share some peanuts with them.  They were not pleased when I refused.

Mexican Jay

Looking up, I could see the Pinnacles formation.  The end of the strenuous climbing portion of my hike was in sight.

Pinnacles

Near the top, I heard a warbler singing!  It took me a few minutes to track it down, but then I saw it: a large brownish-gray warbler with orange undertail coverts.

Colima Warbler

That’s birder-speak for “it has an orange butt.”  Going a little higher, I got a slightly better view of the rest of him while he was busy singing.  Note the white eye-ring and the faint chestnut cap.

Colima Warbler

Yes, my point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the job here, but I got a few ‘record shots.’

I climbed the rest of the way to the top, and ate a congratulatory granola bar while I enjoyed the view.

View from top

I hadn’t made it to Boot Spring yet, so I decided to keep going.  The trail leveled out a bit here, so the hiking was much easier.  And I could start to see the other side of the Chisos Mountains.

Other side of Mtns

After another mile or so, I saw Boot Rock (in the foreground):

The Boot

Boot Rock, of course, looks like an upside down cowboy boot – and gives its name to Boot Canyon and Boot Spring.  Boot Rock is a hoodoo, a tall vertical rock formation left behind when the softer rock around it weathered and eroded away.

Near Boot Spring I found many of the expected high elevation birds: tanagers, flycatchers, and vireos – but no more Colima Warblers.  It was later in the day by this point, so it’s possible they just weren’t singing as much anymore.  I also found this guy lounging in my path.  I believe it’s a Texas Alligator Lizard.  It was quite large, and not very reluctant to get out of my way.

Texas Alligator Lizard

I didn’t make it all the way to the South Rim, but my various exploratory excursions and back-tracking amounted to at least 11 to 12 miles, by my rough estimation.  My feet were killing me by the time I got back down, and I had managed to consume all 2.5 liters of water I brought with me.  I took a short nap, and got up in time for a big dinner and one more classic Big Bend sunset.

Sunset at Big Bend

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Big Bend National Park

Toll Mountain

Despite leaving Seattle over a week ago, this is my first blog post of my trip (and I’m going home tomorrow!).  My lack of productivity on the blog front is due to two factors.  The first is that I spent the first four days on an odyssey to Big Bend National Park, a place of spectacular geology and surprising biodiversity – and extremely limited internet availability.  The second factor is that I’ve spent the last couple days battling some of kind of nasty bug, which I thought might be Hantavirus or deadly Valley Fever, but my wife thinks is the stomach flu.  She’s probably right.  Again.  Thank goodness.

Anyhow, back to Big Bend.  Some places are in the middle of nowhere.  Not Big Bend.  In order to reach it, you have to first drive to the middle of nowhere, and then keep going for another couple hundred miles.  It’s at the End of Nowhere.  I’ve been lots of places during my travels this year with no cell phone service.  But I think Big Bend is the only place I’ve been with no cell service anywhere within 75 miles.

Big Bend Desert

Big Bend National Park encompasses an area over 800,000 acres, making it slightly smaller than Olympic NP and slightly bigger than Yosemite.  Yet not many people make it all the way out to Big Bend.  Olympic NP has 10 visitors for each one person who travels to Big Bend.  Great Smokey Mountains NP has 33.  I had to traverse four time zones just to get here: leaving Seattle (PDT), arriving Tucson (MST), driving through New Mexico (MDT), and finally traveling south through the Trans-Pecos region of Texas (CDT).  I was confused and exhausted arriving in Van Horn, TX for the night, as it was an hour later than I thought it should be.  It turns out that Texas has 254 counties, 252 of which are on Central Time and 2 of which are not.  Really, Texas?!

But the trip was worth it, for the scenery alone.

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Big Bend Mtns

Knob

Unfortunately, these tiny pictures do not begin to do justice to the vastness of the landscape and the sheer magnitude of the mountains.

And then there was the wildlife.  I was constantly reminded that I was in Black Bear and Mountain Lion country.

Mountain Lion Warning Sign

Bear Country Sign

I love how we’re supposed to both “avoid carrying odorous food” and also “carry out trash and left-over food.”  I totally understand the reasoning for each, but don’t you think trash and leftovers might qualify as “odorous food”?

Returning from a hike, a ranger asked me if I’d seen any mountain lions.  I said no.  She said, “well, you can bet that one saw you!”  Then she pointed to the bear and lion tracker:

Bear and Mtn Lion Sightings

While unfortunately (or fortunately?) I didn’t run into any large carnivores, I did find plenty of wildlife.  Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) made an appearance every evening.

Javelina

A pair of Common Blackhawks were nesting near the Rio Grande.  My photo of the birds themselves didn’t come out (it was almost sunset), but here’s their personal sign:

Black Hawk Sign

A Greater Roadrunner sat high in a dead tree and sang his mournful territorial song:

Roadrunner in tree

This female Blue-throated Hummingbird was squeezing in one more snack before bed.

Blue-throated Hummer

And tarantulas scurried across the desert, out for their evening meal:

Tarantula

Hot on their tail, tarantula hawks roamed the desert.  The tarantula hawk is a type of parasitic wasp that uses tarantulas as its nursery.

Tarantula Hawk

The female tarantula hawk stings a tarantula, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it.  The wasp then drags the tarantula back to its burrow and lays an egg inside.  When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.  Yikes!  Tarantula hawks usually don’t bother humans, but their sting has been rated the #2 worst insect sting in the world by the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  I stayed away from the tarantula hawks.  Far away.

While I’m always a sucker for interesting fauna, I spent a little time checking out the flora as well.  Agaves are common in Big Bend.

Agave

These succulents flower only once, at the end of their lives, sending up a huge stalks to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruit.

Agave Stalk

Although they are sometimes known as “century plants,” most species of agave only live a couple decades or so.

My first full day in Big Bend was a feast for the senses, and I had to drag myself back to my room after enjoying an amazing sunset.

Big Bend Desert at Sunset

Big Bend Sunset

I needed all of my energy for tomorrow’s epic hike, to see one of the smallest birds in one of the most distant corners of one of the most remote national parks in the country.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Things That Were Petrified: Wood, Partridges, and My Fingers

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.

Snowy Eastern WA

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.

Waxwings (1)

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.

Yakima Kestrel

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.

Winter Columbia River

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.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

Travelling north, I birded my way to Wenatchee where I spent the night.  This Northern Shrike was a fun find along the way.

Northern Shrike

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.

Gyrfalcon2

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.

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-eared Owl

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.

Short-eared Owl2

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.

Bridgeport SP

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.

Owl pellet

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.

Frozen Sunset
I’m currently packing like mad for my next trip – more soon!

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Mt Rainier Ptarmigan Adventure!

I knew White-tailed Ptarmigan was going to be a hard one.  If you want to see all of the regularly occurring birds in the US and Canada in a single year, you know that some birds will be easy, and other birds will be like ptarmigan.  White-tailed Ptarmigan are birds of the mountain West.  They prefer alpine habitat above the treeline, mainly above 7000 feet in Washington state.  While there are scattered records for ptarmigan from several locations around the state, there is only one place where they are seen more than just occasionally: Mt. Rainier.  So last weekend, Kristi’s mom watched the kids while we spent the day at Sunrise on the eastern flank this enormous dormant volcano.

We got up well before dawn, and arrived at Sunrise by 7:30am.  Earlier in the summer, several other birders had reported seeing ptarmigan near the end of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail, a 6 mile hike with about 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Not a walk in the park, but totally reasonable.  We set off.

The views were spectacular.  We spotted some common mountain birds, like Horned Larks and Mountain Chickadees.

Lower down, the wildflowers were in full bloom.  I think the meadows reach their peak color in late August.

Frozen Lake was mostly unfrozen, with a medium patch of snow and ice still hugging the shore.  As we ascended higher, we spotted some mountain goats in the distance.

They were grazing and frolicking in a meadow down below our trail.  Although birds weren’t plentiful, the scenery was spectacular in every direction.

At last the lookout tower came into view.  This tower was used as a wildfire lookout for several decades in the middle of the last century.  Modern technology has rendered it obsolete in its role in fire detection, but you can still climb its steps and enjoy the view.

As we approached the tower, we scanned the hillsides for any signs of ptarmigan.  It was amazingly quiet up there, and we listed for any telltale ptarmigan clucks or whistles that sometimes betray their presence.  Half an hour passed, and checked the trail again going some distance in both directions from the tower.  We stopped and had lunch, and snapped a few more pictures.

Then more looking, listening, waiting, and watching.  Another half an hour passed, and then another.  We saw a falcon, perhaps a Prairie Falcon, harassing some ravens, and flocks of rosy finches flit from rocks to snowfields and back.  But no ptarmigan.  Finally, we decided to head back to Sunrise for the trip home.  Six miles, five hours, spectacular views, a great hike, and no ptarmigan.

I knew ptarmigan would be hard.  They are extremely well camouflaged and often sit inconspicuously among the rocks and heather.  The habitat up there doesn’t support huge numbers of them, and they move around from place to place in search of food.  My success rate in seeing ptarmigan in the alpine zones of Washington is only about 25%.  Unfortunately my window for viewing them seemed to be closing, as their high altitude habitat is only accessible during the summer months: mid-July through late-August is considered the best time to see them.  Fall snows will be coming soon to Rainier, and I left without seeing the ptarmigan.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Birding, My family

Spruce and Sage – Part II

On my last day, I descended from the spruce forests of the eastern Cascades to the sage-filled coulees and arid canyons of the Columbia River valley.  I arrived at Moses Coulee just after dawn, and the air was cool and filled with the aromatic smell of sage.  I was looking for sage specialists here, especially Sage Thrasher and Sage Sparrow.  (Sage Grouse don’t live here, but I plan to look for them further west in March when they are at their breeding lek.)  Sage Sparrows are habitat specialists here in Washington, preferring healthy tracts of Big Sage – and Moses Coulee is one of a relatively few places which feature a protected stretch of this habitat.

At first it was nearly silent, but eventually I was able to get good looks at the thrasher, sparrow, and a couple of Rock Wrens (another target species of the morning).  By now it was warming up, and the kestrels were flitting around the cliff tops.  The forecast called for triple digits temps today, so I decided to hit a few other places before my brain started baking.

My next stop was Dry Falls, just south of Grand Coulee dam.  This was not really a birding stop (although I did pick up some hawks circling below me), but just a break to admire the view and stretch my legs.  My picture (below) simply does not do this area justice (unfortunately the view is to the east, and it was still morning so the photo is backlit).

Dry Falls is what remains from the biggest waterfall ever discovered on the planet earth.  About 15,000 years ago during the last great ice age, huge continental ice sheets reached down from the pole to cover much of northern North America.  One arm of this massive glacier reached out over modern-day Idaho and formed a giant ice dam that blocked the flow of westward-draining rivers.  The water backed up behind the dam, eventually forming a giant lake – what geologists call Glacial Lake Missoula – which covered much of western Montana.  At its peak, Glacial Lake Missoula contained as much as 500 cubic miles of water.  (Envision a cubic mile of water for a minute.  For comparison, Lake Washington contains about 0.7 cubic miles of water.)

At some point, the enormous amount of water behind the ice dam suddenly broke free, and those 500 cubic miles of water were unleashed across eastern Washington in a cataclysmic flood.  The water blitzed over and through the landscape at 60 miles per hour, with flow rates averaging 10 cubic miles per hour.  The entire lake emptied in a couple days, its water carving out many of the notable geological features of eastern Washington including the coulees, pothole lakes, and canyons that are collectively referred to as the “Channeled Scablands.”

Dry Falls was a raging waterfall then, almost four miles across with a 600 foot drop.  By comparison, Horseshoe Falls (the largest and most impressive part of Niagara Falls) is about half a mile wide and drops 170 feet.  It’s maximum flow rate is between 1000 and 10,000 times less than the amount of water that coursed over Dry Falls during the great flood.  Crazy.  If you’re ever in the area, check it out – it’s just south of Grand Coulee Dam, just off of US-2.

On with the birding!  I stopped at Potholes Reservoir just south of Moses Lake to look for shorebirds, and was rewarded with a passel of goodies, including dowitchers, yellowlegs, plovers, Baird’s Sandpipers, and a couple of relatively rare Stilt Sandpipers.  I met a very knowledgeable birder from Spokane who helped me puzzle out a few of the more challenging IDs.  By this point it was afternoon, the sun was sizzling, and I had a long drive home, so I packed up my spotting scope and headed west.  Eastern Washington was a treat, and I’ll be back later on this fall or earlier winter.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Birding