Tag Archives: Washington state

Washington Educators Working to Make a Difference – Part II

Another teacher I’ve been privileged to spend a few days with is Bill from SHS down in Bellevue.  Bill is a bit of a jack of all trades: science teacher, instructional coach, curriculum developer, technology guru, etc.  I honestly can’t remember what his official title is, but he is part science teacher and part education wonk (and I mean that in the best, most complimentary way possible).

Bill and a bunch of his colleagues down at SHS have a little release time paid through a grant, and have been using it to re-imagine their school to address the needs of kids in the 21st Century.  They are have decided to emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) fields in particular to help get students excited about new job opportunities in STEM fields and to help make them informed citizens in our new information and technology age.

The easy way to transform your school into a STEM institution would be to get big $$$ from local businesses, a school levy, the Gates Foundation, a federal grant, or whatever and use it to buy tons of laptops, iPads, science labs, and fancy machines that go PING!  Taa-daa!  STEM School!  Of course this approach, while exciting and sexy, doesn’t buy you good teaching (or good learning).  You have the same school (and program, and school culture, and teachers, and…), but now just with a lot of fun gizmos.  But gizmos don’t equal powerful learning experiences.  So instead, Bill and his fellow educators are doing this the hard way.  They are re-thinking what good teaching is in the STEM context, and helping to encourage and train their colleagues to use some interesting and innovative new approaches to teaching.

I won’t innumerate all of the cool things I saw at SHS in this one blog post, but I do want to tell you a little bit about the project-based learning that several of the classes are implementing.  The way Bill explains it, the curriculum is structured around something called “challenge cycles.”  Essentially, they give students really complex, challenging, real-world problems for them to solve – like for instance, “How can you grow the most amount of a food crop with the highest protein content using the smallest amount of resources?”  Then lessons are built around the content and skills the students will need to be able to solve the problem.  These lessons may include socratic seminars, lectures, reading, research, etc.  Projects and assessments follow – i.e., the students try to actually solve their challenge problem, are assessed on their learning and work during the unit, and reflect on their progress.

In the 9th grade science class, students started out with an aquaponics project.  The challenge question might be something like “How can you create a human-engineered self-sustaining animal and plant system that can provide nutritional benefits to people?”  This opening project is designed to teach students a bit about how science and engineering are done.  They also practice a “systems thinking” approach to a complex problems, in this case one that has interacting biotic and abiotic components.  Chemical reactions come into play in several places, especially with how nutrients like nitrogen cycle through the system.

The projects themselves take different forms (of course, because they are designed by the students), but most of them look something like this:

Students make a sand or rock bed, and select one or more types of plants to introduce to the container.  They set up a water system that runs into a reservoir below.  Other organisms are then introduced by the students to the system, from bacteria all the way up to fish.  The system interacts on many levels – the fish create nitrogenous wastes which are in turn processed by the bacteria and then absorbed by the plants as fertilizer.  Temperature, pH, oxygen levels, and dissolved organic solids can be monitored and adjusted in different ways.  Students can make hypotheses about what they think will happen, and then track the progress of their experiment over the course of many weeks.

Right now, Bill and his students are immersed in a study of nuclear chemistry and nuclear physics.  They are in the research phase right now.  After discussing the challenge question (something about nuclear power), the students decided there were a list of questions that they needed answered about nuclear science.  Here is the list that the students came up with:

Bill obviously helped to structure and scaffold their discussions, but the students made the actual decisions about what to learn.  This gives them buy-in, agency, and ownership of the process.  Now in the research phase, I heard Bill answer more than one student question with something like “Well, you decided that you needed to know this, right?  So what exactly are the important parts you need to know, and how do you know where to go next?”  The kids were using various resources including text books, the internet, and a fun-looking book called Physics for Future Presidents.

On my most recent visit, Bill and his colleague Keith were planning their next unit on polymers and organic chemistry (yep, these are the 9th graders!).  Their challenge question for the unit is going to be something like, “How can you create a custom organic polymer that can create and destroy micelles (tiny bubble-like structures) which can deliver anti-cancer drugs to precisely the correct location inside the human body?”  Bill and Keith are working with researchers at the UW who do exactly that, and the UW profs have agreed to help the kids synthesize and test polymers that will bind to the drugs tightly enough to get them into the bloodstream and into the cells, but loosely enough that the drugs can actually be released at the right time.  The students will need to learn a fair bit of organic chemistry, and will make important decisions about which kinds of monomers to utilize and how to test the resulting polymers using phosphorescent dyes.  Too cool!

There are of course trade-offs in adopting a problem-based learning approach (it takes longer, it can be “messy” on several levels, and it requires a thoughtful and patient teacher), but the potential benefits seem huge.  Here’s a little graphic that Bill shared with me, outlining some of the important components of problem-based learning:

One final thing that I think is really great about the work that Bill and his colleagues are doing is that it is “bottom up” education reform.  The changes that are going on at SHS were not dictated by the district or mandated in a directive from the school administration.  Classroom teachers have been instrumental in asking for change, for helping to secure funding, and for designing, implementing, and coaching each other in these new techniques and ideas.  This is not to say that I think there is no place for educational leadership at the district or school administrative level, but merely that teachers (like students) get more buy-in, agency, and ownership when they are directly involved in all phases of the process.  Keep up the good work, Bill!

1 Comment

Filed under Teaching

Washington Educators Working to Make a Difference – Part I

I spent a number of days last month visiting local public high schools, talking to teachers, and watching classes (mostly in the sciences).  The dedication and creativity of the educators I saw in action were inspiring, and gave me ideas for my own classes next year.

I watched Mark, an old colleague, teaching a pre-IB science class at IHS in Kenmore.  Mark is a veteran teacher, and a true professional who knows a thing or two about the craft of teaching.  And it’s a good thing, because his current assignment is a very tall order.  He has six sections of students, a total of 201 sophomores.  IHS houses students grades 10-12, so these students are also new to the high school experience.  The class I watched had 36 kids, neatly arranged in six rows of six.  It’s called pre-IB science because it is designed to prepare students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate classes in Chemistry and/or Biology the students will be taking as juniors and seniors.  As such, it contains a lot of introductory chemistry content, a pre-requisite for both of these IB sciences.  But Washington state also has a High School Proficiency Exam (the successor to the WASL) which will test sophomores with a content-specific end-of-course exam in biology.  So part of Mark’s pre-IB class must necessarily cover enough biology content to ensure they pass this exam (which will be required for graduation).

Some teachers might consider this assignment a daunting prospect: over 200 students, arriving 30-something at a time starting at 7:10am (and continuing for 6 non-stop hours), all needing to learn the equivalent of two years of science in only one.  Mark throws himself into it with enthusiasm: 36 students for 75 minutes – no problem!  As the bell rang, the class began at once.

The students had done a lab during the previous class (a gravimetric analysis of magnesium oxide to find its empirical formula, MgO).  One of the things that I notice is how Mark weaves in their new experiences with some themes and analogies that he has been using recently – for example, that chemical reactions in the lab are just like chemical reactions in the kitchen (i.e. cooking and baking).  He tells a great story of making special chocolate chip cookies with an old family recipe, with 2 cups of sugar, 1 cup of flour, Mexican vanilla, 1.5 cups of “heaping” cups of chocolate chips, etc.  The ingredients are like reactants which get chemically transformed in the baking through the application of heat and time.  The magnesium and oxygen react in a similar way in the lab crucible.  This could be a cheap, throw-away example, but Mark really takes his time sharing a bit of himself with the class, and painting for them a vivid picture of the slightly under-baked cookies with the soft gooey center.  Mark is a good story-teller, and the kids (all 36 of them!) are really engaged in his stories.

The students also stay focused, because they never know when Mark will tell a joke or funny anecdote, usually at his own expense – like enjoying the free donut at Krispy Kreme so much that he goes outside, puts on a disguise, and returns for another one.  Or the time when Chips Ahoy ran a marketing promotion guaranteeing an average of 16 chocolate chips per cookie.  Mark bought a bag of Chips Ahoy and a notebook, and set out to see if they really did have the requisite 16 chips per cookie.  He discovered that while the chips were really numerous, they were also really tiny!  He actually broke up the cookies, separating out a small pile of tiny chips from the larger pile of remnant non-chip cookie.  While the kids are still laughing at this visual, he whips around and uses the “chips and cookies” story as the perfect visual example of a percent composition by mass.  Even though the chip components are numerous, their small mass leads to a small overall percentage of chocolate in the cookie.  Similarly, you can also do a percentage composition calculation with magnesium oxide.  Although there are just as many oxygen atoms as magnesium ones, the compound is less than 40% oxygen by mass since the oxygen atoms are smaller.  The kids (and Mark) are laughing all the way to the bank of knowledge and understanding.

Humor, analogies, and stories are all powerful methods that Mark uses to keep his huge class engaged for the long block period, encouraging them to come with him on an entertaining and enlightening journey of science discovery.  I felt pretty inspired to do some learning (and some teaching) by the end of class too, which was pretty remarkable considering that I’m usually only ready for a nap after a 75-minute class.  And I also wouldn’t say no to one of Mark’s under-baked cookies with chocolate chips and Mexican vanilla.

Hungry for more?  I was going to write about more of my teacher visits in this post, but it’s late and I’m tired, so look for more in the next edition coming soon!

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

Twitched, dipped, ticked a mega nemesis, but nearly gripped off

I’ve been doing a mixture of activities lately: some fun, some important, some both, and some neither (nature walks with my kids, visiting some awesome science teachers, reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, getting my car serviced, cleaning the garage, writing college recommendations, and searching for the missing mates to a bunch of socks).  I’ll leave it to the reader to sort those activities into the appropriate bins.  I’ll be posting about some of my school visits next month after I’ve had more time to mull over what I’ve seen.  But this post is about twitching.

Twitching, if you didn’t know, is about chasing a rare bird that was first found by someone else.  Normally I’m not a huge twitcher.  I enjoy exploring on my own and finding my own birds.  But since I’m doing a big year, I have decided to switch to the twitch (at least on occasion).  I don’t have the time or money to find all of the birds on my own in 365 days or less, so I will sometimes be chasing reports of rarities (usually posted on Tweeters or eBird).  A mega is a really rare bird, one that doesn’t regularly occur in your geographic area.  The definition of “your geographic area” varies, but often refers to the continental 49 states [except for the really far-flung Alaskan bits] and dang near all of Canada.  When I heard there was a Slaty-backed Gull hanging out in the warehouse district near the Port of Tacoma, I decided to twitch this mega.  Slaty-backs are commonly found from Siberia to Japan, but only very rarely in our neck of the woods.

One of the bad things about twitching is that you don’t pick the birding location; the bird does.  I like to pick beautiful nature preserves, parks, wildlife refuges, and remote wilderness areas.  Rare birds often choose landfills, abandoned industrial plants, or vast mucky mudflats.  This Slaty-backed Gull selected a choice industrial area in Tacoma, near factories, warehouses, garbage-strewn empty lots, and abandoned railroad tracks.  Sweet!

I headed down last Tuesday, determined to tick Slaty (that is, check him off my list).  But despite scanning many rooftops full of sleeping gulls, trudging through fields of broken vodka bottles and Himalayan blackberries, and checking various water birds loafing in the industrial canal, there was no Slaty anywhere.  I had dipped (or ‘dipped out’) – the bird may have seen me, but I had not seen the bird.  Slaty-backed Gull was becoming a nemesis bird – one that I had tried, and failed, to see several times going back to at least 2008.

Not to be deterred, I went back two days later.  I decided what I needed was a bit of optimism, a strong dash of persistence, and a tiny dab of luck.  With some hard work, I was going to tick Slaty!

Three hours later, I was tired and thirsty.  And my feet hurt.  The afternoon rush hour was already started to clog I-5, and I cursed Slaty and all of his ancestors as I trudged back to the car.  I had identified a handful of other gull species, but no Slaty.  I thought I caught of glimpse of him flying overhead and disappearing behind a hill a half-mile away.  But when I trekked over there, I saw Glaucous-winged Gulls, Western Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls… but not Slaty.  Later, I thought I saw him on a rooftop, but just as I hurriedly set up my spotting scope to get a better look, he walked behind a group of other gulls and promptly disappeared.  When I trekked over to the rooftop to get a better look, the gulls waited until I was within 100 yards before exploding off of the roof, scattering far and wide.  I caught a flash of a very dark gull disappearing behind a mountain of recycled wood scraps a half-mile away.  This gull was starting to piss me off.

I made it back to my car to find two other birders just leaving.  “Did you see the gull?” one of them asked.  “No,” I responded glumly.  “Well, it’s right here!  We were watching it until just 30 seconds ago.  In fact, we’ve been watching it right here for over an hour!”  I jerked my head around, but from that angle I could only see a small part of the roof.  But was that the very edge of a very dark gull I saw just over the ledge?  I walked 15 steps up the hill to a better vantage point, and set up my scope.  That stupid bird had been waiting for me back at the car all this time?!  Scanning the roof I saw… nothing.  Well, not nothing.  I saw 14 Glaucous-winged Gulls, and 4 Glaucous-winged x Western Gull hybrids… but no Slaty.  The two guys got out of their car and came over.  “Where did it go??  It was just here!”

I was now getting that sinking feeling.  Dipping out is bad enough, but the lowest of the low is getting “gripped off.”  Dipping just means you missed seeing your twitch.  Getting gripped off means that you missed it, but someone else (everyone else?) saw it.  When twitching, it’s hard to feel more depressed than when you get gripped off.  “Well, it was standing right on the apex of the roof just a minute ago, walking around…” one of the other birders started.  “It must have just walked down on the far side of the roof…” the other one finished.  The far side of the roof that was only visible from inside an industrial lumber yard, surrounded by barbed wire and filled with beeping forklifts and idling 18-wheelers.

I thought about going home.  Or crying.  Or going home and then crying.  But I decided instead to GET THE BIRD.  So, to make a long story short, I met the manager of the lumber yard (an extremely nice man) who was just getting off work, had a brief tour of the lumber yard, and then got 10 minutes of quality time looking at Slaty through my spotting scope from the far side of the roof (while half-listening to how 1-inch softwood boards start as 5/4-inch boards before they are dried and cured).  By this time, it was too dark for good pictures, but I managed a “record shot” of Slaty on the roof:

You can even get a glimpse of the diagnostic field mark of an adult Slaty-backed Gull – the “string of pearls” on the primaries (or in non-birder talk, a series of white spots that are visible on the tips of the longest wing feathers – check out the black and white feathers from his right wing that are sticking over his back, just above his white tail region).

And that’s how I twitched a mega, dipped once, narrowly missed being epically gripped off, and ticked a nemesis bird.

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Taking a Chance Aboard the Monte Carlo

The next morning I got up early and headed to the Westport marina where I boarded the Monte Carlo.  This 50-foot vessel is used by Westport Seabirds to take birders 35 miles out into the Pacific Ocean to Grays Canyon, a deepwater feature on the edge of the continental shelf.  By 7am we were casting off and heading out to sea.  Fog enshrouded the vessel for a while, but we broke free into the sunlight a couple miles out and were treated to a day of nice weather and calm seas.

We soon came upon some birds of the open ocean, like Sooty Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-petrels, and Northern Fulmars.  These birds are members of the order Procellariiformes, pelagic birds that include petrels, albatrosses, and shearwaters.  They are sometimes called “tubenoses” because they all share extra tube-like openings just above their bills, as you can see on this Northern Fulmar.

These tubes lead to an olfactory-sensing organ, giving these seabirds a remarkably good sense of smell – useful for finding food out on the endless ocean. After a while we spotted our first Black-footed Albatrosses.  Black-foots considered “small” for albatrosses, but they still boast 7-foot wingspans.

In the distance, we spotted a fishing vessel, and our captain headed towards it.  Many pelagic species often follow fishing ships hoping to pick up scraps, and as we approached we saw Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, many albatrosses, fulmars, and a herd of California Gulls.

We threw out some fish scraps of our own, and were soon surrounded by tubenoses.  The albatrosses came right up to our boat.

On the way back, we spotted a number of new species, including Sabine’s Gull, South Polar Skua, and a jaeger.  Motoring back into the Westport harbor about 4pm, we passed a huge flock of Marbled Godwits roosting on the breakwater.

Although we didn’t spot any super-rarities, the excellent viewing conditions, calm seas, and mostly cooperative birds made for a very successful trip.  And best of all, we didn’t have engine trouble in the middle of the ocean, like my more adventurous SoCal pelagic trip back in July.

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Jetty Walking

It’s September, and shorebird migration is in full swing.  Sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, and godwits are winging their way south.  After spending the breeding season in the high Arctic tundra, these little guys are traveling south, some heading all the way to New Zealand!  If you want to catch them as they whiz by Washington state, the best place to be is the outer coast.  I recently headed west to Grays Harbor County for a couple days to see what I could dig up.

My first stop was the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds.  Nothing gets your blood pumping like the morning fog burning off above an azure lagoon of poopy water.  Awesome.  I tallied a number of good birds, including a couple of dozen Pectoral Sandpipers (like the one pictured below).

I also tracked down a Ruff, a rare Asian stray that ended up on the wrong side of the Pacific.

I love the sign posted here.  For MOST people, the “no trespassing” part would be completely superfluous, but serious bird watching need that extra encouragement to STAY OUT.

My next stop was Ocean Shores, specifically the Point Brown jetty at the southwest tip of the peninsula.  I timed my visit for the hour before low tide, because I wasn’t just going TO the jetty, I was going out ON the jetty – close to the end.  It was foggy, but I clamored up the rocks and started picking my way out to the tip, several hundred yards distant.

Many birds are habitat specialists.  Pectorals and Ruffs are perfectly content to walk around in shallow water through the mud and sand, but other species of shorebirds prefer the rocky coastline.  These “rockpipers” use their sharp bills to pry mussels, snails, and barnacles off the rocks while dodging the waves crashing around them.  If you want to see rockpipers, you need to visit the rocky shore habitat, and the Point Brown jetty is one of the most accessible areas of such habitat around.  Of course, “most accessible” is a relative term.  You still have to climb over huge boulders through the ocean spray and bird droppings, and make sure you are off the jetty before the tide rises.  At least one unfortunate birder was washed off the top of the jetty when caught unaware of the rising tide.

About halfway out, I began to catch glimpses of my target species through the fog and spray.

A group of Black Turnstones was milling around, catching a bite to eat and resting on the rocks.  Further out, I saw a Wandering Tattler and more Turnstones.

After about an hour, I was near the end of the jetty, surrounded by Turnstones, Tattlers, and the appropriately named Surfbirds, who were dancing in and out of the powerful waves crashing against the rocks.

At this point I decided to head back in, as low tide had passed and the water would begin rising soon.  I hit several other shorebird hotspots in the afternoon, finding a nice array of adult and juvenile sandpipers in all states of molt.  Most birds shed their feathers in the fall, growing new ones which sometimes show different colors and patterns than the ones they wore in the spring and summer.  The molting birds can take on quite interesting appearances.

I headed to bed early, because I knew what was in store for tomorrow: Monte Carlo!


Filed under Birding

Ptrying for Ptarmigan, Ptake Ptwo

Three days after my unsuccessful trip to Mt. Rainier to see White-tailed Ptarmigan, I noticed that someone posted on Tweeters (the Washington birding listserv) that she had seen ptarmigan along the same Mt. Fremont trail a few days after I was there.  It was obvious that the birds were still around, even though I missed them over Labor Day weekend.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the time for seeing these birds at all during my big year was growing seriously short.  I decided to try for them one more time, so yesterday I trekked 90 miles back to Sunrise for Round Two.

The day was again spectacularly beautiful.  I was surprised at how much snow had melted from around Frozen Lake in only six days.

I was also treated to great views of American Pika (not to be confused with Pica, that strange disorder in which people eat dirt, chalk, and rocks).  Pika are lagomorphs, which is to say that they are closely related to rabbits and hares.

This little guy was alternately collecting herbaceous goodies and storing them in his burrow, and sitting on a rock and chirping at me.

I also saw more goats on my trek up Mt. Fremont.  There are two herds which have been roaming the landscape near Sunrise this summer.

As I approached the Mt. Fremont lookout, I turned up the sensitivity on my ptarmigan scanner.  An hour passed, and no ptarmigan.  As I was beginning to lose hope of seeing this species, I thought that maybe I saw a ptarmigan-shaped rock down the ridge just past a little bend in the trail.  Was that really a ptarmigan, or just a rock?  It wasn’t moving.  I needed to get closer to tell for sure.

I stumbled down the trail, trying to keep an eye on that ptarmigan-shaped rock.  I was so intent on watching this rock that I didn’t immediately notice what was around that little bend in the trail.

“Goat!” I yelped, as I rounded the corner and came nearly face-to-face with a fully grown Mountain Goat.  While these fuzzy alpine denizens seem cute and cuddly, a mountain goat killed a man a couple years ago in Olympic National Park.  They can be aggressive and dangerous when provoked.  It’s best to keep one’s distance from them even when they are calm, to avoid habituating them to humans.  I saw that there were in fact quite a number of goats loafing here, including some kids born this spring.  I had found part of the second herd.

I gently eased my way back around the corner.  The goats went back to their snoozing.  But what about that ptarmigan?  I scanned the area, and saw this:

Can you spot the ptarmigan in the photo above?  It’s dang hard to see!  Eventually, it stood up for a moment, and I got good looks at an adult female White-tailed Ptarmigan.  They are usually quite tame, but I couldn’t get any closer because the goats were between me and the ptarmigan.  Here’s my best long-range photo, zoomed and cropped:

After 20 minutes of watching her, I headed for home.  The moon was rising over the ridge as I descended.  It was a good day.


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.




Filed under Birding