[Tweeters] Two Long Crazy Days - East and South

B B birder4184 at yahoo.com
Fri Mar 17 22:25:25 PDT 2017

I had a complete clear calendar for two days and wanted to check out the Shrub Steppe birds and look for Sandhill Cranes among other birds.  Things got a bit out of hand as I could not find any cranes in the Othello area and decided to try Ridgefield and the Woodland Bottoms,  Since I had no set agenda, I also added some birding in Klickitat and Skamania Counties - covering ground familiar and new.  Weather was excellent yesterday except that it was VERY windy along Old Vantage Highway which may or may not be the reason that there were almost no birds there anywhere.  Today the weather was mostly miserable after 10 a.m. - lots of rain and horrible traffic on I-5 coming home.  There is still lots of snow in the mountains and in Cle Elum but otherwise there was no other snow and none falling.  For the two days, I saw just under 90 species including lots of new ones for the year, ending with a very early Rough Winged Swallow in heavy rain at Nisqually NWR.  I had not started out to see a big list and am sure that with some effort, luck and planning, 110 species or more would have been possible.
Some highlights (and low lights):  Pygmy, Red Breasted and White Breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees at the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum.  Cassin's Finches at the old RR station in South Cle Elum.  Numerous Mountain and Western Bluebirds along Umptanum Road (which is very muddy and lots of water on the road).  There were also numerous Say's Phoebes (there and many other places) but NO sparrows of any kind on Durr Road.  California Scrubjay in Ellensburg. NO birds to speak of at all at many stops along Old Vantage Highway.  I had expected Sagebrush Sparrows for sure and hoped for Vesper Sparrow, Sage Thrasher and Loggerhead Shrike which I have had there by this date in years past.  I saw two other birders who had the same NO Birds experience.  I missed Canyon Wren at my usually reliable spot on Huntzinger Road but did have a Rock Wren there.  My travels to Moses Lake did not produce a Ross's Goose or anything of note.  And no Sandhill Cranes anywhere near Othello or along Frenchman's Road etc.  Failing to find a crane, I decided to extend the trip (I was snot sure I would do so when I started out) and go to Ridgefield the next day, so I headed southwest with a trip to Fort Simcoe to end the day.  Fort Simcoe is closed, but you can walk in.  As always there are MANY Lewis's Woodpeckers to put on a great show.  I spent the night in Goldendale.
Although I had certainly not planned to do so, when I saw that Russ Koppendreyer had a Bonaparte's Gull at some place called Roosevelt Ferry Road in Eastern Klickitat County, I decided to check out some new territory.  I keep track of birds by County but am not a County lister per se, so the Gull was not that important, just nice to try a new spot.  I had not realized how far in the opposite direction of my original plan it was.  I did not find the gulls, but it proved an interesting place I lucked into a Lesser Goldfinch singing from a wire.  I had originally thought I might go to Lyle if I spent two days, so that was the next visit - much longer than had I not gone so far east.  Along the way at one of the small parks (forgot to note the name but it was near Eightmile Creek, I saw a few swallows that at first I thought might be Cliff Swallows.  When I stopped for a close look they were just more Violet Green Swallows (I saw many hundreds all told on the trip), but the stop was near cliffs and I figured why not play the Canyon Wren's beautiful song and I got an immediate response (but distant).  Lyle was disappointing, even though I managed to find a single Acorn Woodpecker, and concerning.  It seems to be getting more and more difficult to find Acorn Woodpeckers there and there also seems to be an increase in the numbers of Lewis's Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers.  This may just be my experience and there may be no correlation, but I hope this is just my poor birding and not a serious decline.
I continued along Highway 14 through Skamania County.  I have only been there once in the past - when the Hooded Warbler was on the Cape Horn Trail in 2013.  Nothing exciting, but when your county list is 15 species, it is easy to add some new ones.  It had started to rain when I was in Lyle and the volume picked up steadily such that by the time I got to Ridgefield it was pretty heavy.  I was hoping for Wilson's Snipe, Red Shouldered Hawk and Sandhill Crane.  The refuge was very wet, with no mud to speak of and most fields heavily flooded.  This was great for ducks and geese but I could find no Snipe and no Cranes.  I was fortunate to get a very distant view of the Red Shouldered Hawk but too far for a photo - especially as it rained very hard at that time.  The surprise was a pair of Cinnamon Teal very close to the start of the Auto tour on the River S Unit.  There were hundreds of Tree and Violet Green Swallows, Cackling Geese, Shovelers and. American Coots  Now desperate for a Sandhill Crane, I went north to the Woodlands Bottoms - an area I was not familiar with but know there have been cranes there.  As I was headed to a pin spot from Ebird where cranes were reported I was speeding by a field and almost missed a flock of maybe 50 Sandhill Cranes.  They were very photogenic and close to the road.  When I returned 10 minutes later, they were all hidden in some new plantings (berries or grapes??) and I would have missed them entirely.  I did find three more flocks of Sandhill Cranes in the area - probably 300+ altogether.
It was now much later than I had planned so I expected some traffic returning to Edmonds - but NOTHING like what I hit about 10 miles south of Olympia.  It was pouring and a sign on the highway said there was a major backup between Lacey and JBLM.  Its effect was clearly much greater so despite the rain, I decided to stop at Nisqually and wait it out.  Very tough conditions but a big surprise was a single Rough Winged Swallow among dozens of Violet Green Swallows at the Fresh Water pond along the board walk. I had hoped for a Bittern or a Snipe but no luck with them.  The Rough Winged Swallow was 9 days earlier than I have ever had one before.  It was now past 5:30 and the traffic was so bad that it did not look possible to even get onto I-5.  I delayed with a not too good meal at one of the restaurants near the on ramp and killed another hour.  At 6:30, it was still jammed but having nothing else to do, I joined the mess and fortunately in about 10 miles, it (the traffic but certainly not the weather) cleared and I made it home much quicker than expected.
It was a fun trip with some good birds and some disappointing misses.  Sagebrush Sparrow is a favorite and missing that was my biggest miss.  Others have seen them easily so I think the wind may indeed have been the culprit.  Guess I will have to return.  Some cautionary notes - the snow in Cle Elum around Bullfrog Pond for example is very deep and significantly curtails birding there (and also in South Cle Elum).  There is significant water in fields, rivers, creeks and ponds - probably better for waterfowl than birders and with the deluge today (and more expected tomorrow), watch out for floods.  I also expect avalanche and rock fall conditions to affect travel on the passes and on some other roads.  Be careful...

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