[Tweeters] WOS fieldtrip to the Yakima Training Center-22 April

Andy Stepniewski steppie at nwinfo.net
Wed Apr 25 08:17:21 PDT 2018


Tweeters and Yakkers,



Fifteen Washington Ornithological Society members met in the very chilly predawn at 5 am in Selah to meet Colin Leingang, Wildlife Program Manager for the Yakima Training Center (YTC). Though cold, there was only a light breeze. The forecast for light winds held for the day and it was pleasantly warm in the afternoon sun, the makings for a nice day out in Washington's single biggest chunk of shrub-steppe habitat. Our check-in to the military base was straightforward and soon we were on our way east. Colin offered an opportunity to view one of three known leks of Greater Sage-Grouse on the installation. I mentioned this to the group and, without any delay, we headed towards that site without any stops. A couple Short-eared Owls flopped over the bunchgrass-mantled slopes, but still we pressed on east to the lek, hoping to see the action before the grouse dispersed. Along the way, we passed Taylor Pond, set in a sort of a basin and the temperature reading in one of our cars read 24 0 F! It was only slightly warmer at the lek site when we stopped and I, wasn't the only one wishing I had brought more layers. It took us a few minutes to find the grouse as they'd evidently finished displaying. We did find five male grouse half-hidden in the grass and sagebrush and eventually these moved more into the open to allow a scope views of this iconic, though sadly vanishing symbol of the Great Basin shrub-steppe! Other birds here included Sage Thrashers performing their elegant courtship flights undulating through and over the sagelands. Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks were singing all around, too. Migrant White-crowned Sparrows were everywhere, indeed probably the most numerous bird we encountered on this trip. Wow, what a great start!



We then headed over the Selah/Cold Creek divide and towards "East Gate," where we walked in an area of what DNR ecologist Tex Crawford has called "the closest parcel to "historic shrub-steppe we have remaining in Washington." I conveyed a little about shrub-steppe ecology with notes on the Big Sagebrush and the conspicuous Bluebunch Wheatgrass, as well the pristine biologic crust. Easy to see here was Nine-leaved Desert Parsley (Lomatium triternatum), one of the 10 or so species of biscuitroots on YTC. The roots of these plants were important to the Native Americans, especially for a winter carbohydrate source. Sagebrush Sparrows sang, but oddly other members of the shrub-steppe bird cast usually singing their heads off here had gone quiet.



Heading back west up Cold Creek, the riparian drainage was lined with Water Birch and Black Cottonwoods just beginning to bud. We peered into a Red-tailed Hawk nest with three young. Overhead, one of the adults chased off a marauding Common Raven. Just above the road the grass that had been burned in a fire last summer was showing new bright green growth. Here we had great views of Chukars walking up the slope.



Westward over the Selah/Cold Creek divide, we took a nice walk at Greely Pond where Swainson's Hawks soared beautifully overhead, and Red-tailed Hawks complained loudly. We had but brief views of a Great Horned Owl. By now it had warmed into the 40s and migrants were getting more active. Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers were the most conspicuous warblers, but several Orange-crowns and a Nashville were also flitting about the leafless cottonwoods. Several Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets sang.



Still continuing west, the high clouds present at dawn had drifted away, giving us splendid views of Mt. Rainier. At Taylor Pond, we stopped for another walk. Bufflehead and American Coots were the only obvious waterbirds. In the willow thickets we discovered a Long-eared Owl nest with five eggs. The group had views of these owls perched for a moment. Overhead, Northern Harriers and Swainson's Hawks soared.



Not far away, we stopped for a large soaring bird and, after a moments deliberation, settled on Golden Eagle, always a stirring sight. It was being harassed by a raven, giving us good comparison between the two. Going past a military lookout, we noted a Great Horned Owl on its nest atop of a big air conditioning unit.



Descending the Selah Creek drainage, we detoured north to a brushy-lined tributary of the creek and took another walk. Most interesting was a small falcon, brown-backed bird I initially called a Prairie, but soon became confused because it appeared too small and pointy-winged. I didn't notice the tail barings but others in the group did which would indicate a Richardson's Merlin, the pale prairie subspecies. Photos were not obtained. As this is quite a rare bird in the Columbia Basin and the latter part of April would seem late for its occurrence here, we decided to leave it as "falcon sp." In the warm sunshine, Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted in the willows and we had great views of two more Nashville Warblers, which were brilliant reminders of just how exquisite warblers are in their spring finery! On the rocky slopes a Say's Phoebe called its plaintive note.



Heading towards the west entrance, we stopped for two Loggerhead Shrikes perched on power line wires, dropping to the ground, presumably for insects. This was the final typical shrub-steppe species we expected to encounter.



Our final stop on YTC stop was to the cliff edge overlooking lower Selah Creek near Pushtay Peak, a site of great significance to the native Yakamas. On this short walk, we crossed an ecotone between deeper soiled Big Sagebrush abruptly into shallow-soiled "lithosols." Rigid Sagebrush replaced Big Sagebrush and here Horned Larks posed atop these gnarled "Bonsai Sage." From the edge of the very scenic cliffs, Violet-green Swallows twittered about, seeming to enter crevices in the basalt. By and by, a Prairie Falcon screamed and flew behind a buttress into a probable nest site in basalt cliff. Below, over the cheatgrass slopes, two Turkey Vultures skimmed low over the slopes, our final addition to our "raptor" list (six diurnal species and three owls) for the day. On the cliffs, we briefly heard the lovely ringing chant of a Canyon Wren. Heading back to the main road, another Short-eared Owl flew lazily over the shrub-steppe, a truly wonderful ending to a superb day.



Wow, what a great day out on the YTC! Our sincere thanks to Colin, who also gave us all some nice, illustrated YTC bird checklists and Partners in Flight information sheet.



After saying goodbye and thanks to Colin, we continued into my favorite perch in the Yakima Canyon, where I advertised nesting Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and Great Horned Owl. Well, the birds must have been off on hunting expeditions because only kestrels showed. We did add White-throated Swifts to our trip list, "jee...jee...jeeing" as they rocketed about the high cliffs. Even though the raptors were away, it was a beautiful stop. We thrilled at watching a band of Bighorn Sheep as they clambered about the rocky chutes on the cliffs and soon we were witness to a dramatic "wildlife moment" when several large boulders, I judged three feet long, started ricocheting down the talus slope. A ewe bighorn and her lamb dashed this way and that, narrowly missing being crushed by the huge rocks. I think we were all rooting for the sheep and were most relieved when they made it out of harms way. A memorable end to a fabulous day!



Andy Stepniewski

Yakima WA

steppie at nwinfo.net


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