Birding the Northwest (Part II): Owls, grouse, and more

Tuesday 03/13/2012

Northwestern Crow Vancouver Island British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a full day on Vancouver Island we had another ferry ride in front of us and another half day in Canada. We woke up early and waited in line for nearly two hours before the Tsawassen ferry started moving. Prepared with Dramamine and Ginger Ale we shouldn’t have bothered. Today the waters were smooth as cut glass, stretching like a gray sheet under a heavy sky. The ship passed small island covered in heavy conifer and rugged shorelines of gray granite. Scores on Brandt’s Cormorants took to the wing as we moved through a narrow passage into more open waters towards the mainland.

ferry from Vancouver Island to Tsawassen, Photo Stephan Lorenz

The great weather continued all the way and further out we caught a glimpse of a pair on marbled Murrelets hurtling away among a few Common Murres. The rest of the trip was quiet. Back on the mainland we wasted no time and drove straight to Reifel Bird Sanctuary where a huge flock of tame Mallards swarmed us for a handout.

that's what I call birding Reifel Bird Sanctuary British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We checked in at the Visitor Center where we received the bad news, no Northern Saw-whet Owls had been seen reliably. Apparently it was a bad year for the species at the sanctuary. Undeterred we carried on and saw plenty of other birds, but not a single owl besides many pellets found and every branch scanned.

Fox "Sooty" Sparrow Reifel Bird Sanctuary British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Golden-crowned Sparrow Reifel Bird Sanctuary British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Sparrows and towhees were plentiful around the feeders and even Wood Ducks came in for a snack. We watched the parade of waterfowl and found a few birds new for the trip, including our only Marsh and Bewick’s Wrens. After three hours at the sanctuary we couldn’t wait any longer and headed to Boundary Bay for what was going to the a highlight of the trip. Here we caught the tail-end of the Snowy Owl invasion, with up to 11 birds visible at once. We stayed for several hours watching the birds mostly resting and flying occasionally. A single Short-eared Owl also put in an appearance and I even manged to spot another Eurasian Wigeon in a group of American feeding on a distant lawn.

Snowy Owl Boundary Bay British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Snowy Owls Boundary Bay British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was time to head back to the states and eastern Washington. After crossing the Cascade Mountains after dark and through avalanche danger along a slushy road we pulled into a motel in Ellensburg completely wiped out.

Wednesday 03/14/2012

When I stopped outside the cold air hit me like a slap, while walking to the office to grab some coffee I saw the first Black-billed Magpie of the trip across a pond. We had definitely arrived in eastern Washington and our main gold for the day was Gray Partridge, an introduced species that fares well in the agricultural areas in the state.

We drove north towards Mansfield and quickly realized the task at hand was going to be difficult. Fields and grassy plains stretched for miles and miles in all directions. Our first stop in Mansfield at a grain elevator brought no success, but we came across some California Quail. It stared to snow heavily, but coming around a bend I saw to quail-shaped birds hurtles across a field and land within sight. A quick look through the binoculars revealed possible partridge. With no shoulder we turned around and parked at the next intersection and rushed back with the scope shouldered. Nothing, we trudged into the field and suddenly the birds flushed a quiet a distance and flew across a hill out of sight. Close, but no luck.

Gray Partridge habitat eastern Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We drove along deserted county lanes, pushing through gravel and puddles, occasionally getting out. There were nearly no birds, except for the flocks of Horned Larks and our first Rough-legged Hawk of the trip. At an especially abandoned looking spot, near an old grain storage we walked into the grass and there they were. A pair of Gray Partridge flushed close and we got decent views. Tim manged to flush a single bird again for another glimpse. Happy to have the bird on the list (my 3rd lifer of the trip) we continued in hopes of getting better views at another spot. Near an abandoned house we managed to flush another pair and the male flew a short semi-circle around us for outstanding views.

Rough-legged Hawk Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We left the stubble field and headed for the higher sage country. A winding gravel road lead through undulating plains of sage, grass, and scattered volcanic rock formations. Near sunset we came over a hill and I spotted something white further down the road. Ignoring it at first I became suspicious when it seemed to move. I pressed the brakes and yelled at Time to get his bins up. There were four Greater Sage Grouse standing by the side of the road, all males. We studied the birds for nearly fifteen minutes before they lifted on heavy wings and flew out of sight.

Greater Sage Grouse eastern Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

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