Northwest Birding Part III: No Grouse, but an Owl

Thursday 03/15/2012

After our success the previous day we drove relatively late into the night to reach our next destination, Scotch Creek WMA near Okanogan, to be ready the next morning for the next grouse. When we arrived it was dark out there with lots of snow on the ground. We pitched the tent, put on all out clothes and settled in for a long night. The following morning I found grouse tracks in the snow near the tent, had we missed them in the dawn hour, walking about our encampment? A few hundred yards up Happy Hill Rd., the spot for Sharp-tailed Grouse, the car started sliding backwards, we were definitely not going anywhere. We tried our luck back near the headquarters hiking through the snow a bit, seeing the first Say’s Phoebe of the trip.

the long empty road eastern Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Behind one of the storage building I saw two grouse flush near the top of a hill and disappear over the ridge. I felt pretty sure they were Sharp-tailed and we climbed the slope in pursuit. Doubling back, Tim had another brief view of a bird in flight, when two birds flushed close to me. These we not Sharp-tailed Grouse, but possible Gray Partridge or Chukar. Two pairs of two different species? We left the confusion and headed back to Okanogan for hot coffee, some food, and dried our soaked shoes with the car heater.

By the time we reached Bridgeport S.P. the weather had improved considerably and it was warm and dry for the first time on the trip. Even though the park was officially closed the ranger graciously allowed us access for a chance to check for owls. The camp host buoyed our spirits when he said he had heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl recently. We checked every tree, found lots of owl pellets, heard a Great-horned Owl, and saw a flock of 40 Mountain Bluebirds, but no luck on the tiny owl. We decided to come back after sunset, checked with the ranger and host and headed back to the car for lunch. With about six hours to spare we figured to give the grouse another chance.

The snow had melted on Happy Hill Rd. and we drove as far as we could. There were almost no birds in the hills, except a showy Rough-legged Hawk, and of course no grouse. The road turned muddy and we didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, thus we began the slow trip back to Bridgeport, only after stopping for the fourth time at the apparently only gas station in Okanogan for another greasy, lukewarm treat. We arrived well before sunset and dawdled until dusk. I sat down on a picnic bench in the grove of fir trees, while Tim explored along a maintenance road within view. As he was walking towards me I heard the unmistakable, repetitive toot of a Saw-whet Owl. I figured Tim was whistling and we thoroughly impressed by the imitation, when I realized he was quiet, I jumped up and started walking towards him quickly. Yes, the toot came from the era he had just left. We were both stunned, it wasn’t even dark yet. Within minutes we had a Northern Saw-whet Owl perched at less than five feet away, out in the open, no light required. We followed the bird and watched in call, turning its head slowly. After dark it flow into a hollow in a large dead willow and continued calling for fifteen minutes as we studied it closely. Success with the amazing owl at last, my 4th lifer of the trip.

finally a Northern Saw-whet Owl, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We continued driving until I almost collapsed in the seat, I was the driver! We got lucky by catching a nice campground at the Colombia River NWR and after throwing up the tent in the chill air slept like logs.

Friday 03/16/2012

Today we planned to drive all the way back to Corvalis, Oregon. At dawn I heard hundreds of Sandhill Cranes calling overhead, but I never stuck my head out of the tent and I never managed to see one. By the time we had packed up most birds had quieted, but we still stopped many times to scan the ponds and lakes and bird the shrub. A large flock of Trumpeter Swans and mixed duck flocks kept us busy. Near a cliff many Violet-green Swallows flew about and sat on rocks and the only Cliff Swallow of the trip was mixed in.

Lesser Scaup Reifel Bird Sanctuary British Colombia, Photo Stephan Lorenz

We kept a pretty steady course along the scenic Colombia River Gorge, stopping only at a life-sized replica of Stonehenge and Steigerwald NWR, where we added a few birds. The first Yellow-rumped Warblers of the trip and plus the only two herps in the form of chorus frog and long-toed salamander.

Long-toed Salamander Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Further down the trail we saw a muskrat feeding on shoots and were able to get some good pictures. An opossum along the wetland rounded out the mammal list.

Muskrat Steigerwald NWR Washington, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Saturday 03/17/2012

After a night of pizza and chicken wings I had a tough time getting out of bed, but I had welcomed the comfortable and warm night on Tim and Andree’s couch in Corvalis. We had arrived in the late evening. We started as early as possible to check a nearby park for Sooty Grouse. Bird activity was slow, but we added Hutton’s Vireo and Steller’s Jay. We gave up on the grouse and drove thirty minutes in hopes to catch a Gyrfalcon that had been reported recently. Luck was on our side and it was sitting on its usual perch.

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