Saturday 27 June 2015

Washington State - Day 5

Day 5 – The Entiat Mountains - Swakane Canyon, Camas Creek, Peshastin Creek

Yellow-breasted Chat

Another monstrously early start saw me at the foot of a huge cliff next to the Columbia River waiting for the sun to warm it up. As it did so the canyon awoke, with the amazing and varied sounds of Yellow-breasted Chat, singing Lazuli Bunting, Say's Phoebe and high above, White-throated Swifts wheeling through the air. Violet-green Swallows were found lower down, and family parties of Black-billed Magpies worked their way noisily through the base of the canyon. I had a feeling that this was going to be a good day - the Lazuli Bunting perched right up for superb scope views. 

Lazuli Bunting
California Quail
I moved further up the canyon after I had my fill here, encountering loads of California Quail on the road, and my first Bullock's Oriole of the trip. The canyon widens out as you ascend, with some decent meadows that held quite a few sparrows, including Lark Sparrow which I got some excellent views of. Lazuli Buntings continued to be common, as were Yellow-breasted Chats, and I saw my first American Kestrels. I stopped to chat to a friendly local who was up collecting spent cartridges left over from the frequent bouts of firing guns for no reason, and picked up Chukar Partridge (introduced) as well as a pair of soaring Golden Eagles. This place was all I had read.

Lark Sparrow

male Bullock's Oriole

female Bullock's Oriole

Oriole nest

After I had left the meadows behind and moved into Aspen habitat with stands of pine, so the birds changed. Now instead were both Nashville Warbler and MacGillivray's Warbler, the latter proving very difficult to get a view of to confirm the eye-ring, but eventually succumbing to much plaintive pishing. Cassin's and Purple Finches were here too, sometimes feeding on the track with Pine Siskin, Black-headed Grosbeak. In one of the stands a flash of black and white caught my eye, a much-wanted trip bird - White-headed Woodpecker, a pretty eye-catching bird that gave great but brief views out of the car window. Note that as the track goes further up it deteriorates quite a lot, and I was glad of my large SUV in more than a few places, especially the creek you have to ford!

Western Wood-pewee

female Cassin's Finch
Calliope Hummingbird
Beyond this ford you're more into pine habitat with a bit of mixed understorey, and the chattering and singing of the Chickadees of all three species was heard here, with decent views of all but Mountain which remained higher up the slopes. Bird life however was forgotten as I came across a snake crossing the road - a snake with a rather distinctive tail.... Awesome, and a complete surprise, I had no idea Rattlesnakes lived here, and from this point in I was a lot more cautious away from the track. This one was a pretty big one at a shade over three feet long, distinctly green-coloured along the back and very beautiful, and had now stopped in the middle of the road, perhaps to pick up some heat. Naturally I observed it only from the car. Hah, did I hell! This was something I really wanted a photo of so I very cautiously stepped out, lay flat on the ground, and started a slow shuffle forwards. The snake didn't move, didn't curl up, didn't rattle - all good signs! Not sure quite how close I approached, but it was a very exciting moment that seemed to last a long time, and was up there with the Orcas. As I lay there with my lens outstretched the snake carried on its way, slipping silently into the brush and disappearing.

I had now reached almost the top of the canyon and it was lunchtime. I didn't have any lunch and was out of water, so I quickly drove over the top and back down Nahahum Road, which is paved and leads down to Cashmere which is on the I-97 and close to Leavenworth. After a pit stop I retraced my steps from yesterday south along the I-97 back towards Ellensburg, turning off east at Camas Creek Road. Once past the small number of houses I was once again in terrific birding habitat, and picked up a flock of Evening Grosbeaks feeding on the roadside, and a very vocal Red-breasted Nuthatch. Further on up I found another prized bird, Williamson's Sapsucker, feeding on what must have been a regular tree. Both the male and female came into this tree repeatedly, so a nesthole must have been nearby. The bare bark area was unfortunately quite high up, so whilst the views were brilliant the angle didn't work for the kind of photo I wanted.

Williamson's Sapsucker, a real western specialty

I worked my way back down this road and then birded Peshastin Creek which follows the main road back down towards Leavenworth. Being a Friday afternoon, it was very busy with tons of city dwellers heading into the hills for a weekend of the great outdoors, but I nonetheless enjoyed excellent views of a female Harlequin with six ducklings, a Spotted Sandpiper working the stream edge, and another target bird, American Dipper. This latter bird I must have scoped for a good half an hour, and at one point it miscalculated and slipped off the rock in surprise, only to emerge with a juicy larva. 

Spotted Towhee

Swakane canyon had been so good during the morning that I gave it another go later afternoon, hoping that I might get some photos as the heat declined. This didn't really work, but I picked up some new birds as I ascended the canyon, including Western Kingbird and Cassin's Vireo. I also finally heard Canyon Wren singing away, but although I pinned it down to what I felt must be a relatively small area of rocky scrub, I simply couldn't see it. All in all a wonderful day, topped off with a surf and turf dinner in Wenatchee, my base for the night.

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