[Tweeters] Vantage Loop-15 April
steppie at nwinfo.net
Tue Apr 18 16:57:43 PDT 2006
Ellen and I led a class sponsored by the Seattle Audubon Society fieldtrip
to the western Columbia Basin. Our objective was to introduce the class to
shrub-steppe plant and bird communities. Our first challenge today was to
get to the Columbia Basin. The weather forecast called for five to seven
inches of snow over Snoqualmie Pass! Though it had snowed overnight, the
roadway was mostly bare and wet as we drove over. Whew!
Our first stop was on the Old Vantage Highway east of Kittitas. Here, the
"Big Sagebrush/Bluebunch Wheatgrass" community meets rocky, thin-soiled
"lithosol habitat." Because it was cold and breezy, the morning chorus was
very subdued. Though a challenge, with effort, we had reasonable views of
Sage Thrashers, and Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows. But, where were the Sage
Sparrows? Though birds were keeping quiet, the shrub-steppe was a riot of
color so the early bloom drew our attention. We admired Sagebrush Violets
and Buttercups, Hooker's Balsamroot, Yellow Bells, and two Lomatiums: Canby's
and Gray's Biscuitroots.
Continuing down the Old Vantage Highway, we peered into the basalt crevices
at eye level to stare at a Great Horned Owl, seeming to be brooding young.
On the cliffs, a Say's Phoebe called its plaintive song. Across the highway,
we admired another Lomatium, the tall and vigorous Dissected Biscuitroot.
Still, no Sage Sparrow sang, so we returned uphill to the Quilomene Wildlife
Area. With another bit of effort, all had good looks at this smart denizen
of the more open shrub-steppe, a habitat with less in the way of perennial
grasses than preferred by Sage Thrasher and Brewer's Sparrows.
Down to the Columbia at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, the weather
briefly improved; the sun actually shined for a brief spell. Poking about
the trees at the interpretive museum we found Townsend's Solitaire and
Yellow-rumped Warblers, while on Wanapum Lake, we scoped a few Horned
Grebes, a raft of Greater Scaup, several Bonaparte's Gulls, and two Caspian
South of Vantage we headed along Huntzinger Road. Cool and blustery weather
returned, keeping insect-eating birds close to the water. We watched several
White-throated Swifts rocket by, as well Violet-green and Cliff Swallows
hawked. Below us, on islands in the Columbia we had brief looks at three
American White Pelicans before they flew off. The "Cliff and Talus
Community" at Sentinel Gap, which are usually a good bet for Golden Eagle,
Prairie Falcon, Chukar, and Rock and Canyon Wrens, were a total bust! I can't
recall striking out on all five of these cliff and talus dwellers.
Across the Columbia River south, we headed east along Crab Creek, making a
few stops to study the "Greasewood and Saltgrass Community," in hopes of
finding Loggerhead Shrike. Large-seeded Biscuitroot, yet another Lomatium,
caught our attention. I dug the root out and shared the importance of these
carbohydrate-rich roots in the Native American diet. We didn't linger long
here, as an ominous squall appeared to be closing in on us from the west, so
we pressed on eastwards.
Our final stop was along SR-26 at the "County Line Ponds," at the
Grant/Adams County line. These saline ponds in an alkaline depression were
full of birds. Northern Pintails were the most numerous species; hundreds
dotted the ponds. Other waterfowl included Greater White-fronted and Canada
Geese, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and Redhead. Showy shorebirds
such as Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Dunlin waded in the
shallows. A couple Yellow-headed Blackbirds were also a treat. The finale
was when scattered flocks of Sandhill Cranes (about 50 in all) flew low over
us, bugling as they charged north!
Andy and Ellen Stepniewski
steppie at nwinfo.net
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