[Tweeters] Vantage Loop-15 April

Andy Stepniewski steppie at nwinfo.net
Tue Apr 18 16:57:43 PDT 2006

Hi Tweeters,

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

Wapato WA

steppie at nwinfo.net

More information about the Tweeters mailing list