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Summer Birding Part III

Sagebrush and Shrub-steppe Country

Summer Birding Part III: Sagebrush and Shrub-steppe Country                   Andy McCormick

Note: For more summer birding ideas check back issues of The Corvid Crier for “Summer Birding: Go Up and Go East” in the July 2014 issue, and “Summer Birding II: The Snoqualmie Valley” in the June 2016 issue.

Audubon Washington is conducting a multi-year study of the shrub-steppe ecosystem in Central and Eastern Washington to determine the status of this threatened habitat and the birds that breed there. Volunteers from several Washington State Audubon chapters, including Eastside Audubon, are surveying sites with a focus on three sagebrush obligate species: Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Sage Thrasher. Also included in the observations are several other species that use sagebrush, but can breed in other habitats. These are: Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow. These and other birds of the shrub-steppe are fun to watch and can be reached from Eastside Audubon area in a two-hour drive.

Probably the most accessible shrub-steppe area is along the Vantage Highway in Kittitas County, which can be reached driving east on University Avenue from Ellensburg. Alternatively, drive east on I-90 to Exit 115 in Kittitas and drive north through town along Number 81 Road and turn right on the Vantage Highway. In four miles you can turn right on Parke Creek Road  to look for Wilson’s Snipe and Yellow-headed Blackbird around a small pond about one mile down the road.

About 1.5 miles east of Parke Creek Road, Vantage Highway leaves the farmed land and enters unfarmed shrub-steppe habitat. Watch for Burrowing Owls along this stretch of road. After a few miles the road will crest and about 1.8 miles east of the crest is the entrance to Quilomene Wildlife Area, First Entrance. Walk a short distance west and follow the dirt road for about a quarter of a mile and you will find Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher. Sagebrush Sparrow is more difficult to find in this area.

In another 1.7 miles east you’ll arrive at Quilomene Wildlife Area, Second Entrance. You have to watch for these two entrances, because the signs are old and the entrances are a bit narrow. There are usually more Sagebrush Sparrows at this second entrance. Mountain Bluebirds may also be present. In fall and winter Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Northern Shrikes can be seen.

About two miles farther east you’ll arrive at the Ginko Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail, a good spot for Cassin’s Finch, and also look for Black-throated Sparrows in summer. In another 1.7 miles turn left on Recreation Drive and follow it to the end of the road to bird the willows and check the Columbia River for ducks and grebes. When returning from the river’s edge take the left turn to follow the winding road up to the Ginko Petrified Forest State Park Interpretive Museum and the overlook to scan the Columbia River. Look for White-throated Swift, Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wrens, and Greater Scaup in the river. Be sure to take a few minutes to look for birds in the picnic area. Warblers have been seen here with some regularity.

You have a couple of options from Vantage. Taking the first option you will stay in Kittitas County and drive south along Huntzinger Road. This route allows a visit to Wanapum State Park Campground. Additional stops can be made along the road just below Wanapum Dam, and at a rock cut about a half mile below the Huntzinger boat launch area.

In the second option, you can continue east into Grant County. Take I-90 to Exit 143 Silica Road and take a left at the first intersection onto Vantage Road SW and look for White-throated Swifts as you drive into Frenchman Coulee. Say’s Phoebe and Rock Wren are common here. You can also try for Canyon Wren, although I have never found one here.

Go east young men and women, and see some great birds!

Information for this itinerary has been taken from A Birder’s Guide to Washington, Second Edition, Jane Hadley, Ed. (2015). Delaware City, DE: American Birding Association, pp. 281-286, 350.

Sage Thrasher by Mick Thompson

Photo: Sage Thrasher, by Mick Thompson.

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The mission of Eastside Audubon is to protect, preserve and enhance natural ecosystems and our communities for the benefit of birds, other wildlife and people.