July 14, 2015 by Rokman61
My first few days of the month were spent in the State of Washington, as a participant on a guided birding tour arranged by the BCFO (BC Field Ornithologists). Our group of 17 birders from BC included participants of all skill levels – from rank beginners to some of the most prominent birders in the Province (I fit somewhere in-between). To lead the tour we were fortunate in being able to engage Charlie Wright, a Washington birder who at mid-twenties of age has already established himself as one of the most skilled and respected birders in the State. As it turned out, his charm and people skills match his birding prowess.
Birders go to Eastern Washington to see dry-land birds that we don’t encounter often or even ever back in BC. An extra attraction there is the geologic setting and history. I’ll discuss that very briefly first – those not interested can skip to the birds.
Geologic features of Eastern Washington
This area is geologically renowned world-wide as a scenic and interesting terrain. There are three components of the geology that make it so (underlined words are links for anyone interested in learning more).
1) The bedrock over a very large expanse comprises numerous horizontal layers of volcanic rock, in places several kilometres thick, known as the Columbia River Basalts. When such rock layers cool and shrink, they crack along vertical surfaces and produce column-like forms as evident in this photo. These ubiquitous columns result in many vertical walls along eroded valley margins, imparting a very distinctive style to the scenery over much of the region – as evident in photos to follow below.
2) The basalt bedrock is locally covered by deposits of wind-blown silt – the Palouse Loess. Where present, the loess provides some of the most productive crop-lands of America – wheat, peas and lentils, sugar beets, and the all-important barley and hops.
3) In the waning stages of the last glaciation, there were vast meltwater lakes formed to the east in Montana. The ice-dams that held the lakes failed many times and let loose enormous torrents known as the Missoula Floods, the biggest ever documented. The floods scoured out the terrain in their path, removing the loess and eroding channels through the columnar basalts – the resulting landscape is known as the Channeled Scablands. Several of the major scenic attractions of the State are features that were created when the floods modified the pre-existing landscape. A few examples follow. Palouse Falls This picturesque beauty on the Palouse River is the official Washington State Waterfall. A view of Palouse Canyon looking downstream from the Falls. The position of the actual waterfall has migrated upstream, carving the canyon as it goes. In this closer view, note the clean polished rock on the right side just above the lip of the Falls, indicating that water flow is much greater at certain seasons. The drop here is almost exactly 200 feet. This interesting cluster of sculpted columns sits above to the left of the lip of the Falls – visible in the wide-view image above. Perhaps of interest, BC has two quite well-known falls that reflect the same situation as we see here at Palouse, namely a stream flowing over the edge of a cliff of columnar basalts. They are Brandywine Falls north of Vancouver, height 230 feet, and Helmcken Falls in the south-central Interior, height 463 feet.
Dry Falls This long vertical escarpment was an enormous waterfall, active only during the numerous brief flooding events. It is thought to have been five times wider than Niagara Falls and more that twice the height – perhaps the greatest waterfall ever documented. The vista in the photo is so wide I had to merge two wide-angle images to get this much in. Like all such falls, it migrates upstream, leaving a deep canyon behind – in this case the lower Grand Coulee. As the falls retreated they left behind a series of lovely little lakes that originated as plunge-pools below the falls.
Grand Coulee Dam This massive structure is justifiably one of the best-known construction accomplishments in America. It was one of several make-work mega-projects ordered by President Roosevelt to help bring the country out of the Great Depression. The location of the Dam was determined by the geologic setting; at this point the great floods had removed much of the basalt bedrock, exposing the underlying granite, which provided a solid foundation for the Dam. The exposed granite is visible in the background hill in the middle of the photo. Here is a closer view of the left side of the exposure. I visited this locality nearly 20 years ago on a trip with my son. The pale grey granite is intruded by dikes of black igneous rock, similar to the basalts but likely much older. Now here is an interesting bit of trivia. Some years after my visit I was on a commercial flight returning from eastern Canada. Near the end of the flight I sensed the aircraft engines cutting back, so took a peak out the window. I saw rugged terrain that could have been anywhere between the high Rockies and the Coast Mountains. Then I noticed a long lake, and at one end of the lake I could see a patch of white rock with black streaks – I knew then exactly where I was!
Some BIRDS and other biota
As mentioned, we came to find birds of the interior that we don’t often see ‘at home’. Charlie did manage to locate virtually all of our targets, but with a large group the photo ops were limited. I’ll lead in with this photo of the participants. Every tour likes to have a staged ‘group photo’, but this one is completely candid. So, what seems to be of interest here? The fellow at rear right is holding up and aiming a small green laser light, pointing near (not at!) the object of interest to help everyone ‘get on’ the subject. Here is the object of their attention, the little bitty thing in the yellow circle. The critter of interest is a relatively nondescript little bird known as a Gray Flycatcher. It is specific to dry forests of the West, and outside of its habitat it would be nearly impossible to recognize. In the top-right inset you can just make out one of its few field marks – the dark tip on a yellowish bill – often very difficult to detect. (Click for a larger view). Cassin’s Finch is a fairly common bird in the BC Okanagan, but I had never been able to get a photo. Here a small group were after something in the dirt – perhaps salt? My photo shows both boy and girl, the female (top left) blending in so neatly. A pair of Western Kingbirds were attending a nest full of youngsters. Keeping a brood fed is a very demanding task for the parents; here one has ‘brought home the bacon’, in this case a nice fat cicada. All kingbird species tend to be very noisy and aggressive when defending their nesting territory.
This little Rock Wren was far below us as we watched him from the rim of a coulee, still his song rang out and filled the canyon. Amazing how such a tiny creature can generate such volume! (Open this, then click on ‘Listen’). Surely the American Avocet must be one of the most elegant of all our birds. A special treat for most of us was provided by a flock of American White Pelicans, a species we don’t often get to see. Pelicans nest in colonies and fly great distances to feed. Here a group of them are engaged in co-operative fishing, in which they form a circle and herd their prey towards the centre. These are very large birds, with the second longest wingspan of any North American species (California Condors average very slightly longer).
“A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
And this photo shows how the helican!”
(with apologies to Dixon Lanier Merritt)
Wetlands in dry regions like this one literally teem with bird life. Here a Great Egret stalks in the background and a Cliff Swallow patrols for insects over the water. Another special treat was seeing a family of Burrowing Owls. They nest under a concrete irrigation trough quite close to the highway. With such a large group we did not want to disturb them by stopping alongside, so this photo was taken hurriedly through the car window as we passed by. Burrowing Owls once nested sparingly in BC but are now extirpated, and efforts are being made to re-introduce these adorable little guys. All ‘managed’ birds involved in studies have marker bands placed on their legs, so it was satisfying to see them completely free of any adornment.
When a birder sees a species they have never seen before, they can add it to their ‘Life List’. A bird detected is referred to as a ‘tick’ and the number of accumulated ticks is considered a measure of relative success. There is another kind of tick, as seen here. The wearer of this shirt accumulated about five of them in one go, whilst all the rest of the party combined found only two or three. No contest! This kind of wood tick does not (normally?) carry Lyme disease (for which the vector is the tiny deer tick) so there was little to be concerned about. Oh – but they can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Our tour was only for 4 days, but there was so much to see! I hope to go back and explore some more, and highly recommend the region to anyone nature-oriented who has not experienced it.
Home again, I continued to play with my Canon SX50HS point-and-shoot.
Black-headed grosbeak Even the common Song Sparrow is a voracious predator when there are demanding nestlings to feed. A handsome male Purple Martin. The little camera is great for shooting dragonflies – here are a few that I was even able to identify!
On Father’s Day my daughter dragged me out for a little hike to Cypress Bowl in the North Shore Mountains. This is one of my very favourite areas; among other things it offers a fine flower show, a few examples which I presented as part of a previous blog. At the highest point of our walk this friendly Gray Jay came by to see if it could scrounge some goodies. Of interest, there is a movement afoot to select a ‘Canadian National Bird’. To me the Gray Jay should win by a landslide. This species occurs across the country and simply oozes character, often stealing food from your hand. However, if I were in control, we would be mandated to revert back to its classy old folk name . . . . ‘Whiskey Jack‘.
An interesting whitish butterfly, which goes by the impressive name Clodius Parnassian, was showing well on this day. As usual, the botanical scene in the high forest was well worth attention – this Deer Fern one example.
On another day I encountered a group of fussing robins which prompted me to search for and locate this Barred Owl. I noticed it had an item of prey, which in the difficult light of mixed sun and shade appeared to be a native Douglas Squirrel.
Upon viewing my photos it now looks more like an Eastern Grey Squirrel – an invasive and very undesirable species. Kudos to the owl! No – wait! This species of owl is itself an uninvited invader from Eastern America. Since colonizing the Lower Mainland about 50 years ago it has caused the extirpation of our little Western Screech Owl, and is also at least partly to blame for the tragic decline of the Spotted Owl.
Towards the end of June I managed to drop a heavy hatch door onto my big toe, resulting in a fracture. I have been advised to take it easy and keep it strapped to my second digit for at least a month.
Toed down for the next while in Cloverdale,