Bluebirds, Avocets, and White-headed Woodpeckers

Beaks and Bills

by Joe Meche

My springtime loops over the mountains and through the woods the past two years left me wanting more so I did it again the first week in April. I have a plan to make it an annual event with a variety of twists to keep it interesting. It’s not casual birding but more a matter of run-and-gun birding and camping. I wouldn’t subject Cindy to this madness, given the generally colder temps of early April on the east side. A feature on my rearview mirror not only gives the outside temperature but also tells me if there is ICE (all caps) … and it said as much every morning as I drove off to start the day at sunrise.

American Avocet

photo: Joe Meche
American Avocet

Last year I was late for the bluebirds at Bickleton and just right for avocets and black-necked stilts at Soap Lake, so I tried for a better balance in my pursuit this year. The loop itself was shorter, given that I devoted less time to the venture this year. Another factor that affected my time on the road was a planned trip to the coast in the first week of May. I sometimes find it difficult to keep up with myself! The plan this year was to leave early on a Sunday morning to beat the traffic on two interstates and be over the pass well before noon. It seems that I-5 and I-405 are NASCAR training grounds, and I-90 is for aspiring Formula I racers … so my options were limited to racing along or staying home.

I was not only over the pass well before noon but I was south of Ellensburg on Umptanum Road and the beginning of the Vredenburgh Bluebird Trail. According to stats from the Yakima Valley Audubon Society the trail consists of 152 nesting boxes along a 26-mile stretch of a sometimes primitive back road that many birders consider to be a veritable bluebird heaven. The lower end of the road starts at the end of the pavement on the North Wenas Road, west of Selah in Yakima County; and ends at the beginning of the pavement on Umptanum Road south of Ellensburg in Kittitas County. The road name changes as it crosses the county line. The entire trail is on dirt roads that can be challenging with ice and snow in winter or mud and flooding in early spring.

Bluebirds arrive from their wintering grounds as early as late winter and early spring but become much more active when tending to nestlings from mid-May thru June. They hunt insects from low perches and can be seen on fence posts, shrubs, and power lines. The boxes provide nesting sites that are otherwise limited in this suitable bluebird habitat. This was my first exposure to the remote and mostly isolated road and it was spectacular. My arrival in the early afternoon was, according to the old birding rule of thumb, not the best time of day for land birds.

I knew from my overall game plan that I would be back for an early morning run but late afternoon was time to head for the Wanapum Recreation Area on the Columbia River to secure a campsite for my first night. On the east side of Snoqualmie Pass you begin to see one or two wind turbine generators which soon become wind farms as you get closer to Ellensburg. To spend time in the area makes you understand why the powers-that-be chose these sites … the wind was relentless and all the blades were turning! The wind continued on the Columbia and made for challenging dinner prep, but I persevered.

The wind blew all night and you might say that it rocked me to sleep since my van seemed to be in motion throughout the night. Instead of trying to buck the wind to brew coffee, I pulled up stakes and was on the road at sunrise to enjoy a first cup of Joe at a drive-thru in Ephrata. Yes, Ephrata has a shiny new Starbucks on the main drag and business was booming! With a fresh cup in hand along with homemade muffins, I motored in the early morning to the city park in Soap Lake and waited for the American avocets and black-necked stilts to arrive.

Soap Lake gets its name from the naturally occurring foam that gives the lake a soapy appearance and because the lake’s mineral-rich water has a slick, soapy feel to it. The waters of the lake were thought for a long time to have medicinal value. Compared to the ocean and other naturally occurring mineral resources in the world, Soap Lake has the highest diverse mineral content of any body of water on the planet. There are many stories about the unique nature of Soap Lake, including the fact that birds like avocets, stilts, shorebirds, and gulls are attracted to the brine shrimp that often flourish in the alkaline water … and that was also what attracted me!

Just north of the lake was where my plan took a turn, in a relatively negative way for me. Major work on crumbling basalt cliffs on the highway north to Grand Coulee created waits of 30 to 45 minutes in both directions. This didn’t fit into my plan to stay on the move so after weighing my options at Sun Lakes, I retreated to spend the night in the Yakima Canyon.

The Canyon Road between Ellensburg and Selah is typical of any road that follows the serpentine path of a river. It provides a scenic pathway with well-placed rest areas and a few small campgrounds along the way. A big attraction to this canyon is the population of transplanted bighorn sheep that often appear out of nowhere, since they blend in so well with the landscape. I found a small herd raising a cloud of dust as they crossed the road, clambering up a steep hillside. These sheep are part of a large and sometimes controversial program run by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and associated agencies. All of the individuals I saw were wearing ear tags and GPS collars so the monitoring effort is ongoing.

After a quiet and chilly night in the canyon it was time for an early morning return to Umptanum Road, via another Starbucks drive-thru. The sunrise was spectacular from the approach to Umptanum Ridge and the bluebirds were active and greeting the day. Both mountain and western bluebirds were inspecting nesting boxes along the way and gleaming in the early morning light. The visuals were accompanied by a sagebrush chorus that included western meadowlarks and sage thrashers.

By lunchtime I had to pull myself away to stay on schedule so I headed for Blewett Pass. I took this short cut to avoid the aforementioned raceways of the interstates and the certain congestion of the greater Seattle area in mid-week. This change of plans meant Leavenworth for the last night with the birds on the grounds of the national fish hatchery and the Sleeping Lady Resort … most notably the white-headed woodpeckers.

My last stop on the way home was the Everett marina to look in on the relatively new nesting colony of great blue herons. Unlike most herons that nest in trees, this small colony of birds has opted to build their large stick nests atop old pilings on the north side of marina. Even though it’s nestled next to a fairly busy shipyard, the site is mostly inaccessible to pedestrians …something the herons might have liked about the site. A scope or long telephoto lens is essential for good views, unlike the local colony at Post Point.

In all, my spring loop was superb in some ways and a bit disappointing in others. Several changes to my original plan were brought about due to the cliffside stabilization on Highway 17 and the wind! However, the sunshine and bluebirds were welcome sights and the big eclipse day went by unnoticed. C’est la vie!


Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Societyand was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and for more than 40 years.

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