By Hal Opperman
For most birders, Elk Heights (Exit 93) is nothing but a name on an 1-90 exit sign between Cle Elum and Ellensburg. In fact, from this point a system of back roads gives easy access to an excellent variety of habitat types where over a hundred species of east-side birds may be observed in nesting season, only an hour and a half from Seattle.
Elevation ranges from 1800 feet in the Yakima River canyon to over 3400 feet on South Cle Elum Ridge. Vegetation zones include the Thorp Prairie – remnant fescue and bitterbrush; the lush riparian corridor of Taneum Creek with deciduous trees and wet meadows; dry woodlands dominated by ponderosa pine on south-facing slopes and in some of the rocky canyons with intermittent streams; and mixed fir and pine forest at higher elevations in places with northern exposures and greater moisture retention.
Five approaches to these habitats are described below. If desired, all can be covered in a single long day: if followed in the order suggested here, they form a loop. The best time of year, for maximum variety and to hear birds in song, is the last two weeks of May and the first half of June. For the full spectrum of early and late breeding birds, two visits two or three weeks apart would be ideal. By late May the weather can be quite hot in early and mid afternoon; save the hottest hours of the day for shady spots along Taneum Creek, or the back side of South Cle Elum Ridge, where there is always some avian activity.
1. Sunlight Waters and Yakima Canyon
From the east-bound exit at Elk Heights, cross the bridge over the freeway to the north side. At the stop sign (Thorp Prairie Road) turn right (east). In 0.2 miles, turn left at the first road; there is a sign on the left announcing Sunlight Waters, a weekend mobile home community. The approach road crosses the edge of the Thorp Prairie and is one of a couple of locations where Western Kingbirds may be expected.
This is a private residential area, so stay on the main road. The residents have proven friendly to well-mannered birders, however. Many have put out feeders and nesting boxes, and both Western Bluebirds and Mountain Bluebirds make use of the latter. In addition, the homes and outbuildings provide nesting sites for Violet-green Swallows and, in some years, Say’s Phoebe. Proceed along this road as it circles around to the right. In about 0.9 miles there is an intersection marked by a gazebo on the left. Turn left here, just before the gazebo. Scan trees and yards near this corner where one often finds Cassin’s Finch, House Finch and American Goldfinch.
Continue across a bridge over an irrigation canal. Here the road turns right, at the entrance to a small development centered on a couple of artificial ponds. Blue Grouse inhabit the scattered bordering woods and sometimes bring their young out along the road edge just after sunrise in June and July. The road swings left, then left again, turning counter-clockwise around the ponds and houses.
At the northwest corner of this area look for two log gateposts on the right. Ignore the driveway between the posts and take the next right turn into what looks like a private driveway but is an old easement down to the river. Lately several “no trespassing” signs have sprung up by the edge of this road. If you see someone about, you probably should ask permission, but I’ve been using this road for years. It leads steeply down into Morrison Canyon and is gated at the bottom, where a large siphon carries the irrigation canal across the canyon. There is room for about three cars to park. Hundreds of Cliff Swallows nest on the rocky canyon walls.
On foot, cross over the gate and follow the track down along Morrison Creek. The old cottonwoods and other deciduous and coniferous trees, with lots of undergrowth, provide habitat for Western Wood-Pewees, Nashville Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Rufous-sided Towhees, Calliope Hummingbirds, Steller’s Jays and Downy Woodpeckers, among others. This spot is at its best around nine in the morning, after the sun has reached the valley floor and begun to warm it up.
Continue along the path, across a wooden bridge. Be on the lookout for Bushtits which were discovered nesting nearby in 1989 and have been observed in the area every year since then. Soon after the bridge the, path forks. Take the right-hand fork which continues straight ahead down toward the Yakima River. MacGillivray’s Warbler is common in the low brush and Yellow-breasted Chat has also nested; it is worth checking for this species in the latter part of June or even July since it is one of the last to return. Another occasional breeding species to look for is Gray Catbird not seen every year. Watch, too, for Eastern Kingbird, which has nested in low trees overhanging the Yakima. Ruffed Grouse are regularly found on the opposite bank, between the old highway and the former Northern Pacific railroad tracks and might turn up on this side of the river, too, though I have not seen them there to date.
The track leads down to the old Milwaukee Railroad right-of-way, now graded and converted into a state park. It is possible to walk the trail for miles in either direction. For a good sampling of this habitat, walk upstream with the Yakima on your right. Look and listen for a variety of songbirds including the uncommon Black-throated Gray Warbler. Although I have yet to spot one here, Lewis’s Woodpecker can be found only a mile or so farther down the river so be alert to the possibility. Common Mergansers nest in the trees near the bend where the river and the railroad grade part company.
A small marsh at this spot has Yellow Warblers, and now and then a Virginia Rail can be heard. Spotted Sandpipers nest on gravel bars in the river; Belted Kingfishers are often present; and Common Nighthawks can be heard calling overhead, especially late in the day (but not until June). Prairie Falcons, Golden Eagles and other raptors exploit the thermals above the steep canyon walls and you may see a Great Blue Heron flying by, probably from the rookery upriver near the confluence of the Teanaway. Go back out of Sunlight Waters the way you came in, to the intersection with Thorp Prairie Road.
2. Thorp Prairie Road
Coming out from Sunlight Waters, turn left (east) onto this blacktop road which roughly parallels 1-90. Birding courtesy and prudence are called for: the road is well-travelled and shoulderless. American Kestrels hover over the fields and grace the power lines, and Western Meadowlarks sing from fence posts. Old-timers talk of Longbilled Curlews, once regular in the fields to the left of the road, and it can’t hurt to keep an eye out for them still today.
Just after passing a farmhouse on the right, the road swings south alongside a branch of the irrigation canal and crosses a culvert over a dry wash at about a mile and a quarter from the Sunlight Waters turnoff. Say’s Phoebes nest under this bridge most years; the young usually fledge in the first few days of June. A bit farther along, the road crosses the canal on a bridge beneath which Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows nest in good numbers. Beyond this, across the road from an experimental power-generating windmill, a significant area of bunchgrass and rabbitbrush has survived. Vesper Sparrows nest here and all along the continuation of the road as it drops down into a draw beside 190 and approaches an intersection. Turn right and cross the viaduct over the freeway. (To explore another piece of the Thorp Prairie habitat, see below, at the end of the Morrison Canyon Road description.)
3. Taneum Canyon Road
Turn right at the south end of the bridge over 1-90. Check your speedometer: it is about 2.4 miles from this point to the boundary of the L. T. Murray State Wildlife Area, proceeding upstream next to Taneum Creek. In about a third of a mile the road crosses an irrigation wasteway. The irrigated hayfields and pasture land provide a breeding ground for CommonSnipe; The valley narrows quickly and in about a mile the road is hemmed in by the tree-lined stream on the left and rocky outcroppings on the right. A couple of small quarries provide pullouts (use them; traffic is frequent and visibility poor) and good places to listen for songbirds. Lazuli Buntings often sing from the sunny hillside and Warbling Vireos are common in streamside leafy trees. Red-naped Sapsuckers inhabit the riparian zone all along Taneum Creek. Close to the spot where the road enters the wildlife area – prominently marked by a sign – a couple ofbumpy tracks to the left drop down to an open meadow where one may park and stroll beside the creek. Vaux’s Swifts are frequently seen overhead (and Black Swifts if you’re lucky). All the common riparian species can be found here and also, on occasion, Evening Grosbeaks.
From this point on there are frequent access points to streamside vegetation, any of which is worth explorexploreing, as well as extensive areas of wet meadow that can be checked from the road (listen for Willow Flycatcher). About a mile and a quarter from the wildlife area entrance sign, look for a road on the left that immediately crosses the creek on a plank bridge. Turn in here, cross the bridge and park. American Dippers perennially nest under the bridge and can usually be seen on rocks in the creek to either side. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest in small numbers in the banks nearby. This is a fine spot to explore on foot. The usual riparian species may be observed, among them Song Sparrow and Northern Oriole. There are a couple of trails heading upstream through tall grass and brush to a park-like area worth checking out.
The road you crossed the bridge on continues to the base of a steep slope, where it forks. The right fork is closed to vehicular traffic but you may walk up it if you wish; Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Chipping Sparrows, Brown Creepers, Pine Siskins, Cassin’s Finches and other common woodland nesters may be found here, as in other similar tracts. The left-hand fork is more rewarding. Although vehicles are permitted it is preferable to walk in a few hundred yards to see what turns up. Mourning Doves nest here – more easily heard than seen in breeding season – and the dense growth along Taneum Creek is a favorite skulking place for Veery and Swainson’s Thrush. Stay left where the road branches, and follow it to an open meadow with the remnants of an old orchard in the middle. This area has turned up Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Orange-crowned Warbler, both rare around Elk Heights. Return to your car, cross the bridge and turn left onTaneum Canyon Road. Check the speedometer; itis about 2.5 miles to the auto entrance (via ford) of Taneum Campground, located in a single-section outlier of the Wenatchee National Forest that has conserved a stand of fine old-growth Ponderosa Pine – the only such you will see on this itinerary.
If the water level is too high, you may enter the campground on the footbridge a couple of hundred feet downstream. In addition to toilet facilities, the campground harbors Golden-crowned Kinglets, Pacific- . slope Flycatchers and Hermit Thrushes, and this is as good a place as any around Elk Eeights to encounter Red Crossbills.
4. South Cle Elum Ridge
Two roads give access from Taneum Canyon Road to the south face ofSouth Cle Elum Ridge. Both can be rewarding, and both lead to Morrison Canyon Road, which takes one out the other side and back to the Elk Heights 1-90 access. The first (Moonlight Canyon Road) is steep, rough and deeply rutted for the last half of the climb; extra high clearance and four-wheel drive, though not absolutely necessary except after a rain, do add to one’s peace of mind. You can also drive half way up, then hike to the top, exploring cross-country on foot in the process. Approached this way, the Moonlight Canyon Road access becomes a day in itself, and highly recommended. The road takes off 1.0miles back (downstream) from the automobile entrance to Taneum Campground, angling steeply up toward the east from the northeast side of the main road. Lazuli Buntings are frequently found on the lower slope, within sight of the main road. Northern Pygmy-Owl is resident, and imitations ofits call will attract passerines for close viewing, among them Solitary Vireo and Mountain Chickadee. About three quarters of a mile along, a pair of ruts leads off to the right. This “road” is closed to traffic but is well worth walking. One or two pairs of White-headed Woodpeckers inhabit the south slope of the ridge, and this is a likely spot to find them, as well as nesting Hairy Woodpeckers. Dusky Flycatchers also nest here, and you should listen for Olivesided Flycatcher as well as Common Poorwill (after dark).
Return to the car and continue up the road. In about 250 yards there is another fork with a disused track to the right that can be followed on foot for over a mile, with similar opportunities. The left fork is open to automobiles, but from here to the top the roadbed is steep and badly deteriorated. There are numerous places to stop. Warblers nest in shrubbery in moist places; House Wrens are common; and the closer one gets to the top, the more likely one is to find Williamson’s Sapsucker, an uncommon summer resident. Mter a long, exposed climbup a rock-littered grade, Elk Heights continued the road reaches the wooded, and flat, summit – a great place to walk in all directions and to picnic. Townsend’s Warblers live here, and you may even flush a Great Horned Owl from its daytime roost. The road continues on across the top of South Cle Elum Ridge, through some meadows (be alert for mud holes), then drops steeply to join Morrison Canyon Road. However, the last hundred yards or sohave been severely washed out recently, and it is best to check on foot before attempting to drive this stretch.
Cedar Creek Road is better maintained, but is not as good a point of departure for hikes. Expect the same species as along Moonlight Canyon Road. It angles up toward the northwestfrom Taneum Canyon Road about a mile and a quarter upstream (west) from the Taneum Campground vehicular entrance. The route branches several times as it switchbacks up the steep slope, spawning a web of roads along the ridge farther west (and not considered here); take the right-hand fork each time and you’ll be on track. The second fork, at about 1.3 miles from the point of departure, is the critical one. Bear right; this nowunnamed road contours around a rocky outcrop on the left, then gently ascends eastward. The views along this stretch are spectacular. Common Ravens often nest on rock faces below, and Turkey Vultures and other raptors soar by at eye level. In something over a mile onejoins Morrison Canyon Road along the ridge top.
5. Morrison Canyon Road
Park and take some time to walk around the area at the junction just described, on both sides of Morrison Canyon Road. You will find the same species as on the ascent up the south side of the ridge; this is an especially good place to look for flycatchers and woodpeckers. A right turn onto Morrison Canyon Road takes one back to an entrance to the L. T. Murray State Wildlife Area within sight of the Elk Heights exit, in about 3.9 miles. The road is relatively well maintained, though – as you will by now have discovered – quite dusty, like all of the other unpaved roads you have been following. After about a mile it begins to descend noticeably and there are good opportunities to check out the tops of tall conifers growing on the downward slope, below road grade, where you may find Yellow-rumped Warblers and other tree-nesters. Townsend’s Solitaire is usually present. This species nests in cavities under tree roots, or in road cuts. In about 1.2 miles you will note the junction with Moonlight Canyon Road, which leads up to the right and over the top of South Cle Elum Ridge (itinerary described in reverse, above).
Continue straight ahead. Shortly thereafter the road contours in and out of Moonlight Canyon (actually, the road that bears this name doesn’t go near it). Soon the terrain begins to flatten out. Stop any place in the next mile or so. On this cooler, moister north-facing slope Hammond’s Flycatcher may be found. Among the other nesting species (which you may already have encountered elsewhere in the Elk Heights area) are Western Tanager and Cedar Waxwing. As the route descends, look for damp areas along the course of Morrison Creek where Wilson’s Warblers nest in the shrubby growth. This is the only section where I have found White-breasted Nuthatch – a single pair three years ago. Try walking around in the woods on the slope to the right ofthe road. Cooper’s Hawk has nested here as well.
At 3.0 miles from the beginning point there is a pond on the left, resulting from a low earth dam acrossMorrison Creek. Youmay walk across the dam and around the pond, which attracts many birds. A few pairs of Red-winged Blackbirds have claimed this territory, and for the last two years a pair of Soras has nested here and are quite easy to see. The area below the dam has had nesting Brewer’s Blackbirds, and at its far end a stand of old cottonwoods provides shelter for cavity nesters, among them Western Screech-Owl and Northern Flicker. Watch and listen, too, for Purple Finches, which have crossed the Cascades and now nest around Elk Heights. After the dam the road turns sharply right, then left again. Shortly a fenced horse pasture appears on your right. Stop along here and walk to the left down into the upper part of Morrison Canyon. You will probably hear White-crowned Sparrows singing. The Puget Sound race of this species has invaded Morrison Creek, where it has been nesting for at least the last four years. Both Rufous Hummingbirds and Calliope Hummingbirds frequent this area as well.
In another few hundred feet exit the wildlife area at a crossroads. The road to the left fronts the freeway, then eventually re-enters the wildlife area to the north (more roads to explore). To the right is a private lane. However, the owner of the land east (left) of the lane has given permission in the past to walk out into this stretch of the Thorp Prairie which is now grazing land. You will find nesting Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks. Red-tailed Hawks work the fields and fence rows; three or four pairs nestin the Elk Heights area, one of them in trees to the south of here. At the far east end ofthis field are two stock ponds with a couple of pairs of pothole-nesting ducks – Mallards and, one year, Cinnamon Teal. Killdeer nest in the weedy margins and the ponds attract afew migrant shorebirds, too. The posts of the elk fence that borders the freeway have been provided with nesting boxes used by both bluebird species as well as Tree Swallows.
Return to 1-90 straight ahead.