Text and photos by Doug Schonewald
Naneum Ridge divides the Kittitas Valley to the south and the Columbia River to the north. Lying within the geographic area often referred to as the Colockum, Naneum Ridge runs from Wenatchee Mountain to the Old Vantage Highway. As such, it would be impossible to cover all of the birding opportunities available in such a large geographic area, so I will cover the Coleman Canyon Road, Swift Creek Road, and Naneum Ridge Road corridors.
The ridge can be reached from several directions, but my personal favorite is to use the Coleman Canyon Road. This Road is also known as Road 9. Other routes that are available are: Colockum Pass Road, Schaler Road (leaving from Wenatchee Heights’ Loop Road), and several longer and much rougher routes. While you may refer to DeLorme, a detailed map of the area is available from the Department of Natural Resources. This “Green Dot Map” as it is referred to, shows the roads that are open to vehicle traffic and those that are closed. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because the road is ok for vehicle traffic that it is passable. Many of the roads are passable only with high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles. Use caution and common sense. Also, this area is often snowed in until July.
This is an area that is best birded over a weekend, as there is no way to effectively reach and bird all of the available habitats in one day. Even then, you might wish you had a few more days to explore the area. Habitat variation is extreme as with all other foothill regions of eastern Washington, varying from agricultural to low-elevation shrub-steppe to alpine types of habitats and everything in between.
Coleman Canyon is a small stream that contains year-round water and excellent riparian habitat. As you climb, it is well worth the effort to stop at the many wide spots and pish and search for those species that frequent the riparian zone. Expect Nashville, MacGillivray’s, as well as an occasional yellow warbler. Hairy and downy woodpeckers and red-naped sapsuckers are the dominant Picidae in the riparian zone, but white-headed woodpeckers have also been seen along the creek in the mature ponderosa pine. Other species often seen in this area include Sooty and ruffed grouse, Steller’s jay, western wood-pewee, and olive-sided flycatcher. (There is some discussion about whether the grouse are Sooty or Dusky, but it appears at this writing that most birds are of Sooty ancestry.)
The air is usually filled with Vaux’s swifts and violet-green swallows. As you continue to climb, the ponderosa pine and riparian broadleaf begin to give way to Douglas Fir and the bird species begin to shift to those that prefer this type of habitat, with Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped warblers predominating. Steller’s jays are still found and gray jays begin to show up. Ruffed grouse give way to mostly Sooty grouse. Chipping sparrows begin to show. At the end of Coleman Road, you begin to get into a large tract of western larch with meadows under them.
It is here that one can truly search for both black-backed woodpecker and Williamson’s sapsucker. Sooty grouse also frequent the area and there are a few Spruce grouse, but they are very few and difficult.
At the end of the road you will come to a ‘T’ intersection. At this point you have climbed to approximately 6000 feet in elevation. Turn right on this road (Swift Creek Road) and take the time to search as you cruise this road for Clark’s nutcracker, hermit thrush, and gray jays.
It was in this area a few years ago that a field trip located several barred owls, a single spotted owl, and northern goshawk. Pine grosbeaks are possible and several boggy areas offer breeding Lincoln’s sparrow. If you are going to camp, there are several areas along the Swift Creek Road to do so, but mosquitoes can be bad near the bogs and springs.
The Swift Creek Road eventually (after about 3 or 4 miles) runs into the Naneum Ridge Road. Taking a left on the Naneum Ridge Road will take you above the tree line with vistas of the Kittitas Valley, the Stewart Range of the Cascades, and the Columbia River. At several points Mt. Rainier is an awesome view as well. In 2004, we camped in an area to the left-hand side of the road (we followed a small dirt track to the left) and had wonderful views as we sat on the edge of the ridge overlooking the Kittitas Valley.
The elevation at our campsite was 6400 feet and we eventually went to 7000 feet at Naneum Point. Highlights of that trip included mountain bluebirds at nearly 7000 feet, vesper sparrows at over 6000 feet, house wren at 6500 feet, great horned owl at 6500 feet, eight black-backed woodpeckers, northern goshawk, and a myriad of common high-country birds. The species count is pretty surprising with over 80 species located in this general area in the past several years of Central Basin Audubon campouts.