Text by Doug Schonewald
Sun Lakes State Park is located in one of the most interesting geological areas in the western United States. ‘Dry Falls,’ a three-mile wide, 400-foot high basalt cliff that was once one of the largest waterfalls known is located within the park. Created by glacial floods originating in Lake Missoula, this geological feature has an interpretive center dedicated to explaining the events that created the geology of the Grand Coulee.
Boasting 4,027-acres and 73,640 feet of freshwater shoreline, the park has nine freshwater lakes and a year-round creek, one of the few in the Coulee Corridor. It encompasses not only the camping and day-use areas, but also many acres of undeveloped lands. Birding opportunities are limitless and it is possible to spend an entire weekend and still not bird all of the area available. It is also one of the busiest in the park system, so birding here is best done early and late in the season. Prior to Memorial Day weekend and after Labor Day weekend is recommended within the developed portion of the park. Weekends and summer are busier and birding more difficult, though early mornings usually find campers still asleep and birds active. Undeveloped areas (these areas are substantial) can provide birding opportunities year-round with breeding birds through the summer and migrants spring, fall, and winter.
Habitat diversity within the park is amazing; the variety attracts a wide range of birds. Deep, clear, freshwater lakes and small shallow lakes and ponds are available for birds and birder alike. Large tracts of shrub/steppe lie among the lakes and ponds. Meadow Creek flows two and one-half miles from Deep Lake, emptying into Vic Meyer Lake and finally into Park Lake. This small creek offers a nice riparian zone. Comprised primarily of red osier dogwood and water birch, this riparian habitat is outside of the high traffic area of the park and is accessible by a paved road its entire length. High basalt cliffs and talus slopes surround the park providing those species that relish the rocky-and-steep ample breeding and roosting sites. Shorelines and marshy areas provide extensive stands of cattail and bulrush. Developed portions of the park offer large forage trees and ample brushy cover areas to attract breeders and migrants alike.
Several roads offer access to satellite park attractions such as Deep Lake, Dry Falls Lake, Camp Delaney Environmental Learning Center (an area that may be reserved for private retreats), and Perch Lake. Parking is limited along these roadways, but there are a few turnouts, and birding is often best on foot. Dry Falls Interpretive Center is located along SR-17 about two miles from the park entrance and is well worth the visit, with fabulous vistas and views of White-throated Swifts at point-blank range.
The developed portions of the park are typical, with manicured grass areas and large shade trees. These tracts offer exceptional birding during fall and spring migration. Expect most of the common species of warblers and vireos with a good possibility of rarities. American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo have been seen here amidst the more common Yellow, Wilson’s, Townsend’s, Yellow-rumped, MacGillivray’s, and Nashville warblers as well as Warbling and Cassin’s vireo. It is often possible to watch Hermit and Swainson’s thrush feeding among the campsites when no campers are present. Robins are ever-present, and in winter Varied Thrush put in an appearance. Empids show up in spring and fall migration and can be numerous, offering challenging ID dilemmas. Bullock’s Oriole, Western Wood-pewee, and others breed in this area.
The extensive lake shorelines within the developed areas are left natural, with brushy cover and water tolerant trees. This type of habitat is also apparent in the riparian zone of Meadow Creek. Typical species using these habitats include Song and White-crowned sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Warbling Vireo, and Black-capped Chickadee. Yellow Warblers can be quite abundant and breed in the area. Migrants use these brushy areas as well and it is worth the effort to bird the entire perimeter of the lakeshore. Several of the lakes and much of the Meadow Creek drainage offer marshy boundaries that provide cover and breeding habitat for many species that prefer this habitat, including Marsh Wren, Sora, and Virginia Rail.
Much of the park’s boundaries are comprised of high basalt cliffs, many of them soaring to over 400’ high. At the base of these cliffs are the talus slopes, formed as the weather and time erodes the cliffs and deposits the rocky debris along the base, both Rock and Canyon wrens may be heard or seen here, and Chukar are possible. Brushy areas among the boulders provide food and cover for a variety of birds. Large feeding groups of Cliff and Violet-green swallows swirl overhead and good numbers of White-throated Swifts mix with the swallows. In migration, it is possible to find six species of swallow and two species of swift in these flocks. Golden Eagle, Prairie and Peregrine falcons, and several other species of raptors are regularly seen soaring or hunting over the park.
The dry land areas of the park are typical of other shrub/steppe habitats in eastern Washington, and host many of the same species as other areas. Watch for California quail, Say’s Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Lark Sparrow, and other shrub/steppe specialties. Evening brings out Common Nighthawks as they forage overhead. Common Poorwill can be heard calling from the sparse shrub/steppe. Hiking away from roads may provide some surprises that are not available from higher traffic areas. There are 15 miles of trails available but much of it is undeveloped. Bear in mind that this is rattlesnake country and use prudence and keep an eye out. Generally they prefer to exit as peacefully as possible.
With all of the water available, waterbirds are in good supply. Good numbers of ducks, geese, grebes, and loons are usual during spring and fall migration. Western and Pied-billed are the common grebes, but it is not a surprise to find Red-necked, Eared, or Horned grebes during fall migration. Common Loons are common during migration. It would not be a surprise to locate a Pacific Loon among the Common Loons. Several species of dabbler and diving ducks may be found year-round, but migration brings more birds and greater diversity. Gulls are also present and it can pay dividends to browse through them, as the Lesser Black-backed Gull found in October 2004 shows. Ospreys are often seen hunting over the lakes or perched on power poles near the lake.
While this park can be great birding in its own right, it can also be used as a springboard to areas further away. Park use is low in May and September, but the weather in this area is still wonderful this time of year. Camping here can be an enjoyable experience, offering very good birding in the park and allowing access to areas both north and south.
The majority of my Grant County sightings of both Gray Catbird and Red-eyed Vireo have been in the Meadow Creek riparian corridor. Black-capped Chickadees nest in this area, as do Lazuli Buntings, though both can be frustratingly difficult to locate. Chokecherry trees offer resident Cedar Waxwings late summer fare. Bullock’s Orioles often join them when fruit is plentiful. Western Tanager and Varied Thrush frequent the Russian olives during migration.
To get to Sun Lakes State Park via Interstate 90, take the SR-17 exit and go north approximately 36 miles. Turn right into the park. From SR-2, turn south onto SR-17 and go approximately 4 miles. Turn left into the park.