by Mike Denny
The varied topography of Walla Walla County offers an outstanding diversity of bird life. To date (April 2012), 343 species have been documented for the county, an amazing record considering that over 76 percent of it is in cultivation. The county comprises 1,265square miles, bounded on the west and north by the Columbia and Snake rivers, on the south by Oregon and on the east by Columbia County and the edge of the Blue Mountains. Elevations run from 340 feet above sea level at Wallula Gap to 4,486 feet in the Blue Mountains to the east. Precipitation ranges from 8″ at Wallulua Gap in the west to 50+” in the Blue Mountains to the east.
The premiere birding sites are the Walla Walla River delta, The Millet pond (April-Sept.) two miles east of Madam Dorion Park along North Shore Drive, Van Hollebecke HMU along the Snake River east of Fish Hook Park and Coppei Creek east of Dixie, Washington foothills of the Blue Mountains, Wallula Grain terminal west into Wallula Gap along the Columbia River, and Whitman Mission National Historic Site.
Rare birds found in Walla Walla County over the last 15 years include White-rumped Sandpiper, Ruff, Brambling, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Flammulated Owl, Hudsonian Godwit and Magnolia, Canada, Warbler, Black-tailed Gull, Iceland Gull, Brown Pelican, Huttons Vireo, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Northern Mockingbird, and Red Knot.
In the wetlands associated with the Columbia River, from the confluence of the Snake south to the Walla Walla River delta, a large number of species occur, including American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sandhill Crane, 30 species of waterfowl, 12 diurnal raptors, 28shorebirds and 5 owls. But this area is also known for the frequency of vagrants and rare birds seen there, including Pacific Loon, White-faced Ibis, Trumpeter Swan, Brant, Oldsquaw, WhimbreI, Red Knot, Red Phalarope, Parasitic Jaeger, Glaucous Gull and Sabine’s Gull. From mid July to the end of October the area teems with shorebirds. Moving east into the sagebrush/ rabbitbrush steppe country, the bird life changes to match the environment. Most often found in this habitat are Gray Partridge, Long-billed Curlew, Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s Sparrow. This area also contains the county’s last remnants of native bunch grass, upon which Grasshopper Sparrows are dependent.
Beyond the shrub steppe, where elevations and precipitation increase, the vast fields of wheat and alfalfa offer large concentrations of raptors through the winter months in some years.
Along the north side of the Snake River are five Army Corps of Engineers riverfront parks. Fish Hook Park hosts a good number of roosting owls from November through March, including Barn, Western Screech, Great Homed, Long-eared, Short-eared and Saw-whet. Winter roosts of long-ears of up to eight birds have been found there. This park also claims a Rusty Blackbird record. Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams attract various gulls and diving birds in season.
Extensive urban plantings in Walla Walla and Waitsburg attract many interesting species, particularly in winter, including Bohemian Waxwings. Downslope wanderers from the Blue Mountains such as nuthatches, chickadees and finches may also be present. Blue Jays are annual in these towns and nearby riparian habitats.
There is a marked transition in the environment as one proceeds toward the base of the Blue Mountains. The watercourses that drain the mountains feature outstanding riparian habitats, home to Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart (uncommon), Veery and Fox Sparrow, among others. One of the best areas is along Coppei Creek, northeast of Walla Walla. The creek is a Gray Catbird heaven, and offers seven species of wood warblers, including chats, and many other passerines, including possible Cordilleran Flycatchers. Six species of woodpeckers have been recorded lip the creek in the tall stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.
The Blue Mountains contain many species common to the mixed conifer zone. Mountain Quails, Barred Owls, White-headed Woodpeckers and Pygmy Nuthatches are found there, although difficult to locate. Lewis Peak (the highest point in the county, straddling the Columbia County line) is only 2.5 miles northeast of known Boreal Owl sites in Wallowa County, Oregon. Green-tailed Towhees have been found on the brushy southwest slopes of Lewis Peak. Due to heavy snowfalls, the Blues are relatively inaccessible from November through the spring/summer melt.
Habitat loss is a continuing crisis in this county. Only one Burrowing Owl was seen in 1989,compared to six nesting pairs found in 1980. One of four known Ferruginous Hawk nest sites was destroyed by fire in 1989.No Lewis’ Woodpeckers were recorded in 1990, apparently due to a huge increase in starlings here. And Shorteared Owls have become few and far between, with no confirmed recent nesting in southern Walla Walla County. Logging in the montane mixed-conifer zone continues to have an impact on birds of that area.