By Andy Stepniewski
The 1999 Washington Ornithological Society Conference was held in Yakima, Washington, August 27-29, 1999. An impressive list of over 150 species were seen on the various field trips offered during the conference. What follows is a discussion of the birds seen, with notes on unusual species. Finally, I speculate on some notable “misses.”
Starting with Vantage on the Columbia River, various diving birds associated with this extensively man-altered habitat were seen. The slackwaters behind the numerous dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers now offer a habitat probably not available to any extent in the interior of Washington prior to dam construction. common loon, horned and red-necked grebes, doublecrested cormorant, glaucous-winged gull were all noted.
Many passerines use the riparian-zone vegetation along the Columbia at Vantage. However, perhaps due to stable weather both before and during the conference, the hoped-for rare warblers “dancing over our heads” (Steve Mlodinow’s fantasy) were seemingly absent. It may be that migrants were not being stressed so much that they were forced to seek food and shelter along the low river valleys, thus departing this region presumably at higher altitudes in the mountains or just cruising over in the stratosphere (a bit of an exaggeration).
Some species characteristic of this most arid region of Washington were observed, however: prairie falcon, Say’s phoebe, rock and canyon wrens, and lark sparrow. Participants on the popular trip to the stately Garry Oak groves and fort at Fort Simcoe saw tons of charismatic Lewis’s woodpeckers, as advertised, a good variety of swallows, white-breasted nuthatch, gray catbird, yellow-breasted chat, grasshopper sparrow (on the late side), and black-headed grosbeak.
Most intriguing at Fort Simcoe was a single observer report by Jerry Broadus (with experience with this species in Texas) of a yellow-billed cuckoo being chased into the trees by a mob of Lewis’s woodpeckers. It could not be relocated. If confirmed, I believe it would be a first record for south-central Washington.
Waterfowl and shorebirds numbers and diversity at nearby Toppenish NWR were low due to the scarcity of standing water. The trip into the scenic Yakima Canyon yielded osprey, prairie falcon, chukar, a migrant gray flycatcher along Umtanum Creek (a species infrequently recorded in Washington away from its breeding habitat in the lower Ponderosa Pine Zone), a nice collection of passerine migrants and lazuli bunting (recorded also at Fort Simcoe and in the Wenas area, a species heretofore seldom noted at the end of August in this region).
The Wenas trip had the highest species list of any of the field trips (69) which surprised me a little. If this trip had been scheduled in May or June, this would have been expected in my experience (100+ species is usual on the same route in spring). By the end of August, however, the Wenas area seems to get quiet and it usually is more difficult to find the birds. Singing has ceased, the birds tend to be in drabber plumages and less conspicuous. The high count undoubtedly reflects both the expert leadership represented on this trip and very possibly the fact I am wrong – it is now proven that many of the breeding species for which the Wenas area is justly famed can still be found late in August (albeit with a bit more effort). Certainly boosting the total in the Wenas was eight species of shorebirds on Wenas Lake, including Baird’s sandpiper.
Other notable sightings included: golden eagle, calliope hummingbird, red-eyed vireo (likely a migrant as not known as a breeder here in recent years), pygmy nuthatch, western and mountain bluebirds, purple finch (a very local breeder on the lower east slopes of the Cascades), and red crossbill.
The Moxee/Grandview Sewage Ponds trip took most trip participants to a “life” sewage treatment facility. Shorebirds were the attraction here, including black-necked stilt, both yellowlegs, solitary sandpiper, western and least sandpipers, long-billed dowitcher, and red-necked phalarope. Swainson’s hawk was noted in the Black Rock Valley east of Yakima as expected.
The Cascades – Bethel Ridge trip took us to all the way up to Timberwolf Mountain (6,300’), a very scenic peak which formerly was the site of a fire lookout. In the lower forests, we encountered scads of birds, including seven species of woodpeckers (Lewis’s woodpecker, Williamson’s and red-naped sapsuckers, downy hairy, and white-headed woodpeckers, and northern flicker). Other birds included olive-sided flycatcher, Hammond’s flycatcher, all three nuthatches, three chickadee species, warblers (including a blackthroated gray, scarce in this area) and roving flocks of juncos.
On the return of this trip, we stopped .10 mile east of the Hwy. 12/410 junction to look and listen for the western scrub-jay seen by Bruce LeBar and Ed Malais on 27 August while driving to the conference. As in Puget Sound, this species is evidently spreading north in eas tern Washington. I heard a family group in Goldendale this July; this is some distance north and east of their usual limits in the Lyle area of Klickitat County.
What was missed?
Only two species of owls were found (barn and great horned owl); this is in a region noted for its diversity of this group. At least nine more species can be reasonably expected in the area at this season! Is it fair to say the Saturday evening banquet (rumor has it the no-host bar did $400 worth of sales) effectively reduced the number of possible designated drivers and observers willing (and capable) of driving into the mountains to find the owls? The plus side of our miserable owl list is we were off the highways.
I find it interesting both Swainson’s thrush and veery were missed. Both were likely present in their respective habitats. Both become more difficult to detect once they stop singing, although they both have distinctive, easily learned call notes. Shrub-steppe species such as sage thrasher and sage sparrow were both missed. Both are still present in the area, especially on the Yakima Training Center.
Unfortunately, the Department of the Army turned down our request for access to this vast (second largest contiguous tract of shrub-steppe at 330,000 acres in Washington) region. I sorely wanted to share the treasures out there, including dawn trips to Upper Cold Creek, a superb corridor for countless migrant passerines (and attendant raptors). Maybe one day the birding community (and the public) will have free access to this critically important hub of Washington’s shrub-steppe ecosystem.
Finally, evening grosbeak was missed. As Bill Tweit has documented on his Rimrock Breeding Bird Survey, this species is usually abundant in the Douglas-fir forests of the lower east slopes of the Cascades in the breeding season. Where were they? Has the long-term spruce budworm outbreak taken its course in these forests and these birds gone someplace else? I don’t know.
Four field trips were held each day and special thanks go to the expert field trip leaders that made such wonderful trips possible at the convention. Saturday: Brian Bell and Chris Chappell led the trip to Toppenish NWR and Fort Simcoe. Bruce Labar led the Vantage Migrant Traps trip. Denny Granstrand and Marcus Roening led the trip to the Moxee Valley and the Grandview Lagoons. Hal Opperman and Tom Schooley led the trip to Yakima Canyon. Sunday: Scott Downes led the Toppenish NWR/Fort Simcoe trip. Bruce Labar and Bill Tweit led the trip to Vantage and other areas on the Columbia River. Tom Schooley and Hal Opperman led a trip to the Wenas Creek valley. Andy Stepniewski, Denny Granstrand, and Brian Bell led the trip up to Bethel Ridge.
Talks and Paper Presentations were: Dr. Dan Stephens, Professor of Biology at Wenatchee Valley College gave a slide presentation introducing the birds of eastern Washington. His talk was organized around the different habitats of the area. Herbert A. Brown, Professor of Biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, spoke on “Nesting habits of the common bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) at the Sehome Hill Arboretum on the campus of Western Washington University: 25 years of observations”. Susanne Bard, with the Animal Behavior Program, Department of Psychology at the University of Washington gave a talk on “Song learning in Song Sparrows in the Lab and Field”. Jennifer Seavey, with Michael Williams Consulting, Seattle, presented “Natural History and Habitat Selection of Ash-throated Flycatcher in Western Washington”. Ken Bevis, Habitat Biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Yakima gave the talk “Spotted Owls and the 1994 fires on the Yakama Reservation”. Dr. Dan Stephens, Professor of Biology at Wenatchee Valley College, presented “MAPS – Monitoring Avian Production and Survivorship – Seven Years of Banding at Douglas Creek”. Ken Bevis, Habitat Biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was the Saturday keynote address speaker and one of the conference highlights. Ken gave a highly animated talk entitled “Birds in Washington: This was definitely a “no coffee needed” presentation. Ken was able to integrate birds into the bigger picture of natural history and why it is important to save habitat for all species. At one point he aptly illustrated his point by holding up in front of the screen a study skin of the extinct Carolina parakeet from the Central Washington University collection. Afterwards many of us went up to look at and hold this beautiful and brightly colored creature. It was sad to think that we would never be able to see this beautiful bird.
Lastly, thanks go to the conference planners for making the whole weekend such a success. Special thanks go to Andy Stepniewski for arranging all the transportation and facilities and being the man on the spot for last-minute changes; Scott Morrison for being the registrar and making sure everyone got on the field trips they wanted and keeping everyone organized; and Marcus Roening for organizing all of the field trip leaders, evening speakers, paper presenters, and just making sure everyone was taken care