By Jane Hadley
The Washington Ornithological Society returned for its annual conference to North Central Washington for the first time in seven years and found the area as appealing as ever – visually gorgeous and bursting with interesting birds.
This year it was Omak; in 2006 it was Republic. Perhaps the most obvious difference between these two conferences is the number of people attending: 131 in Republic, and a record 160 in Omak. The Republic conference offered 40 field trips, while WOS Vice President Dan Stephens rounded up leaders for 49 field trips this year in Omak, another record.
The weather June 21– 24 was largely favorable, with the exception of rain on Monday, on Saturday night, interfering with an owling trip to Havillah, and Thursday, when it pelted trip leaders out scouting their routes.
Those who hung out in the Sinlahekin Valley and at Palmer Lake and Champney Slough complained of the swarm of mosquitoes, but recognized that the mosquitoes fed the birds that they were there to see. Andy Stepniewski said it was more mosquitoes than he had ever seen.
No Omak hotels have conference or banquet facilities, so the Friday and Saturday night programs and banquet headed for the only venue large enough to accommodate a group of our size: the Elks Lodge. It was the first sit-down dinner ever hosted by the Elks and they recruited a bevy of high school cheerleaders to serve us. They were earning money for uniforms.
Dale Swedberg told us the history of the Sinlahekin Valley, including the arrival of European settlers into the area and their mining, timbering and farming activities. But the biggest damage to the ecology of the valley has been fire suppression, Swedberg believes.
Until the last 100 years or so, the Sinlahekin ecoystem experienced regular low-intensity fires. The practice of suppressing those fires for the last 90 to 100 years has built up fuels that unleash massively destructive fires. Fire suppression has dramatically changed the vegetation (higher tree density and more brush) and the wildlife makeup of the valley.
Swedberg believes prescribed fire in the Sinlahekin Valley and other fire-dependent ecosystems is a must. Andy Stepniewski was the focus of Saturday night’s banquet – both as a recipient of WOS’s Honorary Lifetime Member Award (see separate story) and as speaker. The Honorary Lifetime Member Award is only the second ever given by WOS. The first was given to Dennis Paulson at the 2010 conference in Wenatchee.
In his presentation, Andy discussed the various ecological zones of the Okanogan Valley and the some 200 species of breeding birds that can be found in this region. Some species have come out of the Great Basin and some have moved in from British Columbia. When you add those to the more familiar Western forest and riparian birds and waterfowl, the result is a remarkable diversity of breeding birds.
The field trips at this year’s conference were extremely popular. Dan Stephens reports that, overall, 199 species were seen. (The Republic conference tallied 175 species.)
As of this writing, Dan did not have all Monday reports in, but believed that the 199 figure probably would stand.
“A Band-tailed Pigeon was seen and well documented on a Monday trip,” he said. “The one species that we missed and probably should have had was Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Western Screech-Owl was also missed.”
(Band-tailed Pigeon is shown as a Category 5 bird for Okanogan County– that is, a species with fewer than five records.) Birding highlights included a Great Gray Owl seen and photographed during a daytime field trip. Location is not being publicized because there are young in the nest.
A Northern Hawk owl was seen on Freezeout Ridge, and the Monday Chase Trip chose to go in search of it, successfully relocating it. After observing it perched, flying and calling for over an hour, the chase came to an end as additional species and home pulled the birders away.
A Saturday field trip to Smith Canyon led by Kent Woodruff produced a thrilling, extended look at a Pygmy adult and six owlets. Mike and MerryLynn Denny spotted an Alder Flycatcher during their Sunday trip to the East Okanogan Highlands.
A trip led by Diane Yorgason-Quinn and Faye McAdams-Hands to Nespelem did not employ either human or digital calling because the territory was part of the Colville Indian Reservation, but still turned up Gray Catbird, Pygmy Nuthatch, Great Horned Owl, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Bobolink and Black-chinned Hummingbird, among other species. Kathy Andrich had done this route a day earlier and passed along some valuable tips. That kind of information sharing among trip leaders during this conference was common and enhanced the field trip experience for all.
The lone American Redstart of the conference was seen by the Sunday group led by Teri Pieper to the Upper Methow Valley. Jim Flynn and Marissa Benavente, leading a Monday Going Home Trip along the Twisp River, took the group up elevation to witness Black Swifts stream out of the mountains into the lowlands as a storm roiled in the Cascades.
The WOS Board will be studying conference evaluations turned in on paper and online to learn how we can improve future conferences. Thanks to those who turned them in. We certainly regret the software bug that kept our registration system from opening on time and thank WOS members for their patience. We will strive for a bug-less registration in 2014.
It takes a village to put on a WOS Conference. Thanks go to Cindy McCormack, who prepared the 160 packets for the conference, and to Treesa Hertzel, who kept the conference information on our Web site up-to-the-minute. Thanks to Steve Dang for organizing our WOS merchandise.
Of course, Dan Stephens deserves massive appreciation for organizing a record number of field trips. WOS wishes to express its gratitude to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation for welcoming our field trips onto their land for this conference. Tribal biologist Rose Piccinini generously offered to help with scouting.
I would personally like to thank William Powell and Josh Adams, who provided critical audio-visual help both Friday and Saturday night.
There are some extraordinary field trip leaders who deserve a shout-out. Our fearless WOS President Penny Rose and WOS Board Member Shep Thorp led four field trips in four days. Brian Bell, Kathy Andrich and Randy Robinson led three field trips each.
Former WOS Board member Scott Downes has been an invaluable and generous source of advice and insight during the planning of this conference.
Finally, I would like to thank WOS President Penny Rose and the WOS Board for their support and help.