Southern Boreal, the Last Leg
19 July 2006
Crystal bright rising sunlight glimmers behind as if pushing the car west of Airdrie, Alberta. Rolling terrain, with its definite stamp of agriculture, stretch in all directions, and the compass straight road appears to vanish in distant rounded fields. Finally, north of Cochrane, I turn due south a few miles, and then return to my westward bearing. Most roads were apparently surveyed east to west and north to south, something expected in the plains, but not so much in the hill country of western Alberta. I begin to see the importance of having the range and township map. West of Cochrane and highway 1A, is my junction. Grand Valley Road tracks north through green farms, with more rolling hills, some topped by forest. This is the edge of the prairie and the beginning of the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
Last night, Milton Spitzer, verified the direction I should take to Perrenoud Nature Reserve at the end of Range Road 54. Accessing the reserve is possible by passing through an opening in the fence, which is not friendly to fast food, beer or any other kind of overgrown bellies. I clear the narrow opening, thinking it would be difficult if wearing a puffy Michelin man Gor-Tex coat. Of course, Connecticut Warblers at coat time would be somewhere on a balmy island or maybe tropical Venezuela. Where would the prize be on this cool early dawn? The preserve is quiet, with the edge of peaceful silence broken ever gently by waking Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. The white bark of birch lightly reflects in the long shadow of sunrise. This is the crisp dawn of mornings past and one of many to excite spirits. Somewhere from a mix of conifers, a Swainson’s Thrush’s flute-like song seems to offer promise of finding the prized warbler. A Hairy Woodpecker, a larger version than the one in southern Oregon, and Rocky Mountain Black-capped Chickadees, the ones lacking buffy flanks, all forage in the long morning shadows. All the while, I play and replay a tape of the Connecticut Warbler’s song. Three discouraging hours later, my DEET is trying the patience of hungry mosquitoes. Then a new sound stirs over the wings of the famished insects. Something yellowish jumps into a low bush, and sits for enough nervous seconds to see curious eyes surrounded by a white ring and grayish face. Suddenly as it materializes, my first Connecticut Warbler disappears. Playing the tape for another 30 minutes attracts only more mosquitoes and slowing rising solar heat.
Jubilant about number 603, I wonder if 604, potentially a Northern Hawk-Owl will be possible. Milton told me a pair nested at the intersections of Township Road 304 and Range Road 53. Township Road 280 took me back to Alberta highway 22, the route for potential 603. It was all in the numbers, not just in routes, but also in dates. The owl had been seen at the corner of 304 and 53 about 7 days ago. In 60 minutes, I’m playing a tape of the owl, but the lure went either unheard or unnoticed, at least by a Northern Hawk-Owl. Only Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker respond.
20 July 2006
After a routine grocery shop in Airdrie, we drive west toward Cochrane and the Canadian Rockies. It is tempting to drive up Grand Valley Road and try to relocate the Connecticut Warbler, but finding it again is questionable. Time dictates we continue westward.
Lake Louise in Banff National Park is our first stop, not so much for birds, but for breathtaking beauty and nostalgia. Linda had been there in the 70’s and wanted to introduce me to the lake. The emerald body of water perches above the tourist town also known as Lake Louise. The town, and to Linda’s chagrin, the actual lake is a pulsating swarm of park visitors. By sheer luck, we find a place to park amid hundreds of cars and castle sized RVs. The short meander down a trail taxes Linda’s healing foot. Several people rush past to the shore where they shuffle back and forth, most with cameras, some with children wondering if they were there yet and far too many with dogs that cared less about the scenery. The canines were more interested in each other, pulling at leashes that might trip us and wanting to either sniff or greet with a wet paw on clean clothes. There was certainly no wildlife to chase either by the dogs or by our binoculars. The appalling scene mortifies Linda, who recalls a far more pristine shore. Instead, the human throng is now clamorous enough to drown out all but the loudest raven as people tramp to and fro. Out on the lake, countless rented canoes pepper the water all the way across the lake to what was once the foot of Victoria Glacier. Gone is a remembered lake free of dithering canoes and wading humans and dogs. A peaceful shore where it was possible to commune with nature has been replaced with the fervent hope that the small poorly parented kids do not get melting ice cream on your knees. And, where did that ice cream come from? It was from a small shop, the kind spelled Shoppe, inside the overpriced inn sprawling at the end of Lake Louise.
Concentrating, I look past the circus of human and canine crowded path. With ears closed to the chatter, I imagine wind singing in the conifers and try to ignore the unseasonable heat. It is a beautiful scene. Linda’s first Lake Louis impression almost four decades ago was her base-line view, when the lake was more gorgeous for her than compared to today, my base-line view. Four decades from now, someone may view Lake Louis and think how beautiful it is, but they may wonder how much more stunning it was in 2006. First impressions may not necessarily tell the true story. Numerous, so-called, base-line studies of populations of birds start well after the horse left the barn, after Carolina Parakeets, Great Auks or a unique Florida population of seaside sparrows became extinct. Will the next generations establish new base-line studies? Will someone reinvent the wheel? Moving up a base line in time is cheating us by not revealing actual change. Lake Louis and its wildlife today cannot possibly be similar to what it was 100 years ago or when Linda first saw the region, what it is today or what the situation will be tomorrow.
Photographer Don Jones, back at the National Bison Range, told us we had to check out Bow Pass, a possible site for finding White-tailed Ptarmigan. Page 89 in Finlay’s A Bird-Finding Guide to Canada seconds the potential of Bow Pass and is encouraging that we are in a promising location for seeing boreal species. Travel north to the summit was full of the grandest of mountain peaks, monumental settings for jeweled emerald lakes. The uncanny hues of the lakes are the result of light and glacial silt from milky streams filled with water melting from glaciers in the park. Banff’s 2,564 square miles encompasses a long stretch of the Rockies west of the Continental Divide. The world’s third national park, following Yellowstone and Australia’s Royal, it was established in 1885. Over 4 million visit the park annually, and 20,000 cars a day travel the roads during peak visitation. The peak is surely today since many of those vehicles and their bipedal occupants were at Lake Louise or are also traveling to Bow Summit.
The summit, at 6849 feet, is the highest pass in Banff as well as that of the adjoining national parks of Yoho, established a year after Banff, Jasper to the north and Kootenay National Park, our next destination. We park at the trailhead to the Peyto Lake overlook. At the end of the trail, a wooden structure, a kind of pier, hung out over the canyon. The thrill and the vertically challenged warily jockeyed for a view from the rail. I leaned out only enough to carefully record a new life river, the North Saskatchewan that flows north ever so vertically far below. The river, along with the Bow River we crossed days ago in Calgary, eventually ends up in Hudson Bay. Although never, yet, a visitor to the bay, I have been a longtime fan of explorers to it and the North Country, and through my research had built a healthy mental conspectus of its literature and birds. Looking down at the North Saskatchewan River, recollections of some of my most stimulating research projects related members of the Hudson Bay Company and others who found new species and subspecies of birds. I probably spent months pouring over a wonderful tome called Fauna Boreali–Americana by William Swainson and John Richardson. My interest was in part two, published in 1832, not 1831 as was indicated on the title page. I enlisted Burt L. Monroe to help research dates of publications of the Fauna and other books on birds. Besides ferreting such esoteric facts, another study, this time on the taxonomy of Rock Ptarmigan of part of Canada and Greenland caused me to look further into the Hudson Bay watershed. Finn Salomonsen, Danish monographer of Greenland birds provided some of the specimens I examined and red ink to the manuscript published in a 1979 issue of Dansk orn Foren. Tidsskr. For inquiring minds, that is the way ornithological journals universally abbreviate what is Dansk Ornithologisk Forening Tidsskrift. Another contributor in my foray into Rock Ptarmigans was George Miksch Sutton, known for wonderful illustrations and chronicles of his travels in the Canadian Archipelago where he collected specimens critical to my study. In fact, he had collected specimens, studied, and painted birds that aided research for him and many future investigators. Dr. Sutton wrote me that he would enjoy working on the species, but his time was nearing the end. He died three years after Dansk orn Foren. Tidsskr. I could have used his expertise. With other borrowed specimens and maps, I began to learn some of the geography of the land downstream of the North Saskatchewan River.
The river stretches out of sight, and I wonder if Jack London knew the identity of the Wapacuthu Owl from the woods of Hudson Bay? Pennant’s Arctic Zoology of 1785 wrote of the owl known by the Hudson residents. Three years later, Gmelin, following in Linnaeus‘s footsteps, read Pennant, and gave the bird the scientific moniker Strix Wapacuthu. Later, the name wapacuthu was used as a subspecies name for a Great Horned Owl. Dick Banks and I delved into Hudson Bay literature to identify the Wapacuthu Owl, which, in fact, was born from Native Americans and white explorers’ confusion, or what the boss told Cool Hand Luke, a fail-ya to communicate. The result, which we published in volume 24 of the Journal of Raptor Research, is that the identity of the Wapacuthu Owl was impossible, and it definitely was not a Great Horned Owl. Nomenclaturally, wapacuthu has no standing as a scientific name. As it turned out, I spent a great deal of time on birds from the Hudson Bay region, but the 20th of July in 2006 was the only time I had set foot in its watershed. Supposedly, one’s life flashes before their eyes preceding a near-death encounter. Today, on peering down the scary slopes where every drop of water drains to Hudson Bay, I did have flashes of Wapacuthu Owls, ptarmigan, confusing gulls and Jack London.
In the present reality is greenish Peyto Lake, draining into a roaring flow before emptying into a roundish lake downstream. Turning, I head upstream, so to speak, to view the foot of Peyto Glacier. The trail, hundreds of feet above the white stream below, is deserted except for a large Common Raven sitting on an overhanging rock a few feet from me. It seems to be enjoying its domain and remains there while I scan the surrounding slopes. Peyto Glacier’s melting water catapults white rumbling cascades on its brief journey to the lake. Steep dizzying height combining with slippery footing keeps me alert as I approach the trail’s end overlooking the massive glacier. It is a beautifully hard landscape, and it is without ptarmigan.
Linda, staying at the trailhead, took pictures of the alpine flowers. Fox Sparrow and junco calls broke through the sound of cars coming and going in an otherwise faunistically void place. Too many people and too high of a temperature is our prognosis for the lack of animals. However, with hope eternal, we return south on the Promenade des Glaciers or Icefields Parkway, aka Alberta Provincial Highway. A Common Loon in breeding plumage breaks the crisp flat surface of a roadside lake. Further south, we become entangled in the intersection of Tran-Canadian 1, and consequently we drive over Kicking Horse Pass into Yoho National Park. We are surprised of our mistake. Maybe it was the long drive, throngs of tourist and the burning heat of the day that caused us to miss the entrance sign to the new park. Whatever the excuse, we realize something is not right. We soon hurry back into Banff, this time on Trans-Canadian 1 AND Alberta 93. Ordinarily, getting a little off track is not something to cause worry, but there are many miles to the nearest gas station. Shadows are getting longer at the turn southwest towards the village of Radium Hot Springs. We enter British Columbia for the second time, this time, into Kootenay National Park. Kootenay was not established until 1920. Its 543 square miles, added to Banff, Yolo and Jasper protects 7949 square miles, slightly smaller than New Jersey, the 47th smallest state. Descending Vermillion Pass, we drive southwest along the river of the same name. The direction of the route changes to southeast. Maybe it is the lack of signs or not paying close attention, but the easterly direction is unnerving. The long day, the wrong turn into Yolo National Park, heat, slight hunger and a dwindling gas tank brings anxiety. During one stretch of road, the sun, now beginning to set, is in the rearview mirror. That did not seem good. The dashboard compass confirms it. We are heading east. By now, the gas gauge reads less than one-quarter full. Or, is it three-quarters empty? Either way, the air conditioner cannot keep pace with nervous perspiration. Later, we once again head westward only later to drive southeastward down the Kootenay River.
The day had been disappointing bird-wise. Sun and more sun cooked the landscape and the thousands of tourists. Because of not seeing many birds, we take a few pictures, some with almost no humans, and then rush onward to the picnic area at Kootenay Crossing. By now, only a few cars occupy this otherwise tranquil valley. The Kootenay River, youthful at our elevation, flows hastily below our weary eyes. Scrambling down the bank in the cooling shadows to a vanishing sun creates a sense of peace, especially knowing we are on the right track to our day’s destination. Climbing up the bank to our waiting chariot, we hear something. A small bird bounded to a bare conifer branch. It is a Boreal Chickadee. There is enough light to see easily its relatively dark brownish flanks and brownish-gray cap. It is Linda’s first, and only second, to one I saw in New England 44 years ago. I really should get out more, and today is part of fulfilling such a plan.
Now, it is beginning to become really dark. All we could see by the time we navigate the twisting highway toward the village of Radium Hot Springs are the beams of our headlights. The soft electric glow of the town about 690 strong is welcome as we first locate a gas station then our motel.
21 July 2006
The next day is for rest, relaxation and Radium Springs, the spring. We had passed the historic waters on our way three kilometers from our motel. Speaking more Canadian, two million liters of water a day rush from Radium Hot Springs to the delight of thousands of visitors. For those not bilingual in counting, the spring is 1.86 miles up the road from the village, and 52,834,410.47 gallons of water per day rush from the springs. As for the people, “thousands” are thousands, and we probably are seeing them all today. That, of course, includes the guy who thought I was cuter than Linda. We, Linda and I, that is, had a good time ranging back and forth between the cool pool and the pool of piping hot fresh Radium Springs. Sitting in a fault, rock cliffs jut above the pools. We scan the slopes for goats and birds and saw nothing.
Radium Hot Springs was probably enjoyed by Native Indians from both coasts and the plains tribes passing through for thousands of years. The Kootenai, Shushwap, Sarcee, Stoney and Peigan Indians, who made the region their home, most likely took advantage of the hot natural plumbing. Not unexpectedly, they lost their domain; the springs became under the realm of Canadian Crown Land. Roland Stuart purchased the springs for $160 Canadian in 1890, owning the “developed” property until 1922 when it reverted to the government and Kootenay National Park. Today, the hot 97°F pool, our innkeeper said was a winter delight, especially, he added, since few people are there to gangle their voices off the steep overlooking cliffs.
Later in the day, with the sun at a less ferocious angle, we tour tiny Radium Springs, the village. A few blocks west of the motel is a golf course overlooking the Columbia Valley wetlands covering, according to the chamber of commerce, 26,000 hectares from north to south. That converts to about 64, 247 acre or 100.39 square miles. Its area makes it the largest wetland west of Manitoba. I could imagine it teeming with migrants, and that the vast region, privately and government owned, will survive ever increasing human demands.
22 July 2006
We creep out the motel parking lot at 6 a.m. to drive back into Kootenay National Park. Our innkeeper, originally from Switzerland, naturally loved the mountains and could not recall the region ever being so hot. In spite of the heat, we were told places where we might find mountain goats. This time, maybe, the early birder would get the goat, and we could avoid the heat, and maybe locate a Northern Hawk-Owl at Vermillion Pass. Stopping about half-way to the pass, a very shy woodpecker, probably a three-toed, lures us deep into the woods off highway 93. Linda’s foot is better, but not ready for too much more hiking. A couple of stops to glass the slopes for goats are futile. At Vermillion Pass, a tape play of a hawk-owl does not excite anything except a couple of curious ravens. They were probably just bored. The clock struck 11 a.m. as the day’s sun aimed increasingly hotter rays through a cloudless sky. Sunburn from yesterday’s pool splashing is at least covered by a hat. It is exceptionally quiet on this beautifully wild mountain pass. Wildflowers flourish and birds, mostly, are cowering in the shade while the thermometer climbs with the noon sun. Of course, it could have been hotter. A four day fire in 1968 devastated about 17,174 acres of cool Engelmann spruce and alpine fir of the pass where today lodgepole pine, shrubs and other new plants dominate. No wonder it’s so hot; pine forests are usually hotter than forests of spruce and fir.
We begin our return to our motel on our last day in the Rocky Mountains. The heat wave makes it feel like the dog days of August, a good time for shorebirds. Rolling down the highway, converting curve signs reading kilometers per hour to miles per hour now is almost second nature. Descending is a time of defeat. Missed is a chance for White-tailed Ptarmigan. Leaving the Rockies means a last chance of hawk owls and the Timberline Sparrows. Of course, the sparrow is yet to be recognized as a full species, but I would have liked to see and hear one. Once again, I miss the Rocky Mountain White-breasted Nuthatches, unique by it vocalizations and which may or may not be distinct species. Except for Pine Grosbeak, the Rocky Mountain experience did not reveal any southern boreal species.
Our last stop descending from Vermillion Pass is a side trip to the bright reddish Paint Pots. A trail, crossing a suspension bridge across the aptly named Vermillion River, meanders up a slow stream with red clay banks to red round pools nestled in a stunted green coniferous forest. Although mined in the early 1900’s by Europeans, who sent the ochre mud to Calgary paint factories, I prefer to visualize Kootenai Indians using the colorful earth, mixed with fish or animal fat, to decorate themselves and their teepees. I also tried to understand why the Kootenay of Kootenay National Park was not spelled the same as Kootenai the Indians. The Kootenai Indians living in Idaho, never having signed a treaty, declared war on the United States in 1975. After three violent free days, they won 10.5 acres, along with help from the government. Perhaps, part of winning could have included Canada recognizing their spelling of Kootenai.
23 July 2006
A man hefting luggage to his car in the morning glances knowingly my way as I trundle down the wooden steps and into the small motel parking lot. Attempting to put a positive spin on our burdens, I suggested lugging luggage was good for upper body strength. His glance is one that said you must be stupid. However, traveling did mean slightly enlarged biceps and, so long as my back did not offer its periodic break down, loading and unloading our birding chariot was probably good for me. Certainly birding in new territory was good therapy for the brain.
Angling sunbeams promise another hot day, and by the time we are heading south, the car air conditioner is again our friend. Our direction is actually southeasterly, paralleling the Rockies to Fort Steele where we cross a widening Kootenay River. The road bends southwest and finally west to Creston Wildlife Center. Humidity from the marsh upped the ante on discomfort of the early afternoon white heat of the sun. It is nearly as bad as Santa Ana refuge last April. We manage to trek to the visitor center to check for bird sightings. Bracing ourselves for the steamy heat, we left the center to stroll along a path into the marsh. Along the way are Red-eyed Vireos, a Yellow Warbler feeding one of its young and a fostered cowbird chick. We encounter a male Redstart between stops in the shade and pause to wipe the sweat dripping into our eyes. The fog resistant binoc lenses and my glasses clear only after returning to the car.
By late afternoon, we arrive at the border crossing just south of Nelway, British Columbia. South of the border, we could see our route would be gravel. At the border, a U.S. guard begins asking questions about guns, fruit and vegetables, who we are and the usual. Everything seems ok, but when he requests picture identification, he asks for our passports over driver’s license. Of course, passports were not required, but we have them just in case. The crossing guard took them inside a small office, ordering us to stay in our vehicle. Several minutes pass. Returning, the guard asks how it was we were traveling together. We told him we were married and always travel together. He seems puzzled because Linda uses her maiden name as her professional name in publication, on her registered nurses license and passport. Lots of people follow that practice, but our guy obviously had no clue. Besides, can’t people with different last names travel together? The man with the badge then wants to search our vehicle but demands that we stay seated in the car. Because we packed between and under folded seats, it was difficult to search without emptying the car entirely. Our borderline protector makes a few feeble attempts at searching, asks about the resealed laundry soap, and asks why we had two flashlights and other generally annoying questions. Naturally, being the searchees, it is readily apparent that we should not say anything negative to the searcher. However, I am getting close to letting my mouth get us into trouble. Finally, with the back of the car now in disarray, we are told we could enter our country. Entering Panama for the ABA Convention and returning via Texas last year was nothing compared to enduring the untrained crossing guard today.
Driving south, we mutter aloud a few choice descriptors before beginning to enjoy the trek to our motel two miles north of Metaline Falls, Washington. The gravel soon returns to pavement, then back to gravel as we pass through the road construction that ended a mile before our destination. The motel sits about 200 feet above Metaline Falls, a town of about 220 on the Pend Orielle River. This river, pronounced Pond-er-ray, is Washington’s second largest. Now behind a ridge of the Selkirk Mountains, the sun’s waning pale yellow glow finally allows the temperature to fall. Once again, a few items are carried to our room. I don’t mind. This will be our home for three nights. Although barely over 2,000 feet elevation, the mountain air is refreshingly cool. We take a stroll. A distant dog and an infrequent car broke an otherwise silent and dark stage.
24 July 2006
Owls do not call during the night, and the next sound heard is the necessarily noisy alarm clock. Linda opts to stay “home” while I explore the mountains east of our motel. First, I drive down through Metaline Falls, where the evening before, a grocery clerk told me the location of the nearest gas pump. The place is a short distance down the river known as Metaline, a confusingly named hamlet of slightly over 160. Although smaller than its upstream neighboring town, it has gasoline, something needed for heading up the slopes.
I arrive at 5910 foot Salmo Pass at 8:40 a.m. The area holds promise of needed Spruce and Dusky Grouse, Boreal Owl and White-winged Crossbill. Time of day is all wrong for the owl, but I am excited at the possibilities. The morning air is at first crisp during a mile hike along a closed end of forest road 2220. A couple of shy Boreal Chickadees keep their distance. American Robins and Golden-crowned Kinglets appear in surplus. Dark-eyed Juncos pepper the trail from time to time, their whispered calls drowned by the loud cries of shrill Hoary Marmots. Red-tailed Chipmunks zip occasionally across the trail, punctuating an almost eventless walk. By 9:30, even at this elevation, only the shade of the fir and spruce are comfortable.
Returning to a hot car, inadvertently parked in the full bore of the solar heater, I feel disappointment setting in. July is not the best birding month in North America, and, the month, topped off by a heat wave, means, once again to paraphrase an unfortunately published paper, “the hotter it gets, the fewer boreal birds you see.” Sliding behind the wheel, I look over my pale list of new birds. So far, I have found only four new species from the list of 11 potential lifers. That’s slightly over 36% success. Chances of finding the remaining seven target species are good, although I will soon be out of Dusky Grouse range. Where there could be birds, there is always hope. No matter where you are, something new could show up. A member of the AOU Check-list Committee, speaking on gulls, remarked that if one waited long enough at a locality, all species of gulls would visit there in time. Of course, he was thinking mostly of the Northern Hemisphere. Thinking of that pronouncement, which applies to other species as well, I hold onto a modicum of enthusiasm.
Maybe nearby Salmo Mountain, said to offer up Dusky Grouse according to my ABA finding guide, will have birding possibilities on this baking day of July. I drive about half way up a narrowing one-way dirt road to a sufficiently wide place to turn around. Thankful for a short turning radius, I park and lock the dust laden vehicle and head to the 6,828 lookout summit of Salmo Mountain. The hike is steep and mostly lacks shade for hiding from the relenting sun. A great view of southern British Columbia, northern Idaho and surrounding Washington is the reward. No one is apparently at the lookout at this remote and unfortunately nearly birdless outpost. There are a couple of juncos, seemingly surprised by my sweaty appearance. The only other significant flying organism is a hummingbird sized bumble bee that did not like me being in its territory. Looming thoughts of sting allergies persuade a hasty retreat from the junco summit. The roar of the strafing bee sends me into a downhill jog until I decide to stop. As I stop, I reach into my trusty birding vest, the one with something helpful in each pocket, and pull out a tiny bottle topped by a hand pump. Spinning around, I shot off two quick bursts of DEET. The bee turns back up the sunny road to the waiting juncos and the great view of two states and a Canadian province.
Back at the waiting car, a real hummingbird is taking advantage of a large roadside paintbrush. It is a Broad-tailed, not a usual Washington species. Preferring a Dusky Grouse, the next couple of my hours are devoted to more driving of forest roads. Possibly finding a needed grouse or White-winged Crossbill on foot might increase my chances, but quickly driving around corners on dirt road elsewhere had also helped surprise unsuspecting birds, especially grouse. Now, the route returns me to the forested valley below Salmo Pass, and then meanders eastward and up to 5400 foot Pass Creek Pass.
A few panting birds fly off the dusty road during the ascent to the pass. Most are juncos looking for a little respite by crouching in the shade of overhanging bushes. Again, the road is narrow but just wide enough to allow passage of a large white pick-up coming down the slope. Our side view mirrors reflect there are only inches to spare. At the pass, Pass Creek Pass, the view is rocky and the temperature not much cooler than the Salmo Valley below. A small flat offers barely room to park. Not a creature is stirring, until the dust caught up with me and blew on down the other side. Hot wind rushes up the slope, past the nearby gray stones and into the trees toward Idaho. The humble airy roar barely lets in the sound of an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Although the region is good for Boreal Owls, according to my guide book, this late afternoon is not the hour for that missing life species. Maybe another time.
Meanwhile, down in the lowlands, and just west of Sullivan Lake, I speed around a corner of paved road and slam on the brakes. A strutting grouse serenely completes its crossing. As much as I try to make this unperturbed bird into a something other than a Ruffed Grouse, I just cannot. Chances for a Spruce and Dusky Grouse are becoming slimmer by the minute. Why couldn’t the bird been a few thousand feet higher and a different species? Maybe another time, or did I say that already?
Linda has not recuperated from the horrible heat and I am becoming not only physically tired, but depressed by the heat and lack of success in finding target species. Our southern boreal trip is not what we anticipated. So, today seems to be a good time to relax and smell the air conditioner. We draw the drapes.
The next morning is too warm. While hurrying to pack the car, the sun seems ready to grill. A restaurant just outside the tiny town of Ione on highway 31 perches near the banks of the Pend Oreille River. Our ordered brunch is prey to several flies, perhaps more hungry than us, that buzz from table to table, their length of stay dependent on how fast human hands can wave them away. Food and flies don’t mix well with days of a heat wave, and realization we might as well be swimming upstream in the Pend Oreille. We are almost ready to make a decision about the remainder of the trip, but first, we detour up Tacoma Creek Road, suggested by staff at Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge as a possible hangout for Spruce Grouse. If it was, they are deep in the shade, warding off the onslaught of the white hot sun.
The unrelenting heat wave is exhausting much of our fight. What is the fun in suffering the searing degrees while looking for birds cowering in only a slightly cool shade? As we had already discovered, even north in high elevations of the Rockies, each day is going to become uncomfortably hot. This is not Arizona where many species take the heat. After all, Spruce Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan and Boreal Owls are found in, well, boreal habitat. Our southern boreal journey, weather-wise, is reminiscent of May in the Southwest, and certainly fits the reality of global warming. As for our immediate reality, we resolve to spend a couple of nights west of the refuge in Colville, our last stop before throwing in the birder towel. Originally, we had planned one night in Colville before heading west on Washington highway 20 toward North Cascades National Park and Port Townsend on Puget Sound before a southward navigation home in Oregon.
27 July 2006
My bride rouses from a much needed slumber to wish me well, be careful and provide a necessary kiss. The sun is barely up as I pull away from the motel. The last day of birding on the southern boreal journey will be the last of a boiling journey.
Colville, with a lumber mill and logs stacked stories high, lies in a relatively flat agricultural valley. I motor not far west to Kettle Falls, an even smaller town, then along the southward flowing Columbia River. Beyond waits the Kettle Range and Sherman Pass. A wide pull off at a hairpin on highway 20 looks inviting, and I desperately need a makeshift restroom, aka, bush. With mission complete I hike back up a narrow ridge to the car. Silence overcomes the empty laboring log trucks coming up the east slope of the mountains and the loaded ones rattling down toward Colville. The quiet is elusive but long enough to hear crossbills, but unfamiliar crossbills. Were they a different group, subspecies, or species of Red Crossbill? The birds flit high above nearby conifers. Standing on a slope of about 35 degrees and staring up at vertical trees creates a combination of slight vertigo and warbler neck. Also, and naturally, I’m getting hungry. However, hunger for a life bird overrules my unsteady posture and growling stomach. Patience, just the right light and cooperative birds finally wipe away any discomfort. The birds, the crossbills, were red all right, but they had white wing bars. White-winged Crossbill! At last.
Happier, with ABA 604 in my pocket, I drive up to Sherman Pass Campground, eat, and walk around the nearly vacant grounds. The only camper left, but not before asking me if I am with the search crew. Hmm, I thought I am a search crew. “No,” I answered. A mother and a girl are lost in the region. “I’ll keep an eye out.“ Later, I hike a trail from the campground to 5,575-foot Sherman Pass while searching for people and birds. The only people is a noisy family in a departing car at the pass and a driver of a road maintenance vehicle, the latter, I first thought might be involved in logging. All those logs were coming from somewhere, and I am relieved that the vehicle is scrapping the shoulders of the access roads of the pass. All this might seem boring, but logging, if you have seen it up close, becomes personal. Certainly, trees mean lumber, and our society needs lumber, but does a household of two require thousands of square feet when one thousand or less would do just as nicely?
There is more to say about logging, such as failure to replant or failure to follow up after replanting. Such practices are great for Wrentits. Even though I think they are great birds and even deserve a new subspecies that I named for my parents, there are many species of birds, and plants and other animals, that are not the benefactors of brushy slopes, denuded slopes and pine forests that were once fir and spruce habitats.
On the way back to Colville a detour up Albian Hill Road, which has the potential for the grouse de jour. The journey and the later time of day is hot and the road lonely and dusty. Deteriorating road quality and patience dictate a halt, and a barely wide place allows turning back. Driving back to Colville, I mull over what target birds are left by completing the itinerary. There were two owls, Flammulated and Boreal, species that occur in Oregon, and two grouse, Spruce Grouse and one last chance to see White-tailed Ptarmigan, a species overruled by my acrophobia on Mt. Rainier 17 days ago.
The car air conditioning is going full speed ahead when I pull into a car wash in Colville and step into what feels to be a blast furnace. Hovering somewhere around 100, the water evaporates almost before I spray the dusty car. That is only a slight exaggeration. At the motel, melting, dusty and tired, I am happy to see Linda.
28 July 2006
From Colville, we motor southeast to Spokane, then southwest to Kennewick, across the now west bound Columbia River to Portland, arriving there, just as we did at the beginning of the trip, during rush hour. Memories of all those years driving to Smithsonian helps make today’s time a piece of cake. As we pull into the garage, our cat peeks out from behind a corner, perhaps surprised we are back five days early.
The Southern Boreal trip was not only too hot for humans, it was too hot for birds. The boiling heat wave likely explains why we did not see any mountain goat or many mammals beyond those in air-conditioned vehicles. Our trip might have been just as successful in late June. However, there had been some late spring snowfall. Several correspondents suggested July since snow at some of the high elevations on the itinerary would have melted. Certainly, snow would have prevented my Sunrise hike in Mt. Rainier National Park. Of course, the point there is moot since I did not see the hoped for White-tailed Ptarmigan. Any snow at other high elevations melted as the heat wave bore down on once promising localities. The southern boreal trip had a net gain of five species, one, White-winged Crossbill, of which might be construed as boreal. Nonetheless, it was a start in the journey for 100 species that would put my ABA list to the coveted 700 mark.
Although the terrible heat wave, which moved eastward after our return home, was much harder on Linda, she picked up 12 new life birds, unfortunately missing Connecticut Warbler, Sharp-tailed Grouse and White-winged Crossbill. We only saw 156 species during the trip, the last, a Glaucous-winged Gull along the Columbia River. Of the target birds missed, Norm Barrett recently found Boreal Owls in my home county. Maybe next year Norm will succeed in showing me a Flammulated Owl in my local stretch of the Cascade Mountains. Spruce Grouse and Dusky Grouse might be found in the Wallowa Mountains in NE Oregon but winter snow would dictate a late summer or autumn trip, perhaps next year. Most of the boreal species would likely be easier in Alaska. North to Alaska, perchance someday soon. Dreaming, especially in the shade is a good option.