After much debate, I decided that ticking a few hard to find boreal species would really help my end of year species total. It would also give the chance to bird some habitat that I do not get to visit often. With this in mind, I yesterday migrated north to Conconully, WA for two days of high elevation birding on the eastern edge of the North Cascades. The ride to reach Conconully was fairly straightforward and relaxing while the ride from Conconully to the boreal zone was incredibly challenging. I had been given some fantastic information by two birders who know the Conconully area very well. I have been asked not to publicize the exact locations where I birded, so I will just refer to areas outside Conconcully.
51 miles to Conconcully + 17 unmapped for 68 total
Here's the elevation profile for the entire ride - I am sore today!
Columbia River basin near Bridgeport, WA
Michael Schroeder, with whom I stayed two nights ago, is Mr. Grouse - literally. He is a grouse researcher at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. How much does Michael like grouse? Well, in every room in his house are pictures and carvings of grouse. His WiFi network is called "Grouse". His dog is named "Lek". I am not joking. I am willing to bet that he met his wife by doing some highly stereotyped dance at a bar back in the day! Anyway, Michael is probably the best source of information on grouse in the state, so when he offered up some information, I listened!
Michael* and me
(*wardrobe by grouse)
I was also put into touch with Khahn Tran, a very well-known Boreal bird guide. Although based in Portland, OR, Khahn spends much of his free time in Northern Washington chasing down boreal birds with his friends and clients. If you are thinking about hiring a guide in Washington/Oregon then Khahn is your man! Everyone I talked to said he knows how to get these tough birds, so when he offered to help, I was certainly appreciative. You can check out his site at http://ktbirding.com. Armed with the information from Michael and Khahn, I thought I had a very good chance to tick either or both of my target birds for the weekend, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce grouse. Khanh and his friend Wendy Duncan were fortuitously going to be in the area this weekend, so we actually birded with them both yesterday and today!
Wendy, Khahn, Matt Yawney
When I mentioned to Matt Yawney how I was hoping to camp in the Boreal zone outside Conconcully, he said he would be stoked to do just this. He had never seen a Spruce grouse so this would be a good chance for him to tick this bird for himself. We met in Conconully and headed out for some afternoon birding. I observed many Vaux's swifts flying over the town for year bird #516! There was actually a local craft fair going on in town when I arrived. There was an ice cream sale to benefit the local fire department, so I did my civic duty and had a double scoop. The Vaux's swifts were observed ice cream cone in hand. Matt had actually arrived well before me and had located Boreal Chickadee earlier in the day (most likely while I was stuffing my face with ice cream). He brought a bike with him, so the two of us set of on bikes to climb back to the area where he had seen these birds. After a very steep climb, we located several Boreal chickadees (year bird #517) among the mixed flocks of Mountain chickadees, kinglets, warblers, and nuthatches. The lighting was terrible, and the birds stayed high in the trees; I was not able to obtain a photo.
Conconcully street/craft fair
Matt in Boreal chickadee habitat
Very heavy rain moved in the early evening when we were to meet Khanh for grouse hunting. We took a short but very wet hike through what looked like perfect habitat without finding the bird. Khahn and Wendy headed back to town for the night while Matt and I made dinner and hit the hay early. We wanted to get a very early start to look for grouse right at dawn. Luckily, this morning was clear and things started to dry out a bit.
I have seen Spruce grouse only once before. This was during Camp Cascades in 1992 with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. That particular bird sat in the road 10 feet from us for 45 minutes. Spruce grouse are notoriously tame, so if you can find them, you normally get a great look at them. Finding them that is the tough part. They like very dense boreal forest. They make little noise and they do not flush easily. Their defense is moving incredibly slowly and blending in with the forest floor. It was going to take a lot of luck to stumble into one on this day.
Wendy and Khahn met us short after sunrise to resume the grouse search. While looking for the grouse, we stumbled into several Three-toed woodpeckers. This was a lifer for Matt! If we could fid the grouse, he'd have a two lifer day! Early grouse searching was fruitless. There are basically two ways to find Spruce grouse at this time of year. Females are wandering around with their broods and are often encountered along road and trail edges as they forage for berries, leaves, etc. In contrast, males stay in the confines of their territories. Michael says that a male spruce grouse territory is around 100 meters by 200 meters or ~2 hectares. This is not that big, and the males generally spend their entire lives in the territories once they have it established. They even spend the winters up in the boreal zone where they survive by eating spruce needles! The point is that finding a territory is tough, and finding a male in the incredibly dense tangle of that territory when he is not displaying is really tough.
Khahn suggested that Matt and I do some heavy duty bushwhacking while he and Wendy paralleled us on the trail. We had done quite a bit of unsuccessful bushwhacking already, but just after Matt and I entered the forest this time we heard Wendy and Kahn shouting from the two-track that Wendy had just found had male 10 feet off the trail! We crashed through the woods to meet them and grab a look at a beautiful male Spruce grouse for year bird #518! He was very cooperative, and we followed him around for the the next 30 minutes before he tired of us and flew up into a tree to await our departure. My 400 f/5.6 lens was useless since the bird was so close. Also, without IS (image stabilization), this lens was ineffective in such dense forest. Wendy came to the rescue and lent me her 70-200 f/2.8 IS II lens. Now I could shoot the whole bird AND get a sharp shot. Throw in a little fill flash from the pop up flash and BOOYAH!!!
Spruce grouse for year bird #518!
This bird is actually banded. I need to ask Michael what he knows about this. He said that he thought there was a territory in this very area, so there is a chance he is familiar with this exact bird. As I said, once they carve out a territory, males never leave it. After much celebrating, Wendy, Matt and Khahn took off for a bit of bonus birding elsewhere. With the newly created time, I decided to revisit the area where Matt and I had seen Boreal chickadee the previous evening. I really wanted to get a record photo for my blog readers. I again climbed the incredibly steep track up the into the mountains. I was able to find several chickadees, and despite the TERRIBLE light, grab at least a record shot for you. I was also able to add Cassin's vireo on my descent for year bird #519. A four year-bird weekend - WOO HOO!
Boreal chickadee - IS, f/2.8 needed here!
View of grouse habitat from above
Photography is fun, and in this age of digital photography, I do think its worth trying to get record shots of the tough to find birds. The more of tough birds a big year birder can photograph, the less doubt can be cast on him/her afterwards by "haters". For those unfamiliar with haters, I have lifted the following definition from "Urban Dictionary". I suspect though that anyone who doesn't know about haters is also unfamiliar with Urban Dictionary. Most birders probably fall into this category.......
OK, that's it for now. I am going to try to head to Mazama tomorrow. From there I may try to get up high for another day of high elevation birding to look for Sooty grouse and Gray-crowned rosy-finch. If I don't find these in the Cascades, then I'll look for them at Mount Rainier in about a week!
Today's ride (8/17) out of Conconully to Omak/Okanagon.
30 + ~18 unmapped = 48 total today