Exploring Wildness

Winter Birding in the Okanogan Highlands

Fancher Flats in the Okanogan Highlands.

Fancher Flats glowed in the fading light. Stefan said, “Scan the cliffs for Chukars. They go to roost up in the rocks. I hope we aren’t too late.” Nothing moved in the freezing air, and it was difficult to see into the shadows.

The light had almost disappeared when a “chuck, chuck, chuck” came from our right. Over the next five minutes at least fifty Chukars climbed up the steep front. When they walked across snow patches, field marks were obvious, but they were just moving blobs on the talus. I noticed Stefan’s body relax as everyone peered through scopes. He didn’t need to be nervous about finding this specialty for he and Randy had shown us so much already.

This unique bird closed our day in the Okanogan Highlands and the second of three days with Stefan Schlick and Randy Hill. Twelve of us had joined these leaders to explore this cold, foggy country.

On the third morning, we raced south to stop by the jet fighter monument in Brewster. Four Red-necked Grebes, a rare bird right then for these inland waters, joined numerous other grebes, ducks, geese and a few loons in Lake Pateros. After a few minutes, we moved to the south side of the jet. A Double-crested Cormorant came flying from the south, heading north. Stefan said, “Watch the cormorant, and you can get that species for both Douglas and Okanogan counties.” I cringed, for I had failed the group; I’d entered everything into one checklist.

Bald Eagle

A quick stop along Grange Road netted a marvelous look at four American Tree Sparrows. On the way up Bridgeport Hill Road, Stefan pulled quickly off the road’s edge. A single Sharp-tailed Grouse munched buds on the top of a water birch. The chase cars saw half a dozen more flush when a Bald Eagle flew by.

The Waterville Plateau was windswept, cold, and foggy, but H Road gave us a large flock of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks as well as eight Gray Partridges. We ran up and down roads across the Plateau, stopping numerous times, pulling out the scopes to scan for Snowy Owls, shivering, but no luck. Four Common Redpolls, though, fed amongst some Horned Larks and fifty Bohemian Waxwings hid from the wind in a tall conifer in Withrow.

As everyone thanked Stefan and Randy for a wonderful three days of birding, I could see the relief on Stefan’s face. He said, “Good day, good day, anytime we can get six tier two birds, is a good day.” As people piled back in their car, I thought, “Yeah, and it has been a fantastic three days, too.”

It all had started early on Friday morning when we’d met at Omak Inn. First thing on Cameron Lake Road, a Golden Eagle sat on a pole. Fog enveloped the ponderosa pine forest farther up, and several stops were eerily quiet before the woods coughed up a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers. South of the forested area, we traveled across a wide-open landscape. The wind and fog made birding difficult, but we did find our first Snow Buntings and managed five brief looks at a distant Gyrfalcon. It teased us, flying short distances before disappearing over knolls, then reappearing. It was hunting, and Stefan was able to point out its unique flying style. At one spot, as we searched for the elusive falcon, another, a Merlin, appeared to fly right out of nowhere, almost hitting Randy on the head, before darting across the fields.

Back onto Highway 97, on a poplar tree at the weigh station sat 35 Bohemian Waxwings. As I studied them, Randy rattled off waterbirds in the Columbia River. Stefan hurried us back in the cars before I got a full count for the communal list, my first failure as the group’s eBird recorder.

Northern Sawhet Owl.

Bridgeport State Park was quiet, no people and little bird activity. Stefan said, “We’ll check each conifer, but please be quiet. We’re looking for Saw-whet Owls.” Sure enough, three individuals sat resting.

No sign of a Sharp-tailed Grouse as we climbed to the Waterville Plateau. At a clump of sage along Heritage Road, several American Tree Sparrows perched in the open until a Northern Shrike appeared. In Mansfield, huge numbers of California Quail and Eurasian Collared-Doves hung around. On the way back out of the plateau, a Sharp-tailed Grouse flew across in front of the lead car. It stopped in a water birch, a nice species to close our first-day birding in Eastern Washington.

On the second morning, the Okanogan Highlands were draped in fog as we climbed Havillah Road. Stopping first to search Fancher Flats and Siwash Creek Road. Everything was quiet; five Bald Eagles slept. A Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Shrike gave us brief looks. Near a house and barn, some Gray Partridges still roosted.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches.

Along Hungry Hollow Road, we stopped by a small ranch. Here I had found Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches just two days before, and Stefan and Randy had seen them near here on their scouting trip, but no luck. The owner drove up with his two big dogs in the front seat. “You guys okay?’ “Yup, just looking for birds.” With a deep belly laugh, he said: “Just coming back from breakfast at the tavern in Chesaw.”

A mile down the road, more than 350 Snow Buntings fed among cattle. Eleven Gray Partridge clustered near the cows. Stefan said that if you see them out in the open, exposed; conditions must be tough. The snow did have a thick crust.

As we pulled into Chesaw, 16 Pine Grosbeaks flew into trees behind the tavern. As we studied these finches, a young man ran out of the tavern in his shirtsleeves. “Are the elk on the ridge?” His shoulders sank as he turned to get out of the freezing air when we said grosbeaks. Next 25 Common Redpolls flushed, landing in distant trees. After moving carefully across the ice-covered road, Stefan put his scope on one redpoll that sat in the sun.

Up Bolster Road, the fourth car spotted two Ruffed Grouse, nipping alder buds. On Hungry Hollow Road, a Great Horned Owl sunned itself in an abandoned barn. The rancher had spread fresh hay where the large flock of buntings had been. The buntings and partridges were still there and so were more than 100 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. Ten scopes gave everyone opportunities to study these magnificent birds.

Ruff Grouse.

Great Horned Owl

Mary Ann Road was dead quiet, no Northern Pygmy-Owls! One car spotted another Ruffed Grouse picking grass seeds. All of a sudden, a long-tailed weasel shot out from under a snow bank and then back into cover. The grouse moved into the bush. Then the weasel came out again, carrying a massive vole in its mouth and raced across the opening.

No Northern Pygmy-Owl yet as we started down Havillah Road with the light fading. As we dropped through the ponderosa pine belt, Stefan fretted that we might not find one. All of a sudden, he pushed hard on the breaks as he said over the radios to the other cars, “That bird on the wire a quarter mile back looks promising.” The little round ball of feathers sitting on the power line was clearly our quest. The owl kept twisting its head, one way and then the other, its eyes, sharp, focused and intense. A few Mountain Chickadees scolded in the distance.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Stefan and Randy had pulled yet another good bird out of this frozen landscape. Joy then radiated from our party, and Stefan and Randy had seemed pleased. One last stop, Fancher Flats, was left on our second day. Yes, birding in the winter landscape with great leaders was truly marvelous.

If You Go: Omak, Washington is a good base to bird the surrounding areas. It has nice hotels and good restaurants. Central Washington often has many species that come down from Canada for the winter and are not common west of the Cascades. January and February are good times for winter birds. Be prepared for snow. The area is beautiful in the summer, too and the birding outstanding.

A version of this report appeared in WOS Newsletter: 2018. Field Trip Report: Winter Birds of Okanogan and Douglas County. WOS News 171: 13, 18  http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews171.pdf


Watercolor of an old homestead.




About Thomas Bancroft

The natural world has fascinated and amazed me for my whole life. I have spent most of my professional career working to protect and restore natural ecosystems. Through photography and writing I have tried to capture the unique and spectacular feelings that the natural world creates. The natural world invigorates my appreciation of the complexity of natural systems, wildlife and how organisms interact. When I can be in a wild landscape enjoying these wonders, the stress of our rapid pace life drifts away. My art is attempting to create that opportunity for the viewer to experience. Birds have always been a key part of this fascination and amazement. Watching and appreciating how they fly, feed, reproduce and live gives me a solid appreciation for life in general and how we care for the world. Read more HERE

0 thoughts on “Winter Birding in the Okanogan Highlands”

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *