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Northwest Abundance in Birds

The Okanogan Valley in Washington offers many birding habitats and avian delights.

Sam Fried
Posted: May 29, 2013, 2:00 p.m. PDT

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If variety offers the spice of life, then birding has found an array of chili peppers in the Okanogan Valley, located in north-central Washington state. Layered with one delight after another, the area consists of a combination of diverse habitats that range from riparian zones to sage-steppe desert, foothills, canyons, high- and low-elevation grasslands and mountain pine forests up to the snow-covered peaks of the eastern Cascade Mountains. More than 200 species of birds breed here, making it an amazing destination brimming with activity each spring and early summer.

At times, the areas can be rugged and remote yet very accessible via an excellent system of well-maintained backcountry roads. Human population density is so low in this county that you can travel for hours and only occasionally see another vehicle, enhancing the magic of the region.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted nuthatches are one type of birds you'll see when you travel the northwest.

By basing yourself in Okanogan or Omak, small towns along the Okanogan River, you easily can explore the entire area with a series of day trips, reaching into every habitat type from the south end of the valley where the Okanogan flows into the Columbia River or to the valley's northern portion in British Columbia, Canada. The Okanogan Valley is all about contrasts.

Surprising Songs
I fortuitously selected the tiny town of Conconully and the Sinlahekin Valley as my initial destination. The mirrorlike surface of the reservoir was dappled with Barrow's Goldeneyes, Lesser Scaup and Pied-billed and Red-necked Grebes, and the shoreline wheezed with calling Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Cliff, Bank, Barn and Violet-green Swallows zipped past, collecting emergent insects. Working the willows along the water's edge, several Calliope Hummingbird males put on elegant, looping courtship displays and flared their red-striped gorgets to oversized proportions.

The exquisitely beautiful Sinlahekin Valley extends 20 miles north of town, first paralleling the steep shoreline of narrow Conconully Lake, jogging through mixed upland forest and finally ambling through rolling meadows dotted with small ponds in the U-shaped valley. Bird song in the forests was plentiful but mostly unfamiliar to my eastern ear. I found that these birds sang different melodies.

Western Tanagers sang from the dense pines — recognizable but much faster. MacGillivray's Warblers had different intonations. Cassin's Vireos and Nashville Warblers were right on cue. Lesson learned: There are many more variations in birds' songs than are represented on most commercially available recordings.

I stopped at all the lakes along my route, each with its own character and surprises. Blue Lake, a narrow willow-lined reservoir reflecting the adjacent hillsides, offered brightly clad Bullock's Orioles gathering nesting materials. California Quail scurried through the thickets, the male seeming to say, "Where are you?" and the female responding, "Over here."

Matted with dead cattails, Ford Lake held floating nests of Horned and Red-necked Grebes. A screaming Red-tailed Hawk flew over, carrying a writhing snake. A pair of Red-winged Blackbirds flashed across the meadow in vain pursuit of an American Kestrel clutching their chick in its talons.

Loomis & Loops
At the north end of the Sinlahekin Valley sits the small town of Loomis. At precisely 8:30 a.m., Vaux's Swifts appeared from out of the blue and began their high-speed pursuit of flying insects, twittering over power lines and in front of the massive cliff face that frames the village. The town's numerous flower gardens and feeders host Black-chinned Hummingbirds and Black-headed Grosbeaks.

Mountain Bluebird
Male mountain bluebirds are another type of bird you can see while birding in the northwest.

North of Loomis, heading west, an extraordinary loop drive begins on the Toats-Coulee Road and takes you through the eastern Cascade Mountains past flower-spackled meadows, high forested passes and snow-covered peaks. After passing a colony of Lewis's Woodpeckers in an old stand of cottonwoods near the beginning of the loop, the road ascends steadily into pine and spruce forest, becoming dirt when it heads south at Long Swamp Campground.

Tortuously winding through the mountains, the road demands a very slow pace. A pair of Gray Jays cautiously appeared when I stopped for lunch. Not so quiet was a family of Clark's Nutcrackers, with a young bird begging for food so noisily that it sounded like a Red-breasted Nuthatch with a loudspeaker.

In the forest burn areas and where trees were diseased, Three-toed Woodpeckers could be found, their bark-stripping workings often apparent. At every stop, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers sang from the treetops. On the downslope, Varied Thrushes sang like cell phones, and hoary marmot and pika scurried in the rocky talus slopes.

Flats & Lakes
East of the Okanogan River on the Colville Indian Reservation are the Timentwa Flats, a high and dry plain littered with ancient glacial erratics that suggest a herd of giant cattle just passed by. Small ponds occur throughout the flats and, in wet years, can hold numerous breeding waterfowl.

At the far side of the 31-mile Cameron Lake Road loop, a massive colony of Cliff Swallows attached mud nests to a rock face next to the road. I could see the graceful birds everywhere, foraging for insects and gliding over the sagebrush. Flocks of Horned Larks fluttered along the sandy roadside, their tinkling calls resonating in the absolute silence of the flats.

Western Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Black-billed Magpies perched on the occasional fencepost. In dense big sagebrush and bitterbrush areas, nesting Sage Thrashers and Brewer's Sparrows occur. These sparrows completely confused me at times by reversing the two parts of their complex song.

I visited Rat Lake, a public fishing area near Brewster, deserted except for a Chukar wandering around the parking lot. I followed and listened as it called chukka, chukka, chukka, walk-the-walk, walk-the walk, walk-the-walk, so bizarre-sounding that I began laughing until another one chimed in behind me. Just then, a pair of Golden Eagles soared in, and the Chukars disappeared from the raptors' sight.

Leader Lake Park, best visited early in the morning, lies east of Okanogan, along Route 20. At slightly greater elevation than the highest apple orchards, Western Wood-Pewees were common in its open mixed forest, along with Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Cassin's Vireos sang repetitiously from the underbrush, while Western Tanagers were overhead.

Pacific-slope Flycatchers and Cassin's Finches shared the middle ground. Never pass up the opportunity to stick your nose into a ponderosa pine's cracked and oozing bark for a deeply satisfying draught of vanilla.

For a complete change of scenery and birds, the Okanogan Highlands entail a vast relatively treeless plateau extending east of Tonasket and north to the Canadian border. Ascending quickly from the orchards lining the Okanogan Valley, Havillah Road passes through soft sagebrush hillsides and then into a mid-level, heavily cultivated plateau.

Bluebirds also are highly cultivated here, with many nestboxes lining the roads and attracting Mountain and Western species. When I stopped to photograph a male Mountain Bluebird that looked like a piece of sky pasted to a fencepost, his mate flew inside my car and probed its contents. 

A side road takes me to Highland Sno-Park, a cross-country skiing and snowmobiling area with excellent roads and trails for birding the forest. A noisy flock of Mountain Chickadees, juncos, warblers and nuthatches called my attention to a tooting Northern Pygmy-Owl. Try as I might, I couldn't find the diminutive resident as its voice floated ethereally from tree to tree.

On the high plateau, many abandoned farming homesteads stand in testament to the harshness of the winter weather. American Kestrels, Say's Phoebes and a variety of swallows have adopted these houses.

Lower tree-lined hillsides harbor Lazuli Buntings, and small ponds attract Olive-sided Flycatchers, Sora and Virginia Rails. In the nearly abandoned town of Molson, on the west side of the plateau, Gray Partridge wander the weed-lined streets. Molson Lake, on the other hand, held greater numbers and diversity of waterfowl than any other spot in the region.

Western Meadowlark
Western meadowlarks are another type of bird you might see while you are visiting the northwest.

An outstanding day trip encompasses British Columbia's Okanagan (spelled differently) Valley. A "must" for Canadian listers, the valley contains many species at the northern edge of their breeding range and rarely found elsewhere in Canada.

On dry pine-covered hillsides, flycatchers are abundant, with Gray, Least, Hammond's and Dusky often found within sight of each other. In one mountain meadow, while watching a flock of Red Crossbills, I peeked into a Mountain Bluebird nestbox mounted on a dead tree and almost came out of my shoes when a Red-naped Sapsucker drummed explosively 10 feet over my head.

Vaseux Lake Wildlife Center offers a lovely boardwalk extending through the alders. While looking at birds in the thickets, keep an eye out for White-throated Swifts soaring overhead. Lewis's Woodpeckers can be found on nearby hillsides along with herds of bighorn sheep.

Like so many other great birding destinations, a brief visit to the Okanogan Valley only whets your appetite for more. You can go farther into the desert or higher into the Cascades, or you can explore the expansive river bars where the Okanogan meets the mighty Columbia River. When walking the quiet trails, you're more likely to be surprised by a moose than a human, making your experience in Washington all the more memorable. 

Want more birding locations to visit? Check out these places:

Birding America: South Dakota Smorgasbord
Birding at Cape May's Northern Cousin
Birding in Nevada's Lahontan Valley
Georgia's Enchanted Birding Lands

Excerpt from WildBird January/February 2006 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

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