Archive for Washington
The Northern Mockingbird was long a favored household ornament in North America. The reasons are obvious: as Buffon tells us, this bird enjoyed a reputation as
the most outstanding songster of all the feathered beings of the Universe, surpassing even the nightingale: for like the nightingale, the mockingbird charms us with the pleasing accents of its song, but it also delights us with its inborn talent for imitating the song, or rather the call, of other birds….
But mockingbirds, he goes on to say, are finicky cage-guests.
One has to accommodate their tastes, their instincts, their needs: careful good treatment is required to make them forget their captivity, or rather their liberty.
Those who attempted and failed to raise young mockingbirds in Pennsylvania had a different explanation. Peter Kalm was told in the 1740s that
the mother mockingbird poisons the young so that she saves them from bondage and misery.
Kalm wasn’t buying it, but it’s a good story nonetheless, and I’m sure that it soothed the disappointments of some would-be aviculturists.
As you who know me know, I tend to mope and whine when merely human events keep me from birding when I’m in a place with cool birds. Not this time, though: Valerie and David’s wedding in Nelson, British Columbia, was a lot of fun, and it was great to see relatives and friends on such a happy occasion.
Not that we didn’t bird, too, of course. The first morning, Alison and I slipped out of the still sleeping house for Whitewater Road, which leads a couple of thousand feet up the hill between Nelson and Salmo. We knew it would be chilly up there, and it was, but neither of us had expected the ferocity of the high-elevation mosquitoes, which drove us away after less than two hours of admiring Pacific Wrens, pale-lored White-crowned Sparrows, Cassin’s Finches, and Red Crossbills (of undetermined type).
Town itself was ornithologically quiet, with just the usual Pacific-slope Flycatchers, American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Gray Catbirds, and Song Sparrows, but that afternoon, as I scanned the sky out the big windows at David’s house, a single Black Swift showed up and hunted, high and close, for a good half hour. I had never seen that dramatic species right in Nelson, but the next afternoon, just up Kootenay Lake at Harrop, three individuals appeared over the water and flashed around for several minutes: excitingly good views of a bird I’ve seen not ten times in my entire life.
Flight schedules and border crossings meant that Lennart and I had to leave Monday morning already for Spokane. The drive down was pretty but, as so often, uneventful, with little more than Ospreys and Bald Eagles lighting our path south. I dropped Lennart off at noon, then had a full afternoon to bird the open forests of northeast Washington. I settled on Riverside State Park, just out of town; the ranger who sold me my Discover Pass heartily recommended a trail that proved hot, dry, and birdless, so I pushed on to the Deep Creek area, which I knew would be hot and I knew would be dry and I hoped would be birdy.
It was all those things, if a bit more of the former two than of the last; my four hours’ strolling through the open ponderosa pines was punctuated with the whistling and chittering of the big fish hawks. One of the eagles declined to fly no matter how close I got, forcing me and my blackberry camera to walk within twenty feet of it as I tracked down the lisps and tweets of the sparse passerines.
Sparse, but “good birds” all. Alone among the “songbirds” on a blazing afternoon, the Gray Flycatchers were still singing in a desultory way, while the Western Wood-Pewees were reduced to the odd lazy buzzy burp. Pygmy and White-breasted (or whatever we call them now) Nuthatches were entirely silent, and even the Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees found it too hot to scold with any real enthusiasm. Western Bluebird families flitted around in the openings, and a beautifully spotted juvenile Townsend’s Solitaire seemed to believe that if it just sat perfectly still, it would remain unspotted by the great sweaty bipedal mammal peering into the tree from a distance of three feet.
Just as I was about to let that be my last bird of the day, a lace-fringed tail flew up from the dusty path in front of me. As I silently oohed and aahed, it occurred to me that this was the first Lark Sparrow I had ever seen in the state of Washington, a great little bird to end a great week in the northwest.
Usk, Washington, has never meant more to me than an amusing roadsign, but this noon, following the hint in the Lane/ABA bird-finding guide, I checked out a spot along the Pend Oreille River there, finding it every bit as pleasant and as birdful as promised.
Kings Lake Road (called, inscrutably, “Fifth” in the bfg) leads across the river and onto the Kalispell Indian Reservation; an immediate turn north takes you to the reservation’s powwow grounds, whence there is access to a good-quality gravel road leading north a mile or so along the river. Ospreys and their nests line the road, and the stands at the arena harbor an impressively large colony of Cliff Swallows. The road starts in grassy flowered fields, making for a delightful combination of Wood Ducks and Double-crested Cormorants on the river side, Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks on the land side.
Soon the landscape changes, swampy woods replacing the hayfields and Tree Swallows replacing the cliffies; Yellow Warblers and Song Sparrows sing from the willow thickets. The potential for migrants looks good, with a single male Western Tanager perhaps still on his way to the ponderosa-clad slopes above the floodplain.
Just where the road turns uphill and away from the river, a fine set of little oxbow marshes harbored a few waterfowl, among them a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Redheads. An Eastern Kingbird fussed and fluttered over the water, too, and I’m sure that a morning visit would turn up other “east slope” species.
Best of all, though, were the Black-billed Magpies, a dozen or so adults scattered all along the road. It’s not easy being a magpie, I think. Like their larger relatives the American Crows and Common Ravens, the lovely black-and-whites are drawn to the area by the abundance of eggs and chicks, no doubt, but their milk is spoiled and their honey embittered by the vigilance of passerine parents: everything, and I mean everything, was mobbing them, from Eastern Kingbirds to Yellow Warblers. Can’t a pie enjoy a meal in peace?