Pacific Northwest Archives

January 13, 2008

Snow Geese in the Skagit

What a wonderful day! After a long stretch of cold dark damp gray days, we finally got a sunny break. G and I talked about getting out. We've had cabin fever stuck in the house. The forecast was for a good day on Sunday so we decided to travel up about 60 miles north of Seattle to the Skagit River Valley.

The Skagit River has a huge delta. Over the years it has created a rich flat valley that is still farmed. In the Spring, the fields are a patchwork of color created by the fields of blooming bulbs. This region is the number one region for growing bulbs in the US and second to Holland in the world. After the spring, the fields are used for a variety of crops such as potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and corn.

The farmers leave the corn stubble in the field over the fall and winter. Other farmers will plant wheat and rye as cover crops. This along with the abundance of marsh areas attracts hundreds of snow geese which migrate to the delta in the winter from Siberia. They arrive around October and stay until February or March. The estimation of the flock size is around 50,000 birds. In addition to geese, three types of swans migrate; trumpeter, mute and tundra.

Besides the migrating flocks, there are also hawks, owls and an increasing population of bald eagles that roost along the Skagit. The winter salmon steelhead runs attracts many eagles near Rockport and Concrete a bit upriver.

But it was the geese that we wanted to see. A birding friend had mentioned seeing them recently and that planted the idea. This would give us an opportunity to get out and also do a bit hiking. So we went on the search for the birds.

We started at an area call Big Ditch. I thought it would be good because it is a long levy that runs along the delta. We would have an opportunity to walk and stretch our legs. We arrived shortly after 10am. There were several vehicles in the parking lot; mostly hunters which had been out in the early morning. We walked a long for a while seeing very little. In the treetops, we spotted a red tail hawk. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement and heard a splash. I recognized the glossy dark brown fir. It was a pair of otters. That we so neat to see them. It was the first time for us.

We spotted nothing else so we started back to the car. Just as we arrived in the parking lot, we heard the sound of geese and a few gun shots to the south. The geese were on the move and heading north. They were in line to fly right over the parking lot and they did. What a magnificent sight to see and hear thousands of the large birds in formations flying overhead.

Now to see where they landed. We headed up to Hayton reserve on Fir Island. We had seen them in a distant field near there in other years. We started up the trail and looked west. There they were just a bit further up the road. We jumped in the car to see if we could get there before they left.

What we didn't realize was they were right next to the road. Never had we seen them that close and accessible. There were thousands turning the field white. They were feasting on the winter rye; honking and moving around. By now they were attracting quite a crowd. We walked a bit closer but remained across the road. I was certain they would take flight. But they didn't.

Another photographer moved across the road closer to the flock. The geese slowly moved away but did not take flight. Soon we all moved to the roadside next to them. They continued to eat and slowly move away. What was interesting is they moved towards a house but they didn't seem to want to cross the driveway and move onto the lawn of the house. They must have sensed the humans inhabiting the area. Thus they seemed to be bunching up into a small area of the field. A few spilled onto the road. I have no idea why they did not take flight with so many cars and people around. But they did not.

I was snapping photos like crazy. But it was also nice to just stand and watch them. We stayed at least a half hour and they never flew off. We finally decided to move on to La Conner for lunch still in awe of what we had seen.

After a lunch at La Conner Brewery, we traveled north to an area called West 90. This area is known for short eared owls. I ran into my birding friend and they told us the owls were flying in the area. We walked out into the marshy delta area and soon we also saw them. They flew around and fought a bit with some harrier (marsh) hawks. You could hear the gentle cries of the owls contrasted by the hawk shrieks.

The sun was getting low in the sky and we were getting chilled. We had a cup of coffee and then started home. Driving along Padilla Bay we spotted several herons and decided to stop one more time. We walked a short distance along the Padilla Bay trail watching the sun slowly sink into the west and burnish the ending day with gold.

For more information, here is a recent article from the Seattle Times. Also, this is a good map of the birding areas in the Skagit area.

And of course, I took pictures. Here are a couple of photos and a slide show at Flickr.

Snow Geese SlideShow

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

July 21, 2009

Columbia Basin Drive

Highway 2 to Spokane
Highway 2 to Spokane

Rocky shores, volcanoes, inland marine waterways, desert, rain forests and a mighty river - Washington state has it all. I am still amazed at the different diverse regions. The spine of the volcanic Cascade range separates the state into two very distinct sections.

Crossing the Cascade passes and dropping into Eastern Washington, you enter a different world. This is the land of distant horizons and long lonely stretches of road. The Columbia Basin is dry but fertile desert surrounds the mighty Columbia River - the 4th largest river in North America. The Snake from Idaho and Kootaney from British Columbia Canada feed into the Columbia and are included in this basin.

This is also the area of deep canyons, long coulees, volcanic basalt and rocky dry falls. This is the result of an ice age flood. An ice dam near the Idaho/Montana border near Missoula during the ice age created a large glacial lake from the Clark River coming off the Rockies. The dam held back over 500 cubic miles of water - as much as both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. It is theorized that the dam broke and the water poured in a matter of 2-3 days over what is now Eastern Washington carving coulees and leaving behind fertile but arid soil. It is awe inspiring to cross the bottom of one of the hot dry coulees and realize the power of water.

The climate is also very different. The Cascades form a rain barrier creating dry barren scrub land east of the mountains similar to the Great Basin area of Nevada. But unlike Nevada, there is a major source of water - the Columbia River. The Columbia Basin Project irrigates the Basin farms with water. Potatoes are the major crop along with corn, alfalfa, and peas.

I love taking a road trip east through this classic western land. My favorite road is Highway 2. It parallels the Great Northern Railway I wrote about earlier, traveling east from Everett to Spokane and beyond. The road passes through small towns along the western foothills before climbing up to Stevens Pass at 4,000ft. At the crest of the pass, the clouds and mist disappear as you drop down into Tumwater canyon and the kitchey Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth. The evergreen trees disappear and sun burnt hills scrubby hills appear and are shortly to replaced by lush apple orchards around Wenatchee and the Columbia River. Green fingers of orchards climb up the microclimate valleys along the Columbia.

The highway crosses the river and travels along the riverbank for a couple of miles before turning east again to climb to the plateau covered with golden fields of wheat and a sky filled with fluffy clouds. The road seems to stretch forever before it suddenly drops into Moses Coulee and the Dry Falls region. Grand Coulee is just around the bend. The road continues east through farm land and small towns. The terrain changes and you start to see solitary pines and rocky crops - the distant foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Spokane is not far away.

Here are a few pictures of region and drive - More tomorrow.

Columbia River at Vantage
Bridge over Columbia River at Vantage

Highway 2 to Spokane
Along the Columbia River near Wenatchee

Wheatfields near Waterville WA
Columbia plateau wheatlands near Waterville, WA

Highway 2 to Spokane
Moses Coulee

Dry Falls
Dry Falls

Coulee Dam
Grand Coulee Dam

July 22, 2009


Steptoe Butte
Steptoe Butte Vista

South of Spokane is an area of broad rolling hills and prairies called the Palouse. The area was settled in the 1880 when experiments in dryland farming were successful. By the beginning of the 1900's, all of the land was converted into wheat fields. Today wheat is the major crop along with barley, peas and lentils.

Much of the area remains the same as it was in the early 1900's. Highway 27 curves and rolls through the hills and ravines. It is the main street of many of the small historic towns located about 12 miles about - the distance between rail stops.

It is also a photographer's dream. The hills curve and roll with interesting lines and patterns. In June, the fields are green with new growth and brown from newly plowed fields. In August, huge combines machines cut across the rolling fields as the farmers rush to harvest their crops. In July, the hills are brilliant emerald green as they ripen in the summer sun.

We headed south out of Spokane and turned towards Waverly. Sugar beet was the major crop early in the 1900's but today it is known more for its busy grain elevators. Next town was Latah with its lovely old homes. Tekoa was my favorite. It felt like the quintessential small town with its restored Empire theater, 1909 city hall and mural-faced library. It also has a great train trestle evidence of the influence of the railroad.

Steptoe Butte was our destination. This ancient rock butte rises 1,600ft above the green, tan and brown fields. The road to the top curls around the butte to the top where you have a 360 degree vista. It feels like you are eye level with the clouds.

A quick stop at the local farmers truck stop for a cold drink and a salty snack and then we were on our way back to Spokane. We did a quick detour to one more small town, Rosalia. You pass a multiple arch concrete railroad trestle on the way into town - looking similar to a roman aqueduct. The town is sleepy in the warm afternoon sun. It is also the site of the Steptoe Memorial commemorating the 1858 battle between the U.S. Army and local Indian warriors. The Army lost the battle and retreated.

Grain Elevators
Waverly Grain Elevators

Rolling hills of Palouse
Road and Rolling Hills

Palouse hills
Old Barn and Stripped Hills

Tekoa City Hall and Library
Tekoa City Hall and Library

Tekoa Empire Theater
Empire Theater - Tekoa

Steptoe Butte
Patchwork fields scattered below Steptoe Butte

January 28, 2010

Birdwatching in the Skagit Valley

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpter Swans

Do you ever have one of those serendipitous days where you decide to visit an area but you don't have any specific plans and the day ends up magical? We had one of those days on Monday.

We called up a friend who likes to bird watch and suggested that we go to the Skagit Valley. He couldn't go on Sunday so we decided to go Monday. The forecast was unpredictable as usual in January in the Pacific Northwest. It has been extremely unseasonably warm and dry. Gray still but warmer and drier.

Skagit Valley is about 1 hour north of Seattle. The Skagit River forks just south of the city of Mount Vernon into two branches and creates Fir Island. This is rich farmland and also the winter home of snow geese, swans and bald eagles. Flocks of these bird migrate south from the summer breeding grounds in Alaska to over winter in the rich fields. We have seen the flocks increase over the years.

Birders share this area with hunters in the winter months up through January. Washington state Fish and Game have several areas set aside which are open to both hunters and bird watchers. It can be a difficult mix but part of economy of wildlife.

Fir Island is easy to get to. Driving north on I-5, you exit at Conway and head towards La Connor. We had just crossed over the south fork of the Skagit when we spotted a field of Trumpeter Swans. We have two favorite spots to stop. First is the Hayton reserve. We had seen a bald eagle in the trees west of the parking lot last year. Wow! This year there were at least 4 bald eagles in the trees and also a huge nest. We brought out the scope and watched the birds. We also noticed several bald eagles just sitting in the fields and one returned to the tree with a catch and we watched him eat it. We think it was some type of rodent caught in the field.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Eagle Nest

We moved on and headed to the end of Rawlins Road where we could access the dike and over look the salt marshes. A large flock of snow geese were in a field so we walked about 1/4 mile along the dike until we could see them. We had passed several hunters along the road and we could hear their runs in the distance. The flock were a little agitated but we had a great opportunity to watch the geese as they went through the field.

It was time for lunch so we headed to La Connor and the La Connor Brewery. There are several great places to eat in La Connor, the brewery, Palmers and Calico Bakery are good. We like the brews at the brewery so we always stop there.

After lunch we headed north towards Edison. This is the Padilla Bay and the estuary for the Samish river. We had heard that there might be a snowy owl near the out take of the Samish River. First we stopped at West 90. We saw very little bird life other than a Marsh Hawk. But on the way back we stopped to watch a flock of Trumpeter Swans near the highway. We were fascinated by their head bobbing just before two pairs would take flight. They would travel a ways out of distance and then after waiting a couple of minutes - they would return. We watched and listened to the gentle honking in waning light of the late afternoon.

It was time to head home. We decided to head back across Fir Island. There was an opening in the clouds and G was predicting a nice sunset. We crossed over the bridge onto Fir Island and I noticed a flock of Snow Geese near Maupin Road. I decided to stop. Just as we pulled up, the sun peaked under the clouds and the sky was starting to turn golden. We looked towards the north and saw groups after groups of snow geese heading towards us. We stepped out of the car and watched in amazement as each group approached over us and glided to the field for the night. It was so magical. It was one of those moments that you just could not capture.

After a short while, another car approached and for some reason, the geese were spooked. All at once the flock took flight and headed toward the water. The golden sunset was speckled with their wings.

It was growing cold and dark. We headed back to the car and Seattle. A satisfying end to a glorious winter day.

Skagit Estuary
Skagit Estuary

Snow Geese

Arriving for the evening

Snow Geese
A field of Snow Geese

Snow Geese
Snow Geese in the mud

Snow Geese Sunset
Snow Geese taking flight in the sunset

Sunset over the Skagiit

Here are some links:

Seattle Things To Do

June 7, 2010

Ebey's Landing

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Vista from bluff above Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island

We went camping on Memorial Day and stopped at Ebey's Landing on the way. I had heard about the unique flowers that could be found on the bluffs and wanted to explore. Ebey's Landing is a unique micro climate in the center of Whidbey Island. The area is a National Historical Reserve created to preserve the working landscape, historical buildings and natural habitat. I love the windswept prairie that spills onto the rocky beach. We had not explored the bluffs just north which is home to Opuntia fragilis - a prickly pear cactus that is native to the islands of the Puget Sound.

There are two trail heads to the bluff trail. We decided to park at the Prairie Overlook. The first quarter of a mile or so is along a private road next to several houses that overlook the prairie before it turns and runs along the edge of the prairie. I love the spacious vistas and the tall prairie grass. Along with the weathered fences, buildings and fir trees, you almost feel as if you are in Maine. At the bluff, you have a massive vista of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympics and the bluffs north and south. We meandered along checking out the flowers. We kept an eye out for the cactus and found one patch near the trail. The trail runs along the edge of the bluff to the top of Perego’s Lake, a small lagoon along the beach. We found a place to sit and have lunch and mulled whether to go back along the bluff or walk along the rocky beach. We decided to go down and walk along the beach. It would have been a great walk except light rain started up and the wind was blowing it towards us. I was not happy.

You continue along the beach until you come to the parking lot and the second trail head. I convinced G to walk back the last 3/4 mile to the car and come pick me up. Fortunately, neither of us got too wet, mainly just a little damp and we dried off before arriving at our campground.

The next day we went over to Fort Casey to see the Admiralty Lighthouse. The weather was cold windy and drizzly. We took a quick walk around the lighthouse before heading back home.

Ebey's Landing is a perfect place to explore. It is also a great hike in the winter or early spring. We will definitely return. Next time we want to also camp at Fort Ebey's State Park.

Reference Links:

Bluff Trail at Ebey's Landing

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
View at start of trail from Prairie Overlook

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Heading to the bluff

Rosa nutkana
Rosa Nutkana was in bloom all along the trail

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
It feels like Maine and the country of Andrew Wyeth

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Across the prairie

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
On to the bluff

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
She is still a happy camper here. :)

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Windswept forest along the bluff edge

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Perego’s Lake

Ebey Landing Bluff Trail
Beach at Ebey's Landing

Admiralty Lighthouse

Admiralty Head Lighthouse

Admiralty Head Lighthouse

Admiralty Head Lighthouse

Admiralty Head Lighthouse
Ebey's Landing bluffs in the distance

July 9, 2010

Summer time is here

Marina Beach - Edmonds

In Atlantic City or out in Malibu
Or any where between, I'm telling you
When you feel those balmy breezes on your face
Summer time is the best time any place

'Cause it's summer
Summer time is here
Yes it's summer
My time of year
"Summer" - War

Finally! After a long gloomy June, summer has arrived. We have a saying here in the Seattle area that summer doesn't arrive until after July 4th. And right on scheduled, the weather has turned hot. Believe it or not - Sunday July 4th had a high of 59 degrees! Thursday July 8th, it broke records with a high of 87.

I took full advantage of the warmth today. I started the day out with a cup of coffee and my netbook on the deck. Just before noon, I went to the Marina beach in Edmonds. It was not as crowded as I expected but there were many families enjoying the sun. I thought of going in the water but I had no interest after seeing the green slimy algae. So after a bit of sunbathing, I packed up and headed to Yost Pool. It is one of few outdoor pools in the region. The public swim started just before 1pm. It was so refreshing. I don't mind the crowded pool although I could take a little bit less of the pre-teen girls screaming.

I am now back out on the deck. It is currently 87 again but there is a light breeze. I smell a whiff of the citrus herbal smell of the linden tree just starting to bloom. Sinatra is on the iPod singing Summer Wind. Kitty is sprawled out next my chair on the deck. Perfect!

The forecast is for it to cool a bit and become partially cloudy by Sunday. We're thinking of heading to the Washington Coast for to camp. It sounds like it will be pretty cool and overcast in the morning but we're going to give it a shot.

Marina Beach - Edmonds

Marina Beach - Edmonds

Marina Beach - Edmonds

July 14, 2010

Silver Falls - Entiat

Camping in the Entiat

We have taken a likin' to camping and we went again this weekend. The weather has been good so I was hoping to go to the coast. We had two places in mind. One was close to Forks - the Twilight Capital. But the weather looked poor for Sunday night so we made a call and headed to Central Washington where the summer weather is more reliable. The Cascades are a perfect rain/cloud barrier.

Sunday dawned cloudy. G packed up and we were out by 9am. Our destination - Entiat Valley. This is a valley between Wenatchee and Lake Chelan. We had never visited it in all our years of living here in Washington. Silver Falls CG was recommended in the Tent Camping book.

It took about 2 hours to make it over Steven Pass even on a Sunday Morning. There were a lot of people heading out to hiking or visiting Leavenworth.It was another hour up along the Columbia River to the turn off and another 30 minutes or more up the valley.

The valley was very interesting. It is a very warm microclimate and it was lined with orchards up past Ardenvoir. We entered the forest and we were soon at Silver Falls CG. We cruised through the camp and found a site along the river and quickly set up camp.

We relaxed reading the paper and napping. I decided to go for a walk to Silver Falls. It is a beautiful falls that cascades and falls down the side of the fall right across from the CG. It is a national recreation trail and is beautifully built. Each bridge is hand build with lots of details. There are also steps of granite climbing steeply up both sides of the fall along with several spots to sit and admire (or rest).

I did not go far and returned to camp with G took a nap. We had our dinner and started a fire. We had several deers passing near our camp in the early evening. Soon it was almost 10 and we headed off for the night. I awoke once and gazed at the bright stars.

The next day after breakfast, G & I both headed to the top of Silver Falls. It is actually a loop trail that loops from one side to the other crossing the stream at the top. It was steep but short. It is about 1.7 miles in loop but 700 ft gain. We took our time taking photos and admiring the views.

We returned and broke camp. We had seen a sign for a dirt backroad to Lake Chelan just down from the campground. It was 31 miles but we had time so we decided to take it. I'll describe what we saw in the next post.

Camping in the Entiat
Our tent with sides rolled up for ventilation in the heat.

Camping in the Entiat

Silver Falls Trail
Lovely handwork on one of the bridges on the Silver Falls Trail

Silver Falls Trail
Cascading stream

Silver Falls Trail
Climbing up

Silver Falls Trail
Places to rest along the way

Silver Falls Trail
The largest fall

Silver Falls Trail
View of the Falls from opposite side

Silver Falls Trail
Bridge at the top

Camping in the Entiat
Warm Sunny Day on the Trail

July 15, 2010

Driving the backroad - FS5900 Entiat to Chelan

Road 5900 between Entiat and Chelan
Wildflowers amid the destruction

On the way in to our campground, we saw the sign for FS5900. We looked at the map and it looked very interesting. It was 31 miles to Lake Chelan shoreline at 25 Mile Creek. It passed over Shady Pass. We knew nothing about the road other than Shady Pass was at 6000ft and only 8 miles from the Entiat Road which was 2900ft. That meant the road was going to climb over 3,000 ft in 8 miles.

We were game. We figured it would probably take at least 1 1/2 hours since I usually travel about 20 MPH on a good gravel road. The road was well graded and in good condition. As we climbed, we noticed swatches of brown dead trees. The pine bark beetle has gotten a good foothold and is killing many of the large lodgepole pines.

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan
Up to Shady Pass - The brown trees are dead

We climbed higher and higher. The trees got shorter and shorter. The lupine went from purple blooms to buds. We finally emerged onto the summit area with wide open vistas of the craggy peaks in the Entiat Mountains.

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan
Entiat Mountains Vista from Shady Pass

We did not expect what we found next. We entered into a ghostly surreal world of destruction. We entered the extensive stark silver burnt remnants of the Tyee Creek Fire. The Tyee Creek fire burned over 135,000 acres and burned for almost a month. It is the second largest fire in Washington's history. What amazed us was lack of regrowth. The fire occurred in 1994 and very little had regrown. It was amazing since we we have been in other areas that were also burnt in 1994 that have good regrowth. The fire must have burned extremely hot and the soil must be very poor.

There was extensive swaths of wildflowers on the south facing slopes. Bright purple of lupine and penstemon - dotted with brilliant red blossoms of scarlet gilia and paint brush. The road narrowed and was rocky. Fortunately, we were able to make it with our Honda and we never met another car. The road was almost like a wagon path with a center line of wildflowers. It was amazingly beautiful.

We finally reentered the forest and descended down to the Chelan shoreline. It had taken 2 hours to drive. We still had four hours to drive.

On the drive home, we had passed a fire along the Columbia. It had expanded quite a bit and was billowing smoke over the Columbia. The area had been burned several years ago and the plants were still green so the fire staff were able to keep it somewhat controlled although it is still burning today.

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan

Lewisia Tweedyi
Lewisia tweedyi

Calochortus macrocarpus - Sagebrush Mariposa Lily
Calochortus macrocarpus

FS5900 over Shady Pass from Entiat to Chelan
Lake Chelan Shoreline

Swakane Fire from Hwy 97A
Swakane Fire along the Columbia

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