Nostalgic for Real Winter Birding - Day 3

What a difference a day makes. We awoke to 15F temps, a couple inches of snow in the motel parking lot, and steady 20+mph winds. We emptied our overnight bags and donned every available layer of clothing in preparation for below-zero wind chill factor. After crossing the Columbia River we turned west on Washington State Highway 14, which was now a slippery sheet of packed snow and ice. Few other brave souls were on the road as we made the hour-plus drive downstream to the John Day Dam. Stopping several times to scope the river and sift through the occasional passerine flock, we found little of interest. The bite in the air and frigid blasts of wind along the river recalled days of winter birding along the Lake Michigan lakefront in Chicago, or the windswept corn and soybean deserts of central Illinois and Indiana. Initial exhilaration quickly transitions to downright pain as fingers become so numb that one can no longer efficiently focus binoculars, push the shutter button on a camera, or zip ones’ fly.

Climbing back into the car to thaw out after stopping to peruse a roadside blackbird flock, Steve and I simultaneously noticed the interesting patterns formed by the snow and ice-covered grasses along the embankment on the opposite side of the road. Leaving our bins behind we grabbed our cameras and started looking for particularly “artsy” shots. Over the next 45 minutes we snapped off hundreds of photos, none of which included birds. With some creative framing and editing we produced a variety of beautiful images.

The Mid-Columbia Basin might best be described as an austere and essentially treeless landscape. Under the cover of snow and overcast skies one must explore the understated grace of gray tones to find beauty. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

While reviewing pictures I’d already taken, the viewfinder on my digital camera automatically switched back to a live view causing me to notice these interesting crystal patterns in the frozen roadway. Using iPhoto software, I modified the image to create the blue effect. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

I’m trying to capture a few more images before losing all feeling in my ungloved fingertips. (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with Nikon 18-55mm AF-S DX VR lens)

Note the snow plastered to Steve’s pant legs. Moments before this picture was taken he was lying down on the shoulder of the road trying to get just the right angle as he took pictures of the frozen grass. The three local ranchers who passed by in a pickup truck on their way to feed cattle were likely telling “crazy city folk” stories for the rest of the week. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

“Out for a Sunday stroll.” Steve took this shot me walking down a deserted and frozen stretch of Highway 14 east of John Day Dam.

Pushing west, we finally made it to John Day Dam and found it generally uninspiring. We should have persisted with our photography, the gulls and waterfowl we hoped to find below the dam were not there. We continued towards Maryhill, Washington along a one-lane gravel road that fronts the riverbank. This proved decidedly more productive as we flushed multiple small flocks of American Pipits and Savannah Sparrows. Both species are typically tough to come by in eastern Washington during winter.

This hearty little American Pipit was one of several desperately searching for invertebrate life under ice-smattered rocks at the edge of the Columbia River just east of Maryhill on 14 December, 2008 (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

This Mallard X American Wigeon was along the Columbia River east of Maryhill, Washington 14 December 2008. The mostly Mallard-like appearance of this bird caused us to wonder if it might be a second-generation (F2) intergrade. (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

A diminutive male Lesser Goldfinch, photographed at Maryhill, Washington 14 December, 2008, offers a stunning burst of lemon yellow that is in stark contrast to the otherwise muted tones of the surrounding winter scene. (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

Just before reaching Maryhill I noticed what appeared to be an odd-looking male Mallard in with a flock of American Wigeon. Upon closer inspection we noticed that the bird had a pale blue bill, some diffuse pattern on an otherwise Mallard green head, and brown on the flanks that would be unexpected in a male Mallard. It also sported long central tail feathers suggestive or either a wigeon or a Northern Pintail, which we initially suspected as being the non-Mallard parent. The bird finally flew and the murky whitish patch near the lead edge of the wings combined with other characteristics revealed it to be a American Wigeon X Mallard hybrid.

Near Maryhill we passed through a network of orchards that have produced some good birds in winter…but not this trip. At Maryhill State Park we found a Pacific Loon and a Red-breasted Merganser along the river.

Time spent at unplanned photography stops forced us to skip a few logical birding sites in an effort to reach Bonneville Dam before the gulls that typically gather here went to roost. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have abandoned our Bonneville plans instead. We had been told of a very large flock of gulls that had been feeding at the dam’s spillway in recent weeks. However, upon arrival we noted only a couple dozen gulls and all were expected species. After lingering for a few minutes to take scenic photos of the snow-covered hillsides, we decided to make tracks towards Battle Ground. Steve still faced a three-and-a-half hour drive back to Everett and I was looking at two-plus hours back to Eugene (under normal conditions), and the road reports were not encouraging.

When we got back to Bob Flores’ home my car was blanketed by two to three inches of snow and the side roads were glazed with packed snow and ice. We chatted with Bob for a few minutes, said our goodbyes, and headed for home after an extremely satisfying three-day trip. Steve made it home in about four hours, while my trip south on I-5 was a more leisurely seven and a half hour ordeal, highlighted by one stretch south of Salem, Oregon where I blistered through a five-mile span of interstate highway in just over two and a half hours. The only problem with the occasional Midwest-like weather here in the temperate northwest…the locals don’t know how to drive in it! Maybe I should have just bought a month’s worth of groceries and stayed home? Not a chance!


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