Thursday, March 28, 2013

Looking for Colimbia Basin Sandhill Cranes

March 28, 2013
Wednesday, 9:40 a.m.

We mounted a recent foray deep into the Columbia Basin between Mesa and Othello. The effort foreshadowed the annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival which takes (took) place (April 5-6-7, Google: Othelllo Sandhill Crane Festival 2013).
Primarily, Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I hankered to spot some of the thousands of cranes that visit the area at this time of year.
We do this every spring.
Well, maybe.

This will be (was) the 16th Othello festival, and I’m not sure we sought cranes there 15 previous springs. Sometimes, however, we went more than once a year.
Alas, we haven’t often seen thousands or even hundreds (maybe not even dozens) of the tall, grey, red-capped birds. Neither, alas and alack, have we managed many close-up sightings that allowed detailed photos.
I remember one time when we drove within 20 yards of three of the big birds that browsed  in a harvested cornfield. They tolerated us as they picked at fallen grain.
Well, our trip last week proved somewhat different.
We passed through Mesa on Highway 17 and immediately turned left on Road 178 toward Basin City and into what we considered sandhill crane territory. I turned right onto Bart Road, and we soon spotted a cloud of the huge birds off to our left.

We stopped and watched from inside the truck with the windows up as the cloud floated overhead. We could hear the crane’s  soft, melodious chirping. Nora and I stepped out onto the dirt road and I snapped photos of the birds as they circled and landed in a cornfield ahead of us.
We drove along the cornfield and spotted cranes by the dozen (maybe by the hundreds?) too far away for detailed photos.

Back on the road to Basin City, we turned right onto a road with signs announcing public fishing and public hunting access. From the road we could see hundreds of cranes in a green pasture off to the right.
I stood on road and snapped photos.
Then I parked at the public parking area at the end of the road. Nora and I walked along a pond and saw several ducks and coots. Then we crossed a field where a line of trees kept us from the view of the cranes. We drew within 100 yards without disturbing them. I snapped a few photos of them browsing. Some jumped and danced ritualistically at one another.
Then we worked our way north on rural roads through farm and pasture land toward Othello. Flights of  cranes circled in the distance, but none stood along the roadsides.
Finally, we crossed Highway 26 onto Thacker Road and spotted a view of the waste ponds at Othello.
“Wow!” I said.

A long grey carpet of cranes lay along the edge one pond. We drove a few yards down a dirt road and stopped 80 yards away. I snapped photos as flights of cranes floated gently onto the rippling carpet. Individual birds hopped high into the air and settled back softly.
So, on that trip we saw thousands of cranes, hundreds a least. We didn‘t get any really close-up images.  however.
Nevertheless, one out of two is a .500 average, and that ain’t bad.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

No Swans at Usk, But a Lake Full ar the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge 

March 15, 2013

We had a good trip to Usk in pursuit of tundra swans. We went three days before the community’s scheduled annual swan festival on March 16. After our three-day outing, with two nights at the Nora-the-Schnauzer friendly La Quinta in Spokane, we got back on Thursday. 

On Tuesday we drove to the top of Steptoe Butte and loved the views. Nora and I circled the summit in a staggering wind for a bunch of pics. Immediately in Spokane, we dined at, Darlene's choice, the Elk Public House that took an hour to find. Very tasty victuals and good beer. 
Darlene chose cheese-chicken casadias. I chose a Santa Fe Chicken sandwich with a pasta salad with a smashing shredded-corn sauce. And beer.  
Darlene shopped at the Valley Mall before we checked into the digs. We unpacked and I walked Nora around for an hour.
On Wednesday we drove about 2½ hours and 50-plus miles to Usk. We toured the many back roads to find ponds and/or lakes with swans on them.

We saw only five swans, however, and all of them were in the 10 miles or so before Usk. 
Contrary to reports that I found on the internet, snow and ice covered most of the ponds. 
We did enjoy seeing 200-plus buffalo and five eagles, not to mention the Pend Oreille scenery and the Kalispell Indian Reservation Headquarters. We saw the buffalo and two golden eagles along the Pend Oreille River near the headquarters. 
We also spotted 28 great blue herons that stood like yard ornaments on an island below the Usk bridge across the river.
In fact, the herons we far enough away that we couldn’t be sure what they were until I stopped on the bridge and hastily snapped several photos that I magnified in the LCD window. 
They were fuzzy images, but clearly revealed a great many herons.

We left Usk after noontime and detoured through Newport and Sand Point (that’s taking the scenic route to a new dimension) to Lake Coeur d'Alene in case some bald eagles still fished there for kokanee. They didn't, but Nora and I took two hours to hike a zig-zag trail 700 feet to the top of Mineral Ridge with stunning views of the lake and distant mountains.
It’s a 2.5-mile loop marked with nature-trail points of interest. 
According to the Bureau of Land Management (via Google -- Mineral Ridge, Lake Coeur d’Alene): “A trail guide brochure for the trail explains the forest environment and the history of mining exploration in this ‘classroom in the forest.’ Twenty-two stations along the trail are marked with corresponding narrative descriptions in the (trailhead) booklet, which also includes review questions and answers. Other sections are lists of both plants and animals found at Mineral Ridge and a glossary of place names that highlight the area's mining history.”
A 400-foot side trail shows where hard-rock miners dug nearly 20-feet deep into solid basalt, hoping to strike it rich. Several deep overgrown indentions indicate other diggin’s.
Caribou Cabin overlooks Wolf  Lodge Bay from a 2,824 foot elevation.
We saw a woman and a dog on the entire hike.
Then Back in Spokane, we dined at Red Robin, another of Darlene's choices. She had a fish plate, and I had a “low-calorie” chicken breast with a salad. I opened with an entree, a Blue Moon and bowl of Jim’s Famous Chili.
My main dish arrived with TWO chicken breasts, covered within a special salsa sauce and sided by a fresh salad. 
I ate the whole thing. 
Then I leaned on Darlene as I waddled, groaning all the way, to the truck.
Alas, Darlene’s choices make settling for “made-by-Moe” quick-stop sandwiches difficult to stomach. 
On Thursday, we headed home at 7:37 a.m. We planned a brief stop at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge near Cheney and a detour through Othello with the prospect of seeing Sandhill Cranes.  The 2013 Othello Sandhill Crane Festival takes place April 5-7.
Couldn’t hurt to look for the cranes a bit early?
Anyway, from the parking area with a two-holer near the Turnbull headquarters, I spotted white birds floating on the far end of Pine Lake two miles away. 
I figured they could be snow geese or swans, but I couldn't tell, not even through the big lens.
Nora and I headed that way while Darlene picked up her Amazon Kindle loaded with Agatha Christie stories. 
In our first few yards along the path, three swans rose from behind a small bushy island. Caught by surprise, I managed three fairly clear pics before they disappeared behind tall pine trees.
Alas, the paved trail ended about half way to gleaming snowy Tundra Swans by the dozen. Despite the likely rules against wandering away from the designated paths, Nora and I slipped through the woods and found a service road across a vast meadow and headed boldly along it parallel to the lake, 100 yards to our right.

I soon realized that hundreds of swans spread across that section of the lake, perhaps on their way to Usk. But, alas, they floated too far away for my big lens (although I snapped the usual ton of images). 
Hoping for the best (not to get busted), we followed the road to the end of the lake. Careful not to stir a raucous swarming of swans into flight, although the birds chirp a pleasant-sounding call between a goose’s honk and a dove’s coo, we inched ahead.
My nerves tingled. I suspected the sound of that many honking-coos with six-foot wing spans thumping the air would make a deafening noise and alert rangers that interlopers threatened the birds.
Well I couldn’t just leave, either. 
The birds surely wouldn’t even see the foot-tall Nora on her leash. And she wouldn't notice the birds, not with so many deer and rodent scents to glean.
So, crouching low and shielded by two massive pine-tree trunks, I sneaked to a bluff for clear shots of two swans in a shaft of light reflected by the water.
Then, mustering a innocent gait, we sauntered back to the designated path, pausing only to snap photos of an ant hill swarming with reddish ants.
Finally, we drove around the 5.5-mile Pine Creek Motor Loop and saw no swans on any of  the otheer lakes. 
By then we decided to save a trip after sandhill cranes for another day.
We ate at Subway in Colfax and got home at 5:30 p.m., unpacked and took a nap. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

Surprise: 12 Tundra Swans on a Pond Near Enterprise

Friday, March 8, 2013

We have booked a room at the La Quinta Inn in Spokane for two nights next week, Tuesday and Wednesday, as an integral element for a trip to see the swans at Usk.
The Usk annual swan festival will take place on Saturday (March 16), but we won’t attend that. We will go a few days early, during the week, and miss the crowds.
We hope.
The weather for mid-week should be in the high 40s during the day, and the lakes and ponds should be thawed. And apparently a good number of swans have already arrived. Thousands usually pass through the area during February-March.
It’s a migration of great birds similar to the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival that takes place during late March or early April (we could pass through that area going or coming and possibly see many cranes in the fields.

Anyway, Usk is 207 miles from Walla Walla via Dayton and Clarkston. We will drive 160-plus miles and spend Tuesday night in Spokane. That will leave us with two  hours or so to Usk. We can spend a leisurely Wednesday looking for and photographing swans before returning to Spokane for an easy drive home (depending on side trips: Cranes? Eagles at Lake Coeur D’Alene? Elk at the wildlife refuge near Cheney?) on Thursday.
Needless to say, interest ran high when we planed the trip to Usk. We visited the Usk festival in 2007 on a one-day trip, and we didn’t come away with dynamic swan photos. I recall using a D300 and a 300-mm lens, but most swans were hundreds of yards away.
I should to better with the D3S or the D800 and the 150-500-mm, and a 1.4 extender.
At present, however, our interest in visiting Usk has simmered some.
Yesterday (Thursday), with a clear sky and no wind, we took a spontaneous and lollygagging drive to Wallowa Lake. At noon we stopped at Starbucks for Piike Place coffee and a chocolate chunk cookie for me and a skinny vanilla latte and banana walnut bread for Darlene (with crumbs to lap up by Nora the Schnauzer).
The amount of snow at Tollgate, stacked well above the height of the pickup, surprised me. Darlene figured three inches had fallen over night. Yet, the road was clear except for compacted icy patches in the shade. We slipped noticeably rounding one curve at a stately 40 mph.
We saw wild turkeys and a few deer in the Wallowa Valley. Dozens of steelhead anglers worked Wallowa River riffles between Elgin and Rock Creek, with the majority between Elgin and the hatchery at Bear Canyon Road.
We dined on Rockin’ Taco Salads at the Cloud 9 Bakery in Enterprise. Gas cost $3.79 in joseph.
From the North I took photos of the still frozen Wallowa Lake and the historic moraine as Nora investigated scents on the rocks.
At the south-end state park, I walked Nora in the snow again and photographed the moraine from that angle.
It’s a 115 mile drive or so, and we stopped several times. Finally, we headed home at a few minutes after 2 p.m. And immediately we saw dozens of deer browsing on the moraine in the warm afternoon soon. We were destined to see more mule and whitetail deer on the way home than we could count.
At Joseph, we took the back roads leading to Enterprise. Deer browsed in nearly every field. None spooked when we stopped for me to take photos from the truck windows.
Then, near the Enterprise fish hatchery, I slid to a stop at  a wildlife-viewing pond. Twelve tundra swans sailed as only swans can do about 40 yards from the narrow road.
I pulled over as far as possible, and walked with Nora to the bank above perhaps 20 acres of water. They swans couldn’t see Nora, of course, and they ignored me. The squawking sounds of feeding waterfowl filled the air. A nearly solid blanket of common mergansers and mallards spread over the water, and patches of birds periodically flew with raucous  uproars as I angled for a clear view of the swans through the knobby bushes.
Formations of swans swam to and fro, sometimes directly toward me, and I took 86 photos.
I wanted the stately birds to launch into flight purely for a more dramatic photo opportunity (I did snap the occasional launch of nervous mergansers), but the swans never did. I considered making a threatening move, maybe a sudden rushing along the bank to make them fly, but I didn’t.
Once, after walking halfway back to the truck, I started back toward the bank with the intention of making the swans fly.  I gave up the idea, however. It was probability the better, if not noble, thing, but I didn't feel much better for it. I wanted the photo.
Darlene and I looked at some of the swan photos in the D800 LCD. They looked pretty good.
“These will probably be better photos of swans than we will get at Usk,” I said.
“Well, you never (humorously pronounced 'nebby') know,” Darlene said. “And that’s not a bad thing.”
No. Probably not.
We stoked up on more coffee and German chocolate Biscottis at the Blue Banana in Lostine and headed home.

From there, we passed about 300 deer on the way through the valley and into the foothills north of Elgin.

More photos of this trip may be seen at