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. 

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