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

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