The morning after arriving in Washington state, I drove along a dirt road leading through sagebrush country with mountain bluebirds perched on nearly every fence post.
The melodic warble of a western meadowlark gave voice to a crystal-clear day, the bird’s yellow breast glowing in the early morning sun. Sage thrashers and sagebrush sparrows are so dependent on this uniquely western landscape that they share the name of its dominant plant.
As if a morning like this weren’t enough to satisfy your soul, the road crested with a stunning view of one of many snow-capped peaks in the area.
I had traveled to central Washington to enjoy the beauty of the Cascade Mountains and search for several species of birds that occur there.
While Magee Marsh in northern Ohio is the place to go for migrating warblers in springtime, and northern Minnesota in winter is the place to see owls, Washington state is known for its diversity of woodpeckers.
A road less traveled
The road wound downward, leaving the sagebrush and entering a ponderosa pine savanna. The widely spaced pines allow plenty of sunlight to penetrate, encouraging the growth of grasses on the forest floor. An orange-bellied Douglas squirrel barked at me as I walked the little-traveled road. The squirrel is closely related to the red squirrel that can be found in the North Carolina mountains.
Juncos took wing ahead of me and disappeared into the grasses, only to erupt again as I approached. This is the Oregon junco, a subspecies of the familiar dark-eyed junco that winters throughout our state.
Standing dead pines are important nest sites for many woodpecker species and this ponderosa savanna is just the place to look for them. Most of the snags I saw had several cavities left by woodpeckers. House wrens, black-capped chickadees, tree swallows and bluebirds will use these cavities once woodpeckers have finished with them.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers uttered their familiar staccato calls, but then I heard another — clearly a woodpecker, but an unfamiliar one. This one was an oft-repeated two notes — pitik, pitik, pitik. I shifted my focus to a 15-foot snag with many signs of woodpecker activity and suddenly the bird landed at the opening to a cavity. Near the top of the snag, the opening was a perfect circle.
The arriving bird carried something in its beak, and after pausing for just a moment, it darted into the cavity and, just as quickly, flew out again having delivered food to the nestlings inside. While the bird was in view for only a second, its image was burned into my memory — a solid black bird with a completely white head. It was an aptly named the white-headed woodpecker. Like several North American woodpeckers, the male white-headed woodpecker has a red patch on its nape. The absence of red on this bird’s head told me this one was a female.
Two days later, I hiked Pipestone Canyon, just 36 miles south of British Columbia as the Canada jay flies and a short drive from North Cascades National Park.
The sun rises early at that latitude, and it was already getting light at 4 a.m., when I awoke, not yet adjusted to Pacific Daylight Time.
When I reached the canyon, a prairie falcon soared along the clifftops while a coot shepherded its red-headed hatchlings along a narrow pond at the base.
Several acres of the canyon had burned a few of years ago and all that standing dead wood is great habitat for wood boring insects — among woodpeckers’ favorite food — as well as an abundance of nesting sites.
Enough live trees were still there to attract a red-naped sapsucker. Once considered a subspecies of the yellow-bellied sapsucker which is common in winter in the NC Piedmont, it has since been classified a separate species despite very similar biology and natural history.
Yet another woodpecker landed at the top of a snag, this one only a little larger than the flicker, but much darker, with a red face and pink belly. This coloration sets Lewis’s woodpecker apart from other woodpeckers.
The bird was named for Meriwether Lewis, leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Its discovery was attributed to him after he recorded observations of the bird during the expedition in 1805.
To see birds I’ve never seen before and will never see at home is exciting, and to see them amid the wonderful scenery of Washington is a deeply enriching experience.