queenlua: (pic#7912258)
At the Ginko Petrified Forest in eastern Washington, there's a little spot of lawn at the campgrounds, by the visitor center. As you stand there, on one side the land plunges down into canyon—the Columbia River stretching vast between those ancient rocky walls. On the other side is broads stretch of shrub-steppe, scraggly little desert-grasses and bare desert-bushes, curving slowly a distant ridge.

But at that little spot of lawn, those unkempt beautifully-twisted shrubby bushes turn, all at once, over a stark line, into bright-green short-cut suburban-as-hell grass. There's four enormous revolving sprinklers going off all the time, because when you're in the goddamn desert you have to do that kind of aggressive maintenance to keep anything so mundane as grass alive.

And even though I'd seen sights like this before, even though I'd been to this exact spot before, when I stood there Saturday morning I felt a flash of hot, unbridled anger. Perhaps the shrub-steppe just struck me as particularly beautiful that morning, or I was feeling particularly temperamental, or something else. But I thought, how stupid and wasteful and ugly seems. How stupid and wasteful and ugly lawns everywhere seemed—here we were in the heart of sagebrush country, the last untamed bit of the American West, and instead of respecting that for what it is, even in the grounds of a state park, we've got four damn sprinklers going off all at once just to preserve some perverse purity, some symbol of civility.

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queenlua: (Default)
Last summer, my boyfriend and I stopped by Swakane Canyon on the way to a cabin in eastern Washington. Very few eBird checklists had been submitted for the place, but luckily, the dead-tree book Birder's Guide to Washington had a nice writeup, which gave us a better idea of what to expect. We picked up a lovely variety of eastern species—Bullock's oriole, black-headed grosbeak, yellow-breasted chat.

Last weekend I went to Umptanum Road, a very well-known birding spot that I'd never actually been to before. I was surprised to discover that the habitats there are almost exactly the same as Swakane Canyon—dusky canyon entrance, mountain stream, ponderosa pine. Geographically, the two aren't very far from each other—a few hours' drive—and you'd expect the same diversity of birds in both. And yet one is crawling with birders, and in the other, I saw nary another soul. Why?

Some of it's probably reputational—people know Umptanum has good birds, so if they're planning a trip, they'll go for the sure thing rather than the unknown quantity, and then they'll report more birds, so more people know Umptanum has good birds, and etcetera etcetera the cycle continues.

Some of it's access—the roads in Swakane Canyon are not quite as nice, and it's an hour further from Seattle, which is a hugely concentrated birding population.

But it's not lack of good bird habitat. So here's this whole undiscovered, underbirded canyon; if I visited tomorrow, I'd be the first birder in the whole past month, according to eBird. Who knows what might be hiding there?

* * *

When we made that trip out to Swakane, we saw a very strange blackbird. Instead of the red-and-yellow you see on a red-winged blackbird's wing, there was a single stripe of pure white. It was far away, across a marshy field, so we squinted through our binoculars for a long time and crept closer and closer, trying to see if it was a trick of the light. Just the white. It made some weird calls I didn't recognize—not any classic red-winged blackbird calls, but not any classic tricolored calls either. When it finally flew, I saw a tiny flash of red, and alas, I didn't have any equipment to take a picture of the darned thing.

I wrote a long description of the encounter and sent it to my Elite Birding Cabal* mailing list. Several folks said that indeed sounded not-red-winged-blackbird-like, but tricolored blackbirds are quite rare in Washington in general, only flocking around some ponds in Othello, two hours southeast.

* that is not the actual mailing list name :P

I shrugged, and figured it was just a weird red-winged blackbird. I wasn't very good at birding Washington yet, and I didn't want to be overeager to shout "RARITY!" where there was none. Surely, if it were rare, someone else would've noticed it?

Except, this past weekend, I went out to those ponds in Othello, and I saw a whole flock of tricolored blackbirds, and God if they didn't look just like the weird bird we saw in that canyon.

I'm now quite certain what we saw was one very lost, confused tricolored blackbird, and given what I now know about how underbirded the Swakane is, I think maybe we were the only ones who saw it.

Unfortunately I didn't have a decent camera on me, and it was a year ago, so I doubt I'd be able to convince the wider birding community. No way the bird's still there.

But I know what I saw, and that's plenty for me.

And even better: I know there's this little patch of bird-territory that barely anyone goes to, and who knows what I could find there next?

I can't wait to go back.
queenlua: (Magpie (Snow))
I spent my weekend in the Okanogon, a vast and rural county in eastern Washington, its largest city: population 4,000. The landscape was mostly variations on themes I'd seen before. Yawning stretches of shrub-steppe, low valleys hemmed in by mountains, and on our last day, to the south, a flat endless plateau.

But the highlands were new to me, and they were harrowing.

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