BIRD WATCH: Liven up a long drive with birding

A LONG DRIVE awaits you if Spokane is your destination. Many travelers look upon this adventure as long and boring torture. I never have.

Think about it: Much of the drive is through beautiful country. Crossing Snoqualmie Pass is never boring. From before the summit through Cle Elum and Ellensburg, the scenery may change but it is beautiful. The birding is also a change from what we see west of the mountains and it’s interesting.

I don’t enjoy birding at 60 plus mph, but it is still possible to spot an “old friend.” If I don’t see a black-billed magpie on this trip, it just doesn’t feel right. Expect to see them throughout the Ellensburg area.

Fortunately, they are a crow-sized bird and easy to identify. Their long tail and striking black and white coloring is hard to miss. Magpie action is a lot like that of the crows. They hang about, singly, in pairs or in small groups. These scavengers are always on the lookout for something to eat.

Ellensburg’s large fields, pasture lands and rolling hills covered in sage offer good birding. This drive across the open fertile flatlands attracts several species of hawks. Red tails are the most common, but others such as the rough-legged and the Swainson’s can be seen. The handsome small falcon, the American kestrel, is frequently spotted in the same habitat.

The Yakima River follows I-90 into this region and numerous ponds and other wetlands are scattered along its route. Numbers of ducks and wading birds swell as the fall migration peaks.

I must confess the drive from Ellensburg to Spokane is more challenging when it comes to interesting scenery. Still, the birding can surprise you.

Where there are cattail marshes between George and Moses Lake, watch for the handsome yellow-headed blackbirds. They are so striking and often their ponds are close to the freeway where they are easy to spot.

This year has been so hot and dry that the marshes had dried up or shrunk. The birds were somewhere else.

The birding can be outstanding in this area, especially when you leave the freeway and drive along roads that take you to the Potholes and the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Where there is water, there will be birds. Shorebirds and waterfowl are abundant in the fall and winter.

Sage brush areas are home to burrowing owls. Watch for them on utility lines and fence posts. You never know what surprise may be waiting.

Once you reach Moses Lake, the tendency is to keep moving and push on to your final destination.

This lake is a good place to see the Western grebe’s twin. Clark’s grebe is rare on the western side of the state and not very numerous on the eastern side. Check the lake for any bird that looks like the Western. If the white around the eye extends well above the eye, you have a Western.

White pelicans are also seen on the lake. They frequent the many potholes that dot the area from Moses Lake to Spokane.

This latest trip across the state wasn’t focused on birding. Instead, my niece and her husband had just bought a new home in Spokane. Her mother and I had to see it and lend a hand with the moving.

A flock of pygmy nuthatches moving through the backyard was a good omen. Once their feeders are up and full, there should be some good birding to enjoy every time we visit.

A trip east at this time of the year is always an interesting change of pace. Turn it into a birding adventure and it doesn’t have to be a long and boring drive.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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