Friday, March 14, 2014

Spokane, Washington to Look for Gray partridge, December 25 - 27

I was too tired on Christmas Eve to try to make flight reservations.  However, early on the morning of December 24 before heading out to try for Chukar, I searched the internet and found the e-mail address of the person who had reported Gray Partridge near Spokane, Washington, and sent an e-mail requesting more information about finding Gray Partridge in the areas where he reported them.  I was hoping that e-mail would help me. 

On Christmas morning, I got up early and found a flight to Spokane Washington leaving at 9:50 am through Las Vegas and arriving in Spokane, WA at 2:45 pm.  If I was lucky, I would have enough time to try for Gray Partridge late on Christmas day.  Flights were on time and I arrived in Spokane, WA with a nice Christmas sighting of a Christmas tree fashioned from potted red poinsettias.  See photo below.
Poinsettia Christmas Tree
Spokane, WA Airport

It had snowed recently in Spokane with snow on the ground and the streets a little icy.  The first area that I was planning to visit was Steptoe Butte State Park where 15 Gray Partridge on November 29 and 10 on October 25 had been recorded under travelling protocols of 15 and 12 miles, respectively, in eBird.  This meant the records were either recorded at the end or in the middle of the trip.  I checked the location of Steptoe Butte SP with the GPS coordinates that I had recorded just in case I could not access eBird.  Steptoe Butte State Park was about an hour and 52 mile south of my location in Spokane.  I had just enough light to get to this state park before sunset in hopes of being lucky.  At least I would know how to get there tomorrow morning.  As I headed south, the thin cloud cover near Spokane parted, the sun came out and the temperature rose to above freezing.  It soon became apparent that I was driving into wheat growing country.  The terrain was hilly and covered with either harvested wheat stubble or planted winter wheat.  There were grassy areas in the ravines and swales.  I arrived at the entry road to Steptoe Butte State Park and drove in.  The entry road circles the butte up to the top, and it was about 3.9 miles from entry to the top of the butte.  The reports of Gray Partridge were recorded at the top of the butte under travelling protocol, probably at the end but perhaps in the middle as recommended for the 15 mile travelling protocol.  But that was only a guess.  However, near the lower parking lot, the road became snow covered, because it was shaded.  The sun was dropping, and I decided that it would not be very safe for me to try driving the road up to the top with so little daylight left.  I decided to bird the entry road and Hume Road through good looking habitat back to a small rural town of Oakesdale, a distance of about 8 miles.               
I suspected that the 15 mile and 12 mile routes covered this area for the two reports in eBird.  However, I was not successful in finding Gray Partridge.  I returned to Spokane to stay the night.  Tomorrow, I would start early and try again.  Christmas night I spent time looking up hints on finding Gray Partridge in Washington.  I found information about where hunters find Gray Partridge in wheat growing locations.  Grassy areas along wheat fields and in grassy areas in ravines between fields were good for hunters to find Gray Partridge.  Early morning and late day times were best, and Gray Partridge can sometimes be found feeding in the fields planted with winter wheat or in the tilled fields.  That was quite satisfying to realize that I was looking in a good area.

I got up early on December 26, picked up breakfast and was on Hume road south of Oakesdale as the sun was rising above the hills to the east.  There was not much traffic on the back roads in this rural area; consequently, I was able to drive slowly watching the fields along Hume Road south of Oakesdale to the entry road to Steptoe Butte SP, but occasionally, I pulled over for a vehicle that wanted to drive faster.  About halfway to the entry to Steptoe Butte SP, I noticed a chicken-like bird in a winter wheat field on the east side.  I stopped briefly to investigate, but it was only a hen ring-necked Pheasant.  That was a good sign.  Previously, in Ohio I had only heard ring-necked Pheasant.  Chicken-or grouse-like birds were still active.  I continued to the entry road to Steptoe Butte SP and started slowly up to the top, watching and occasionally scanning for grouse.  The elevation of the top of the butte is 3612 feet.  I was hoping that I was the first to drive this road, but saw a pickup truck ahead of me which had been the first to get to the top, an apparent maintenance person for the phone towers on the top.  Approximately halfway up to the top, I noticed a chicken-like bird along the road a distance up the road.  I approached the area carefully and parked at a wide pull-off along the road.  I walked the edge of the pull-off area, and a cock Ring-necked Pheasant flew out from the edge and downhill from my location into the grasslands on the slope of the butte.  It was a good sign but not the right bird!  I continued up toward the top of Steptoe Butte.  It was cold and quite windy; consequently, I dressed warmly.  There was some ice on the road for the last bit of the road to the top, because this part of the road faced north.  Just as I was going up this last bit of road, the pickup truck came back down.  I parked at the top.  The view was great, and signs said that one could see for almost 200 miles!  Wow!  I noticed a parking area just below the top, which, based on the GPS coordinates, looks like the location from which the eBird results were entered.  Before driving back down to the parking area, I scanned the steep grassy slopes down from the top, but did not find any Gray Partridge. 
Then I drove down to the parking lot just below the top.  There was a lot of ice on the parking lot but I could drive on one part of it.  I scanned the uphill grassy slopes hoping that all of 15 the Gray Partridge reported previously on November 29 were seen in this area.  I also played Gray Partridge calls but was unsuccessful in finding any Gray Partridge.  I continued down the road stopping at pull offs and places where I could scan the steep grassy slopes uphill and downhill, but had no success in finding Gray Partridge.  At least three times, I repeated the process of driving up and down this road to almost the top of the butte, but found no Gray Partridge.  I did not walk the slopes up on the butte, because the slopes were quite steep and snow covered.  It seemed too treacherous and this area was rather isolated with few other people around.   However, gradually as the day wore on toward noon and beyond, there were two or three additional cars that drove to the top of the butte, apparently, to take advantage of the great view from the top. 

I did manage to find a few other birds in the area.  I found a Snow Bunting along the road close to the top, the first time that I drove back down from the top.  Eventually, I found Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel on the butte, and a Rough-legged Hawk down near the entry to the state park.  There were American Robins at a picnic ground at the bottom of the butte, feeding in the apple trees.  Later in the afternoon at about 2:30 pm if found a flock of about 50 bohemian Waxwings.  I got much better views of these Bohemian Waxwings than the first ones I saw for the year in Duluth Minnesota on January 15 in a large flyover flock.  See photos below.                     
Bohemian Waxwings
at apples, Steptoe Butte State Park

Bohemian Waxwing
After about 2:45 pm as the sun was getting lower in the west, I decided to explore additional farm roads in the area.  Mostly, the farm roads were gravel, but care was required, because some of the roads were seasonal and still covered by snow or were very soft and muddy.  I took several roads close to Steptoe Butte State Park which meandered through the farm county and harvested wheat fields.  I found a few grassy expanses in this farm county that looked promising but found no Gary Partridge.  I did have one exciting moment when a saw a chicken-like bird in a grassy fenced in meadow, but it was a cock Ring-necked Pheasant.  The previous female and male Ring-necked Pheasant and this one converted my previously heard bird to a seen bird.  See photo below.      
Ring-necked Pheasant, cock-bird

The sun was dropping rapidly in the west.  I drove slowly back along Hume Road toward Oakesdale, birding as I went.  I found a northern Shrike along this road, but got no photos.  By the time that I got on the main road US 195 north to Spokane, it was almost dark.  I headed to my motel.  Tonight I had to decide on how to spend my remaining time here in Spokane.  I had told Brian Patteson that I would join him on December 28 in Hatteras, North Carolina to try for Great Skua.  Neil Hayward was planning to be there.  As I drove back to my motel, I was not sure if I had enough time left to try a second location early in the morning for Gray Partridge before leaving for Hatteras by flying to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.  I did not have a good internet connection until I got to Spokane to make travel arrangements.
The first thing that I did when I got to my motel was book my flight to Raleigh-Durham, NC.  I had a reservation all made and was ready to pay for an earlier flight that would have allowed me to get a good night of sleep before the pelagic trip out of Hatteras.  However, the connecting flight out of Denver to Raleigh-Durham was full, requiring me to book a later flight that would arrive in Raleigh-Durham at 11:10 pm.  I would then have to drive about 4.5 hours to Hatteras, getting little to no sleep before the pelagic trip.  My flight from Spokane was at 5:15 pm, leaving enough time to try for Gray Partridge early in the morning at a second location.

On ebird, there was a report of 7 Gray Partridge on December 13 at Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads about 40 mile or 51 minutes east of Spokane.  I got up before sunrise, picked up breakfast and headed east on US Rt. 2 to Davenport and then south on WA 28.  There was fog and mist in the air.  The trees were ice covered and the roads were slick in spots.  As I got close to my destination, the sun rose in the east and was not up very far when I turned west into Old Kuch’s Road.  The area was a large expanse of grassland and scrub in the midst of farm country with harvested and winter planted wheat fields to the south and west and harvested cornfields to the north.  The area was about 1.5 miles or so wide and stretched west between WA 28 and WA 21 for distance of about five miles.  I started driving slowly west on the gravel road watching the roadsides and fields for grouse or chicken-like birds.  There was snow cover in this whole area; consequently, I looked for grayish lumps in the open grassy areas between the low scrubby brush and also in the wheat fields.  I stopped at the exact location given in eBird and checked this area out thoroughly.  During my first pass on Old Kuch’s Road to the west, I did not find a single bird.  I turned north for about 1.5 miles to Mayberry Road, another gravel road, and headed east.  Along this 5 mile stretch, I found a Rough-legged Hawk, my first bird of the morning in this area.  See photo below.
Rough-legged Hawk
I drove again around this area, stopping to scan and look, and on the second pass on Old Kuch’s Road, I found a Northern Shrike and got photos of the Northern Shrike hovering while hunting.  That was a cool experience.  See photo below.
Northern Shrike
hovering while hunting, gray forehead, some barring visible

I also found another Rough-legged hawk.  See photo.

Rough-legged Hawk

I repeated this process on Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads a third time, before calling it quits for Gray Partridge.  The roadsides on Old Kuch’s and Mayberry Roads were fenced with barbed wire; consequently, I did not try to walk out into the habitat to try to find Gray Partridge.  I left the area between 11:00 and 11:30 am.  It was fun looking for Gray Partridge, but somewhat frustrating to not find any in areas where they had been reported.   I never received a response to my e-mail request for information about Gray Partridge.
When I arrived back in Spokane, the trees were still covered with ice crystals.  See photo below.

Ice covered trees in Spokane
My flight to Raleigh-Durham on Southwest was on time as was the connecting flight leaving from Denver.  I got a little sleep on each of these flights.  I arrived in Raleigh-Durham on time, picked up my luggage, got my rental car and was on the road to Hatteras between 11:30 and mid-night.  It would be a long night of driving to get to Hatteras on time for the Great Skua pelagic trip.                               


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