We didn’t have nearly enough snow this year. Driving through the Okanogan Valley, that’s about all I could think of. I could follow the trunks of apple trunks groundward with no obstructing snow. It could have been an early autumnal foray. But it was January.
That’s the problem with chronology, it’s bound to let you down, especially when in search of birds. Last year my friends and I spent a glorious weekend drooling over beautiful animals. A dozen Northern Pygmy-owls perched in reckless adjacency to gawking humans. Sharp-tailed grouse browsing the willow and birch trees that keep them alive during the winter. Bohemian Waxwings in abandon. Two hundred Pine Grosbeak – a probable record for the lower forty-eight. It was a shit show.
This year we didn’t hit real snow till we climbed out of the valley into the Okanogan Highlands. With a few exceptions, the species mentioned above are perfectly happy higher up, as long as it doesn’t get too hoary. And I wasn’t too optimistic because I hadn’t worn gloves all day and we’d hardly seen any birds (well we had a fleeting view of a immature Northern Goshawk). The pessimism of past experience.
Of course, as I was starting to get discouraged, we chugged up a random dell to find the first Northern Pygmy-Owl of the day. My friend Drew called it immediately as we broached the hill. Seeing that Danner (our gracious driver/vehicle owner), Oliver, Drew and I all had big lenses lustily primed for bird – our approach was cautious. First we all got a look – then we moved in for exposures.
At first we tip toed about, largely because this little guy was about 10 meters away. Shutters slammed down, we were harried by the inherent suspicion of humans we’d been familiarized with as ardent nature observers. Pygmy-owls, as it turns, out are wholly undeterred by idiots dancing about making clicking noises. This bird was so relaxed that it decided to barrel into the snow bank opposite us and having missed it’s intended goal – landed two meters from me on the icy road. I subsequently lost all control of rational photographic thought and hammered away, getting only mediocre pictures of this demon eyed bird with oversized, harbinger talons. My command of expressing my passion for this pipsqueak of an owl left me with the flush of adrenaline and all I could talk about was exuding bricks out of unholy orifices. Even now I forgot to mention the three Ruffed Grouse, just below us as we poised for evidence of the encounter.
To say the least it was a heroically lit day. The kind of day that makes you want to exact vengeance upon your foes after striding through numerous and untold snowfields. A few more birds were seen but it was simply a pleasure to slide about this blanket of white in relative solitude. Clark’s Nutcrackers cavorted as only corvids can. Several Gray-crowned Rosy Finches were to be had. We counted twelve Northern Shrikes. We enjoyed our unrivaled company in an overcrowded truck.
This is a place I intend to settle. Not only is it one of the more wild places in Washington but it’s full of magical birds. Seeing past the frozen crust, I can imagine the indulgence of summer in the high country. As the sun dipped below a bank of clouds we were treated with the deep navy of sparsely lit snow and the pale orange of refracted light.
We explored the glorious Methow Valley the next morning, lucky to have the help of our champion Drew. Being a bit older (and wiser), he secured places for us sleep both nights and private places to explore. The most magical place was a homestead we visited in hopes of a Northern Hawk-owl, which had been seen earlier in the winter. Although we dipped on the owl, we got to see pretty much my ideal vision of an off the grid home. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more ideal spread, tucked away in the hills with land a plenty and an unobstructed view south into wilderness.
We ended out trip beyond Winthrop with a good find. As we walked around Pearrygin Lake State Park, I wandered off to try to find some Pine Grosbeaks feasting on the ash seeds we’d seen them gulping down previously. As luck would have it, I heard a few chuckling away to each other through beakfulls of seed. Eight grosbeaks in total finished off our sortie into the Methow and we watched them merrily munch away for quite some time.