Meadows Banding Blitz August 17-18

Rimrock Burn. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

PSBO’s banding blitz at the end of the 2010 season rounded out our mountain banding season with some unexpected excitement. On Tuesday evening we took a trip to banding sites we’ve used near Rimrock Lake in past years before fires prevented us from accessing the area in 2009. We wanted to see what conditions were like this year and whether it might be worth revisiting in future years. Our spot, Tieton Alders, proved birdy as ever, with a feeding frenzy of five warbler species (Nashville, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Townsend’s and Willow), both Cassin’s and W Warbling Vireos, and several flycatchers in evidence. This matched our findings at both Cash Prairie and McDaniel Lake, namely that good numbers of the migrant warblers and vireos were still present, several days later than in most recent years. So for 2010, it seems that multiple factors made the season stand out. First, the mountains never dried out as much as in typical years, producing a less pronounced concentration of birds in the pocket meadows. Second, the breeding season was delayed due to an unseasonably cool and wet early summer that persisted well into June, pushing back end-of-summer post-breeding activities.

Rimrock Sunset. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

By the time we left the Rimrock area, it was getting dark and we decided to take some time before dinner to owl our way up Bethel Ridge Road, a steep dirt road zigzagging up to Cash Prairie from Route 12. Well, dinner didn’t happen till 1am!

Nothing happened at our first couple stops near the highway, in spite of Tayler Brooks’ impressive imitations of various owls. As soon as we stepped out of the car at the third stop, however, a strange breathy call greeted us. Challenged to localize the sound, we walked down a side road to triangulate. When it sounded again, we were shocked to realize that it came right from where we’d started! The call was much quieter than we’d thought—and much closer.

Squinting Flammie. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

We returned to our starting point and squabbled over where to look before we realized that a tiny owlet was right in front of us in our flashlight beam. The fuzzy bird took off on gangly wings and landed just a few feet up the road showing a diagnostic rusty bar across the wing—Flammulated owlet! Moments later we realized there were at least three fledglings scattered about the trees. They continued to move around the branches from almost ground level to about 20 feet up, occasionally uttering their weird begging call, squinting at the moon—and our flashlights .

Screech Owl Taking flight. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

We hustled some photos and recordings of their calls, when we eventually detected the faint tooting of an adult Flammie. Suddenly, a much more insistent Western Screech-Owl came down the side road, bouncing its vocal ball right through the middle of the Flammie family. For a moment, the intruder had us questioning our identification—were these actually Screech-Owlets? We followed the Screech-Owl who offered improbable views and impeccable recordings before heading off.

We headed back toward where we’d left the Flammie family. While searching, I became aware of the sound of falling tree debris, often the telltale sign of a Three-toed Woodpecker up the trunk or a squirrel in the upper canopy. But it was the middle of the night! Who’d be up there flaking tree debris? Flying squirrel occurred to me, so I drew away from the trunk and scoured the canopy with my light. Sure enough, well hidden in the middle of the tree I found a squirrelly shape moving about. The light worried it and it started moving around the tree exposing the distinctive black stripe defining the curvy edge of its patagium. We gathered around as it reached the top of the tree where it proceeded to check its options—and presumably the wind conditions. For moments later, the squirrel launched itself into the night sky and glided across the road, dragging our flashlights with it, clear to the bottom of another tree, which it scooted up posthaste.

Juvie Flammie. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

Well, back to the Flammies. We found them just a few steps back, still begging, still clambering about. Indeed, one near the ground permitted our approach to within inches, calling to our faces and revealing its remarkably delicate and dainty toes, nothing like the blood-drawing talons characteristic of our other small owls.  Before long, the adults approached, giving their shy toot. Tayler happened to record one as it fed the fledglings. We couldn’t tell what it provided its offspring, whether it was one of the numerous small moths in the vicinity typical of the species’ diet. Challenged with our tooting imitation,

Adult Flammie. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

one of the adults launched into a tirade of toots and squeals, revealing a much greater vocal repertoire than I realized they commanded. We eventually beat our retreat, still fired up by all the excitement.

So we continued our stops up the mountainside, increasingly anxious about Sam’s gas situation, since the car’s fuel light had just come on. Nothing. And once more nothing. At a spot overlooking a broad sweep of forested slope to the West, we tried a few different owls again. Tayler embarked on a suite of Long-eared Owl calls. Within moments, a large form swooped out from behind the trees like the low-flying fighter jets that terrorize these valleys on practice runs, yet unlike them because silent. It made for my head, then back-pedaled as we gasped, revealing the distinctive underwing pattern of a Long-eared Owl as our light strafed it on its way down the slope and out of sight.

Rubber Boa Bracelet. Photo by Dan Froehlich.

Whee, what a night! We started up the road again. Moments later, I realized I’d lost Sam behind me. I waited a while, hoping he’d just gotten distracted. But when his lights didn’t appear below, I guessed the emptiness of his tank had finally caught up to us. So I headed back down, wondering if I could tow the car up with rope. When I found them, they weren’t worried about the car. They’d found a Rubber Boa on the road which obligingly draped around our wrists like a bracelet to harvest the heat we were so wastefully radiating.

After one more stop at which nocturnal Pikas kept us guessing and wondering for a good half hour, we finally made it to the top of the ridge, starving and flushed. We fired up the stove and had pasta at 1am before drifting off to sleep.

Remarkably, in three weeks of field work we encountered ten of Washington’s eleven widespread woodpeckers in the small chunk of the state bounded by Highway 410 on the East, Highway 12 on the South, the William O Douglas Wilderness on the West, and Rattlesnake Canyon on the North. These observations included more than a dozen Lewis’ Woodpeckers at the Oak Creek Wildlife Management Area headquarters along Route 12 on August 6, a bumper crop of Williamson’s Sapsuckers at both Cash Prairie and McDaniel Lake, and active groups of Black-backed and White-headed Woodpeckers around McDaniel Lake. With their large territories, Pileateds were detected infrequently, mostly around McDaniel Lake. Decidedly scarce were Red-naped Sapsucker, with an adult and a juvenile banded at McDaniel the last week of July, and Three-toed Woodpecker, with a single adult seen at Cash Prairie on our last day on August 18. Only in the Peruvian Amazon have I encountered comparable woodpecker diversity in such a restricted area!

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