A Different Day

Yesterday was yesterday, with me finding small things to shake me out of the cabin fever rattling around in my own skull (skull fever?). Today was a different day. The fog burned off, revealing brightness and a big landscape to explore. Jon and I were confined mostly to the truck, as our assignment was to patrol the Sno-Parks on the east side of the ranger district. We noticed the blue flash of a Steller’s jay, and that got us talking about the movie “The Big Year”. It’s about three guys who try to see as many bird species as possible in one year, and how they compete and discover friendship. Highly recommended, even without car chases, explosions or lots of special effects. Anyway, it didn’t take long for us to have the idea of keeping track of the all birds we observed in one day. Paying attention really enlivened our travels.

We stopped to eat lunch at Reecer Creek, where the forest meets the shrub-steppe. It’s a dry country of grassy slopes and sagebrush, and the ponderosa pines grow in open stands higher up. There are dark basalt cliffs, and every draw and creek bottom is filled with dense brush—hawthorn, willow, aspen, wild rose. Shadows were blue on the blazing white snow. We had the windows rolled down and were listening to the radio while we ate. Suddenly the sound went off. We had a dead battery.

What’s winter without one dead battery incident? While Jon called for assistance, I got the jumper cables out of the back and we settled to wait. Looking out across the field, I saw a small dark shape moving. It was a hump with a pointy nose that scurried on short legs. A vole. As I watched, a bird flew in and dropped on the rodent and flared up in a flurry of wings. Then it hovered. My jaw dropped, and I looked toward Jon. He was still on the phone. The bird was gray and about the size of a robin, with a white-edged black tail. A shrike. I watched as it struck again and again, each time hovering between attacks. Voles are ferocious, and this one reared up on its hind legs to fight back. After several unsuccessful attempts on the rodent, the shrike flew off.

I told Jon what I had just witnessed. He’d missed the whole drama. I got out and walked over to where I’d seen the vole. I found no marks in the snow to show that anything had happened, but I did see the bird perched on a scrawny serviceberry bush nearby. It was a gray silhouette, looking nonchalant but also extremely alert.

A pickup towing a snowmobile trailer came up the road and the driver offered us a jump. In no time we had our truck started, and were grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Here are the birds we saw today: Common raven; Steller’s jay; Bald eagle; California quail; Dark-eyed junco; Black-capped chickadee; Starling; Mourning dove; Black-billed magpie; Red-shafted flicker; Redtailed hawk; American kestrel; American robin; Brewer’s blackbird; Redwing blackbird; Horned lark; Shrike (couldn’t tell if it was loggerhead or northern); Wild turkey. Of course there were others that flitted across our field of vision that we couldn’t identify because we both staunchly maintain that we are not birders. No way.

I drew a loggerhead shrike for The Birds of Yakima County in 1996. I couldn’t remember ever having seen one, so my work was done from researching illustrations and the descriptions of Andy Stepniewski, the author. As I sat upstairs in my studio drawing on a winter day, a ruckus erupted at the bird feeder. I looked out the window and there was a shrike—the very bird I was drawing—perched in the bushes with a dead house finch in its claws.

Sometimes life brings us exactly what we need. The image of a bird hovering in the sunlight sweeps the cabin fever right out of my skull.

Another Hike

There are two ways to get to Yakima from the north. You can take Interstate 82, which engineers designed to go over three big ridges. Or you can take the Yakima Canyon route, on a two lane highway that follows the curves of the river. Don’t take this road if you’re in a hurry.

As I meandered my way back to Cle Elum this afternoon, it occurred to me that there’s no way to capture the place in a single photo. There’s too much to take in–the scale of the hills with the layers of basalt, the green of May and wildflowers at their peak, a raft of white pelicans on the river, the fresh leaves on the cottonwoods reflecting the sun, the call of a redwinged blackbird coming through the open window. I feel spoiled by the variety available in my home landscape. Mountains, forest, desert, rivers are all compressed into a narrow band between the top of the Cascades and the edge of the Columbia Basin.

I stopped for a walk at Umptanum Canyon, which flows into the Yakima. It was a warm day, and clouds of insects were rising above the water. Fly fishermen in their waders stood as still as herons, intently focused on the riffles. I crossed the suspension bridge and railroad tracks, and headed up a side trail looking for flowers.

Antelope bitterbrush

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) and sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) are the dominant shrubs, both lush with moisture from the spring rains. The fuzzy silvery leaves help the plants conserve water during the dry heat of summer.

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorrhiza sagitatta) is one of the many yellow daisy-like flowers found in the shrub steppe. Sometimes the slopes turn golden with them all blooming at once.


According to my wildflower book, there are at least twelve lupines that can occur in eastern Washington. I don’t know which one this is, but it goes well with the sagebrush, balsamroots and showy phlox.

Looking up the Umptanum, which I’ve hiked alone and with companions numerous times over the last 20 years. Today I was stepping carefully, because it was warm enough for rattlesnakes to be active. And ticks–I’ve been feeling crawly for a couple days. But all I saw were butterflies and birds. From the shade of a basalt cliff came the buzzy chirping of a canyon wren, warming up for the clear descending notes that would come in the evening. And of course ravens, somewhere across the canyon.

As I headed back across the river toward the truck, it seemed to me that a person who listens carefully can hear the difference between the wind blowing through the Great Basin wild rye and sagebrush, and the wind blowing through Douglas-firs.