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Ptarmigan quest-2007

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  • Andy Stepniewski
    MORSE CREEK TO BASIN LAKE 27-29 JULY 2007 Our quest for White-tailed Ptarmigan in Yakima County continues! This was Yakima Audubon s third major assault for
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2007
      27-29 JULY 2007

      Our quest for White-tailed Ptarmigan in Yakima County continues! This was
      Yakima Audubon's third major assault for this elusive species of the
      mountaintops. In 2004 we went to the Goat Rocks, in 2006 to Mt. Adams. This
      year, we went to Basin Lake north of Chinook Pass. This lake does indeed
      nestle in a basin, reached by a six mile or so hike. It lies in a beautiful
      setting at nearly 6000 feet elevation in the high country of the Norse Peak
      Wilderness Area. Being mature Auduboners, with aging joints and a long list
      of other ailments, we appreciated the efforts of Paul Wilson owner of
      Chinook Outfitters, with his assistant April, and his four mules to ferry
      all our gear, gourmet food (and wine) and conveniences such as comfy chairs
      (with backs) and tables into camp. This year we were eight intrepid
      ptarmigan seekers: Dotty Armstrong, Vera Backstrom, Denny Granstrand, John
      Hebert, Chris Reid, Scott Sandsberry, and Andy and Ellen Stepniewski.

      Trailhead was the road end on Morse Creek at about 4,500 feet elevation in
      moist forest. From there, we followed an old mining track up, steep and
      brushy in sections on a dry southerly aspect, to Pickhandle Gap at about
      6,000 feet elevation. This basin saw mining activity in the early 1900s when
      very small quantities of gold were found. Pickhandle Gap is also known as
      Fog City, in reference to the swirling mists that often envelop the Cascade
      Mountain crest here. However, we enjoyed brilliant and warm sunshine.
      Peering down into the Silver Creek basin, we admired the lush subalpine
      forest, quite in contrast to the exposed and brushy slopes we had just
      ascended. This slope seems to be getting pretty reliable for Pine Grosbeak,
      a large boreal finch, as I heard one singing here while waiting for the
      group. I've noted them here and at Bear Gap a mile to the west on most
      visits I've taken here. Upper Morse Creek and these two gaps are (oddly) the
      only known reliable spot for this finch in Yakima County, which occurs in
      northern latitudes around the world.

      The contrasts in vegetation along our route, from low elevation moist forest
      to brushy communities on exposed south slopes to snowy subalpine heights has
      attracted the attention of botanists. A list of 180 species attests to this
      diversity. Check it out by following links from the Washington Native Plant
      Society homepage (then to Plant Lists, then to Yakima County, then to the
      Bear Gap list. So, in addition to being a fine destination for birds and
      other wildlife, this region offers a botanical extravaganza.

      We sauntered north along the Pacific Crest Trail, passing tree clumps of
      Subalpine Fir, occasional Alaska Cedars, and in the wetter swales, Mountain
      Hemlocks. On the drier ridges were Whitebark Pines, their purple cones still
      tight and closed. These were not quite ready for Clark's Nutcrackers to
      attack and pry open for the seeds that are critical in the diet of this
      large jay. Along the way, we took time to savor incredible views of Mt.
      Rainier. Reaching Scout Pass, we noticed Mountain Goats on the steep slopes
      of the peak above Basin Lake. We counted ten goats, including two half-grown
      kids. As we camped below these cliffs and slopes for the next two nights, we
      were treated to many good views of one nanny goat and kid as they clambered
      about the scree slopes munching the tall herbaceous growth. From Scout Pass
      we descended steeply on a rocky track to Basin Lake, a lovely small lake,
      rimmed with herb and sedge flats on one side, groves of stately Engelmann
      Spruce and Subalpine Firs on another, and dramatic cliffs on another. A
      picture perfect setting! It was an added pleasure to find our gear waiting
      for us.

      After setting up camp a few hundred feet from the lake, we changed into
      swimsuits for a refreshing dip in Basin Lake. Brrrr! We shared the lake with
      several nearby Barrow's Goldeneyes, a diving duck that nests in mountain
      lakes and retreats downhill, mostly to saltwater for the winter.

      Scott had fantasized about augmenting our menu with fresh trout. However, he
      discovered he had forgotten to bring his hook and lures! The sight of lots
      of jumping fish and "ba-zillions" of insects hovering close over the water,
      abundant food for trout, must have been maddening.

      About camp, we noted raucous Steller's and Gray Jays to be the conspicuous
      birds. Olive-sided Flycatchers called "pip.pip.pip" from the tall snags,
      only occasionally (at dawn) singing their "quick, three beers!" Noisy
      Evening Grosbeaks visited camp a few times, giving good views. Lincoln's
      Sparrows sang their bubbly tune from the stream and lake edges. Overhead
      Cassin's Finches and Pine Siskins called.

      Friday night, Chris prepared dinner of sauted vegetables and herbs with
      chicken and rice, a wonderful repast indeed.

      Saturday, Chris, Vera, Dotty, and John took the day to relax, read, and
      visit about camp.

      Ellen, Denny, Scott, and myself set out on a hike, first north from camp to
      a saddle. In meadows framed by Subalpine Fir, we tallied yet more
      Olive-sided Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, Cassin's Finches, and both
      Yellow-rumped and Townsend's Warblers plus Pine Siskins chattering
      everywhere. From this saddle, we set our sights on Norse Peak (6856 feet
      elevation) so traversed west on a steep, south-facing slope, riddled with
      elk trails. Reaching the Pacific Crest Trail, the ascent of Norse Peak is
      but a short ways up a steep meadowed slope. We shared this popular summit
      with hikers coming up from the Crystal Mountain ski area road.

      The views! We had a "five volcano view." To the southwest, Mt. Rainier,
      dominated, of course. Mt. Adams loomed in the distance while the tippy top
      of Mt. Hood peeked above Adam's shoulder. Mt. Saint Helens barely showed
      above a maze of ridges south of Rainier. To the north, we could make out
      Glacier Peak amid a jumble of North Cascade peaks.

      We were atop the highest point in the district, so where were the
      White-tailed Ptarmigans? This species is tied to alpine habitats such as wet
      seeps, tundra communities such as alpine willows and other prostrate
      vegetation above treeline, however subalpine tree growth, though stunted,
      mantles the highest points in the Norse Peak Wilderness. On the south side
      of Mt. Rainier, Pinnacle Peak, though lower in elevation (a few hundred
      feet), is treeless, has small glaciers and permanent snowfields, and is much
      more alpine. The reason for this difference is tied to precipitation. The
      south and west slopes of Mt. Rainier receive the brunt of Pacific storms.
      Snowfall exceeds 600 inches annually at Paradise on the southwest flank of
      Mt. Rainier. Northeast of Mt. Rainier is a "snowshadow." Perhaps snowfall
      there is only 50-60% of that on Rainiers's south slopes. Less winter
      snowfall means a longer growing season; there may be two more snowfree
      months here on Norse Peak as compared to Pinnacle or Plummer Peaks on Mt.
      Rainier's south side, known haunts of ptarmigan.

      Though a long shot, Denny and Scott headed down to check a seep at base of
      north face of summit, still in the subalpine. No luck. So, to have a
      reasonable chance at spotting ptarmigan in Yakima County, we'll have to head
      again for the high Goat Rocks, though we gave it a "good go" in 2004. On our
      trip in 2006 to Mt. Adams we spoke with the climbing ranger. In three
      seasons of traipsing its alpine, he had never encountered or heard of a
      ptarmigan on Mt. Adams. The conclusion I'm reaching is, though formerly
      documented to occur in the mountains of Yakima County, the ptarmigan may be
      disappearing here, due to climate change. The alpine zone is steadily
      shrinking in extent in these mountains, being replaced, first by subalpine
      meadows, then tree growth. We know this is occurring in all glaciers in the
      region (Goat Rocks, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier) indeed almost a worldwide

      On our descent Ellen and I relaxed in the sunshine on the slopes of Norse
      Peak and had close views of Violet-green Swallows, a Turkey Vulture sailing
      by, and Mountain Bluebirds posing beautifully atop snags.

      Saturday evening we had a fine dinner of backpacking style parmesan chicken
      with noodles prepared by Ellen, accompanied by a substantial "box" of Tefft
      Cellars red wine from Costco, Scott's very good idea. During dinner, a cow
      elk, with a neck band and both ears tagged, ambled about the meadow, coming
      closer to investigate Dotty's whispering. Perhaps this was an elk habituated
      to people, such as at the Oak Creek winterfeeding station.

      Sunday morning, while breaking camp, Denny and Scott spied an American
      Dipper darting down the creek towards the lake.

      We chose to hike out by the horse route rather than the Pacific Crest Trail.
      This took us through verdant Cement Basin, past boggy and lush meadows with
      rank growth of False Hellebore. Beautiful Elephanthead and Rein Orchids
      enticed Vera and Ellen to take photos. Unfortunately they were swarmed by
      mosquitoes and soon fled. Past Cement Basin, the trail skirts steep, exposed
      slopes with a scattered growth of dwarfish buckwheats, Queen Anne's Lace,
      and colorful penstemons. These rocky habitats reminded me strongly of low
      elevation shrub-steppe habitats. On reaching the Pacific Crest Trail atop
      the ridge, we noted a marked contrast in vegetation, as moist subalpine
      plant communities occurred on the wetter slopes down the west slopes of the

      Scott, Vera, and Dotty had gone on ahead, taking the "wrong" trail and the
      long way out. John lingered at the gap at "Fog City." He soon noticed there
      was lots of bird activity here and enjoyed watching two Pine Grosbeaks
      flitting about the tall Subalpine Firs and Mountain Hemlocks. He also caught
      a glimpse of a large falcon, probably a Prairie.

      Back at the cars, we waited for our dunnage and birded the lush streamside
      vegetation about Morse Creek. Denny, John, Ellen, and myself thrilled at a
      warbler extravaganza hopping about the bushes and trees. There were scads
      (well, may 20 or so) each of Orange-crowned and Nashville Warblers, a few
      Yellow-rumped and Townsend's Warblers, and a smattering of Warbling Vireos.
      Other birds popping out of the bushes included Lazuli Buntings, Dark-eyed
      Juncos, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Overhead, a Vaux's Swift darted
      about. The annual flurry of activity in these lush subalpine thickets is
      starting. These high elevation habitats provide abundant food for migrating
      birds on their journey south, much more than is available in the parched
      lowland habitats in eastern Washington and across much of the American west.

      Bird list:

      Barrow's Goldeneye
      Turkey Vulture
      Accipiter, sp.-2 (Cooper's Hawk or Northern Goshawk)
      Red-tailed Hawk - 3
      Falcon, sp. -1 (Prairie most likely)
      Spotted Sandpiper - 2
      Vaux's Swift - 1
      Calliope Hummingbird - 1
      Rufous Hummingbird - 15
      Northern Flicker - 10
      Olive-sided Flycatcher - 10
      Violet-green Swallow - 35
      Gray Jay - 10
      Steller's Jay - 10
      Clark's Nutcracker - 15
      Common Raven - 2
      Mountain Chickadee - 35
      Chestnut-backed Chickadee - 15
      Red-breasted Nuthatch - 20
      Winter Wren - 1
      American Dipper - 1
      Golden-crowned Kinglet - 50
      Mountain Bluebird - 10
      Townsend's Solitaire - 2
      Hermit Thrush - 25
      American Robin - 25
      Varied Thrush - 5
      Warbling Vireo - 10
      Orange-crowned Warbler - 15
      Nashville Warbler - 25
      Yellow-rumped Warbler - 25
      Townsend's Warbler - 5
      MacGillivray's Warbler - 2
      Western Tanager - 3
      Lazuli Bunting - 2
      Chipping Sparrow - 50
      Fox Sparrow - 10
      Song Sparrow - 1
      Lincoln's Sparrow - 5
      Dark-eyed Junco - 75
      Pine Grosbeak - 2
      Cassin's Finch - 20
      Red Crossbill - 15
      Pine Siskin - 100
      Evening Grosbeak - 20

      Mammal list:

      Mule Deer - 1
      Mountain Goat - 8
      Douglas Squirrel - 2
      Hoary Marmot - 1
      Chipmunk - 15
      Coyote - 2

      Andy Stepniewski
      Wapato WA
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