Having finished our loop back through southern California for wildflower displays, we started heading north on April 8, with a goal of crossing into Canada on May 5, when we had a ferry reservation from Port Angeles, WA to Vancouver Island, BC. We spent our first night in Morgan Hill with Rob, Tam, and Sierra Jenkin, and then continued on to Napa, where we stayed with Mike and Sally Parmeter. We spent a nice morning birding at Bodega Bay with Mike and a friend of his, with Long-tailed Duck being the best bird found. Our next stop was Manchester Beach State Park (SP), in Mendocino County, where Aplodontias are occasionally seen. This was our second time searching for them here, and we were again unsuccessful, though a nighttime walk with the thermal scope yielded Pacific Jumping Mouse, a life mammal! We continued north along the coast, reaching Arcata in a couple days. There we stayed two nights with Carol and CJ Ralph. We botanized and birded at both coastal and montane locations, finding four new plants and one new butterfly. Erythronium revolutum, Pink Fawn Lily, was a particular favorite, and would turn out to be just the first of three life species we would see in this genus over a 5-day span.
After crossing into Oregon, we headed to the Medford area, where we hiked on the Lower Table Rock Trail, to property managed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). This region experienced extensive lava flows, follow by erosion that removed great quantities of material, but left a few flat-topped igneous buttes. These butte tops are excellent for rare plants, as they are fairly impervious to water, and so form vernal wetlands after winter precipitation. We saw four new plant species on a single hike (!), and there were marvelous displays of striking spring flowers such as magenta Broad-leaved Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), pale pink Henderson’s Fawn Lilies (Erythronium hendersonii), Scarlet Fritillary (Fritillaria recurva), and Purple-eyed Grass (Olsynium douglasii), the latter of which we had never seen in flower before, only in fruit. This location reminded us greatly of similarly named Table Mountain, a famous wildflower location near Oroville, CA.
Heading northwest through Oregon, we stopped in for lunch with Connee and Bob Reau, whom we had seen in Tucson a month and a half before. Later that day we hiked at Basket Slough National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), finding our third new Erythronium of the week, E. oregonum (Giant White Fawn-Lily), a lovely cream-colored species. Our camping destination on the coast was Devil’s Point SP, a mostly flooded campground with dramatic displays of flowering Western Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, in the same family but not the same genera as Eastern Skunk Cabbage and Jack-in-the-Pulpit. From this base we were able with a short drive to reach the trailhead to the TNC’s Cascade Head Preserve, which protects fine coastal grassland habitat with spectacular views and several rare species, though we were too early to see them in flower. But we added several year birds, including Peregrine Falcon, and enjoyed the views from the headlands. We would like to have paddled the estuary here, but Oregon requires a boat inspection for aquatic invasives, and, via a totally separate process, a boat permit, and these could not be arranged quickly enough.
From here we began a two-week-long loop inland. Our first stop was the TNC’s Camassia Natural Area, SE of Portland, OR. This small property is good for spring wildflowers and though we were somewhat early in the season, we could see the potential. We next drove up towards Lolo Pass on the north side of Mt. Hood, which was heavily laden with snow and spectacular. This is a prime location for Aplodontia, and though we had tried twice here in the past without success, we had at least located active burrows in 2017. This time we got to within two miles of the pass before hitting significant snow. After pulling out an SUV that got stuck, we walked up the road a ways, and then returned to find another vehicle stuck in the same place! Although we saw a modest number of Aplodontia burrows recently exposed by melting snow, none gave evidence of being active, so we decided to move on and camp at lower elevation. In the morning we were treated to glorious sunshine, the first Red Crossbills of the year, and lots of California Tortoiseshells, a pretty butterfly that apparently is usually uncommon but occasionally has good years.
The Columbia River forms most of the border between Oregon and Washington, and for a distance of about 80 miles, starting east of Portland, it has cut a gorge through the basaltic bedrock of the Cascade Range. Basalt is a dark igneous rock formed from lava flows, and it is noted for breaking into columns as it cools. If the cooling process is sufficiently slow, the columns will be of fairly uniform size and most will be regular pentagons or hexagons, creating striking formations. Nice basalt columns are visible from I-84 as it passes through the gorge on the Oregon side, sharing the limited space with an active railroad. There are a number of notable waterfalls on this steep south side of the gorge. The Washington side also has a railroad, and State Route 14 provides access to many interesting sites.
The first site we explored was the Tom McCall Preserve, a TNC property east of Mosier, OR. The preserve has two trails, which we hiked on two successive days. There are quite a few plant species that are found only, or principally, in the gorge and adjacent areas, and we saw several of these at the preserve. The most obvious was Lomatium columbianum, Columbia Desert Parsley, a distinctive species with large glaucous leaves and dark purple flowers. Quite a few people asked us what this striking plant was. We eventually found a total of five Lomatium species in the preserve, three of which were new to us. We also saw four other new plants, including the diminutive and lovely Yellow Fritillary (Fritillaria pudica) and the exquisite Narcissus Shooting-Star (Dodecatheon poeticus).
We continued east on the Oregon side to the Deschutes River, considered the eastern end of the gorge, where there was nice camping, and some good displays of Prairie Star (Lithophragma parviflorum) in a recently burned area. As it was clear that spring was a bit late here, we left the gorge for a few days to look for two species of ground squirrels. We first searched for Townsend’s Ground Squirrel, which formerly was considered a fairly widespread species, but molecular work has shown that the population between the Yakima and Columbia Rivers in Washington is genetically distinct, so it has been reclassified as a more narrowly defined species. Despite three days of effort covering all published locations we could uncover, we had no luck, although we found burrows, a few fresh, that appeared to be made by this species. Population numbers can fluctuate quite a bit, and can be especially low following drought, which has afflicted the region in recent years.
The second species, Washington Ground Squirrel, is rarer and can be harder to find. We looked for one afternoon in the Boardman Grasslands in Oregon, a TNC preserve with the highest known density of the species, but had no success, though we enjoyed hearing the plaintive call of Long-billed Curlews, bringing back memories of our year on the prairies in 2017. We then tried the Washington portion of the range, looking in the area south of Moses Lake, where we camped for two nights. While driving from the campsite to the prime area the first morning, I spotted one on a rock, basking in the early morning sun, and he stayed long enough for one photo! We found two more in the next few hours, and counted ourselves lucky. There are about 19 species of ground squirrels in North America north of Mexico; now Eileen has seen 17 of them, and I’ve seen 18.
While in the area we visited Columbia NWR, which contains remarkable scenery in the Drumheller Channeled Scablands, a National Natural Landmark. This region was scoured by floods of nearly unimaginable magnitude when huge Lake Spokane, formed when a glacier backed up the Columbia River, breached the ice. The peak water flow is estimated to have exceeded the total flow of all rivers in the world today, by a factor of ten!! This removed all soil and cut deeply into the basaltic bedrock, leaving behind a complex eroded landscape. Many of the lower areas are now filled with water, and support a significant population of wintering waterfowl. Here we finally were able to put our canoe on the water and take our first paddle of the year, a five-mile jaunt on Hutchinson and Shiner Lakes. We enjoyed a flock of 19 White Pelicans, both resting on the water, and soaring overhead; there are few sights more stunning than a flock of White Pelicans, with their wingspan of up to ten feet, and snow white and jet black plumage, slowly wheeling against a deep blue sky.
Returning to the Columbia River Gorge, we again camped at the Deschutes River, but spent most of our time exploring the Washington side of the gorge. One day we hiked in the Columbia Hills Natural Area west of Wishram, where we saw extraordinary displays of yellow Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) and found three new plant species. The next day we hiked in the Catherine Creek area west of Lyle. Nashville and Black-throated Gray Warblers were singing on territory here. The latter portion of our loop hike went along a series of cliff edges, where we saw Vaux’s Swifts flying by at close to eye level. In this area we noticed a small dandelion-like plant with ruffled leaf edges. It turned out to be one of our most exciting finds of the year, Nothocalais troximoides (Sagebrush False Dandelion). While doing our genus quest in California, we searched at least half a dozen times for the genus Nothocalais, without success, though several times we found other genera that probably had been misidentified as Nothocalais in previous reports. Here, at last, was the real thing! This was our very first new genus of the entire year.
Heading back towards the coast, we sampled waterfalls and cliffs along Historic Rte. 30 on the Oregon side, finding at one site a new saxifrage family member, Bolandra oregana. We had seen this genus only once before, so it was an exciting find. After a stop at Alaskan Campers in Winlock, WA for some maintenance and a few minor fixes, we headed for Cape Disappointment. We were running out of time before our ferry to Vancouver Island, so we stayed only one night, but the trails and beaches were lovely, and the estuaries of Willapa Bay were filled with migrating shorebirds. Western Sandpiper were the most numerous, forming large flocks that glittered silver when they turned in ripple fashion in the sun.
After driving the length of the Washington coast in one day, we spent our last two days at Lake Ozette in Olympic National Park, in the very northwest corner of the Lower 48. We did a long paddle on the first day, seeing a fine assortment of waterfowl, including our first Hooded Mergansers of the year. I am writing this blog post on our second day, as we enjoy a perfect sunny day in camp. We’ll put in this afternoon and do a shorter paddle, then maybe try some thermal scoping for mammals tonight. Tomorrow: Canada!