by Bill LaFramboise and Nancy LaFramboise

revised by Roger Baker and Randy Robinson

Not far east of Maryhill, John Day Dam backs up the Columbia River for 70 miles to form Lake Umatilla (pronounced YOU-muh-TILL-uh). A long ridge known as the Horse Heaven Hills parallels the Columbia to the north, separating it from the Yakima River watershed. Several excellent birding sites in the bottomlands along Lake Umatilla swarm with migrating and wintering waterfowl, attendant Bald Eagles, and other birds of marshes, fields, open water, and brushy tangles. Away from the river, a road up Rock Creek, which drains the Horse Heaven Hills, provides a contrasting and productive habitat supporting Golden Eagle along the cliffs and Ash-throated Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and other birds of riparian deciduous woodland and dry, rocky hillside. Be sure to have a full tank before starting up Rock Creek Road, as you will be entering an area with no gas stations.



About 20 miles east of US-97, at milepost 121.1 on SR-14, turn north onto Rock Creek Road. Check the mouth of the creek for waterfowl in winter, Eared Grebe in summer. At 3.8 miles, stay left where Old Highway 8 goes right. Then in 0.4 mile turn right off the main road onto Rock Creek Road. Most of the road is bordered by private property; please respect the numerous signs. Stop to check promising areas of streamside vegetation. Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Lazuli Bunting, and Bullock’s Oriole are common during the breeding season. This is a good location for Ash-throated Flycatcher and one of the infrequent places Bushtits can be found east of the Cascades. Townsend’s Solitaire is common during winter. Bald Eagle may be found in winter and Golden Eagle year round.

A side trip up Newell Road, on the right in 4.0 miles, provides similar habitats and birding opportunities. Continue north on Rock Creek Road 2.3 miles to a ranch driveway on the left. Just beyond it, Rock Creek Road parallels a particularly inviting half-mile stretch of riparian woodland dominated by White Alder—best birded on foot from the roadway.

Reaching the Bickleton Highway (3.1 miles from the ranch driveway), you can turn left for Goldendale (16 miles) and other points west or go right to begin the ascent of the south face of the Horse Heaven Hills to Bickleton. It’s 20 miles to Bickleton on this paved road (high point 3,235 feet). Stop along the road at likely spots to inspect Garry Oak, Ponderosa Pine, and grassland habitats for Vaux’s Swift, Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker and other woodpeckers, Western Wood-Pewee, Gray Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, warblers, Western Tanager, and Cassin’s Finch. Open areas should have Western and Mountain Bluebirds and Vesper Sparrow. Explore side roads for more bluebird-viewing possibilities. Additional stops can be made at the Box Springs Road junction in 12.4 miles, and at a bridge in another 6.6 miles where the road crosses Pine Creek; check here for riparian species.

After passing through the small town of Bickleton (no gas, but a tavern serves food), the road makes a 90-degree left turn at the school. Wheat country begins in two miles. Birds to be found in these fields in winter include Rough-legged Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Gray Partridge, Northern Shrike, gobs of Horned Larks, and sometimes a few Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. The road (now known as Glade Road) descends the north side of the Horse Heaven Hills, reaching Alderdale Road in 17.6 miles. Keep on Glade Road, descending steeply through vineyards and wheat fields with a few remnants of shrub-steppe and bunchgrass habitat. Be on the lookout for raptors such as Swainson’s Hawk and Golden Eagle. Northern Shrikes winter along the route.

Thefloor of the lower Yakima Valley is reached at Mabton in 8.0 miles. To get to I-82, turn left onto SR-22, go 0.2 mile, then turn right onto SR-241, following it 6.3 miles to Alexander Road. Turn left here, then right in 1.0 mile onto Midvale Road. Find the I-82 interchange (Exit 67) in 0.2 mile.



The best birding along Lake Umatilla is in its eastern section—the 25 miles or so between Crow Butte Park and McNary Dam. Two outstanding Washington rarities—Magnificent Frigatebird from the tropics and Ross’s Gull from the Arctic—were recorded here. The three sites described below are easily accessible and offer a good mix of birds in all seasons.

The entrance to Crow Butte Park is on the north side of SR-14 at milepost 155. In winter you may park at the closed gate and walk in. To bird the causeway, park at either end and walk; stopping your car on the causeway is not allowed. Great Egrets (Snowy has been seen), American White Pelicans, gulls, and terns may be present. Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren are here year round, and Swamp Sparrow has been found during the fall. Mudflats appear when the water is low, attracting migrating shorebirds. Raptors include Bald Eagle and an occasional Peregrine Falcon. The lagoon can harbor many waterfowl. An oasis of trees and shrubs, the park itself is an effective passerine migrant trap. Trees regularly host Barn, Great Horned, Long-eared, and (especially in migration) Northern Saw-whet Owls. Long-eareds nest in locusts along the river; be careful not to disturb or attract attention to them.

Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1969 as mitigation for habitat lost to flooding when the John Day Dam was built, hosts thousands of ducks and geese in winter. The refuge is a mix of natural and managed wetlands and native shrub-steppe. Areas of the refuge are intensively farmed to provide food and cover for wildlife. Mallard counts reach 300,000, Canada Goose 30,000. Restrooms and drinking water are not available on most areas of the refuge.

To get to the Whitcomb Unit from Crow Butte Park, head farther east (right) on SR-14; at milepost 159.1, turn south onto Whitcomb Island Road. Cross the channel (at times mud-lined) to a fork (0.3 mile); explore both roads. Thousands of geese winter here—mostly Canada, but also a few Greater White-fronted and Snow (hundreds of the latter in recent years). Ross’s Goose is rare, though perhaps increasing. This is a great place to view Bald Eagles in winter. From late March through June, the fields once hosted many Long-billed Curlews. Burrowing Owls have nested here and may still. Fall can be good for shorebirds along the channel just south of SR-14.

The refuge’s Paterson Unit is farther east. Return to SR-14, turn right and at milepost 173.9, turn south onto Christy Road. In 3.7 miles, the road crosses the railroad tracks. Make an immediate right turn onto a gravel road. This bumpy (and for one mile very narrow) road parallels the Columbia River. Past the narrow portion, the road widens and there are numerous parking places. Watch for waterfowl, loons, grebes, American White Pelican, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Caspian and Forster’s Terns. In spring, Long-billed Curlews display in the fields to the north.

At 3.8 miles, take the fork to the right. Birds in these fields include Northern Harrier and Western Meadowlark; Mule Deer are common in the Bitterbrush. One mile from the fork, turn into a parking area on the left. A short walk brings you to a slough lined with marsh and riparian vegetation. Look for Greater White-fronted (especially fall) and Canada Geese, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe (summer and migration), Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Solitary and Stilt Sandpipers, Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, and Bonaparte’s Gull. The brush is good for Bewick’s Wren. The road continues west for another 0.8 mile, ending at Paterson Slough.

Return to the railroad tracks to leave the refuge. If your final destination is west (back the way you came), turn left here; otherwise turn right. It is nearly six miles to Plymouth, where the road turns north, leading almost immediately to SR-14. Turn right and you will reach I-82 in less than a mile.