One of the two largest regions of the nine in this book, South Central Washington is also one of the most varied in topography, climate, vegetation, and wildlife. Much of the region is within day-trip distance of Puget Sound (one hour to Snoqualmie Pass, two to Ellensburg, two and a half to Vantage or Yakima). Hence, for most birders, this is the gateway to the Dry Side of the state.

Pacific storms drench the west slopes of the Cascades, resulting in the great conifer forests that characterize the Pacific Northwest in the popular imagination. East of the crest, however, precipitation declines. Forests become more open, and instead of firs and hemlocks, there are many Ponderosa Pines. Farther down, precipitation is lower still—too low for any tree growth except along streams. A belt of shrub- and grasslands begins at the lower forest edge. This arid shrub-steppe zone extends across the Columbia River all the way to the eastern boundary of the state.

The region’s dominant physical features are the Cascade Range on the west and north, and the Columbia River on the east and south. Secondary in importance is the so-called Yakima Fold Belt—a series of west-east trending basalt ridges emanating from the Cascades and dividing the region into numerous valleys. The many elevations, aspects, slopes, soils, and microclimates of this ridge-and-valley system support a wealth of plant communities and a corresponding diversity of animal life.

About three-quarters of South Central Washington is drained by the Yakima River. Gathering waters from the mountains to the west and north, this stream carves through several high ridges via the Yakima Canyon, then flows south and east across the farms and orchards of the broad Yakima Valley to join the Columbia River at Richland. Numerous minor streams drain the fringe of shrub-steppe on the east and south directly to the Columbia. East of Mount Adams, the Klickitat River waters a unique landscape of meadows, parklands, cliffs, and Garry Oaks, cutting its canyon down to the Columbia Gorge at Lyle.

What do birders come here to find? The perennial draw for Wet Siders is breeding birds of the lower forest zone and adjacent shrub-steppe: Common Poorwill, Calliope Hummingbird, White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer’s, Lark, Black-throated, and Sagebrush Sparrows. But there is much more than that.

The “proven” route for a Washington Big Day record (208 species) spends fully half the day in this region: from White Pass east down through Toppenish and west over Satus Pass to Lyle. The Garry Oak habitats of the Columbia Gorge and Klickitat country are the only place in the state to find Acorn Woodpecker and the best place for Ash-throated Flycatcher. Chickens are good: Chukar, Gray Partridge, Greater Sage-Grouse, Sooty Grouse. So are owls: Flammulated, Burrowing, Spotted (sadly, much reduced), and Northern Saw-whet. Parks in Richland and Kennewick are great passerine migrant traps. Waterbirds crowd Columbia River reservoirs in migration and winter, and the Yakima River delta is one of the interior Northwest’s best fall shorebird spots.

Temperature and precipitation follow a gradient from northwest (coolest, wettest) to southeast (warmest, driest). July average maximum temperature is 81 degrees in Cle Elum (in the lower mixed-forest zone southeast of Snoqualmie Pass) and 87 degrees in Yakima (in the shrub-steppe zone 50 miles farther southeast). Cle Elum receives 22 inches of precipitation annually, Yakima just eight. Winter temperature is about the same in both places (January average minimum 20 degrees), but it snows a lot more in Cle Elum (81 inches compared to 24 inches in Yakima). These are only examples. Weather patterns are strongly influenced by the region’s complex topography, and local variation can be great.

Snowfall is heavy in the mountain passes. Chinook Pass (SR-410) closes for the winter, but Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) and White Pass (US-12) are kept open. So is US-97 across Blewett Pass and Satus Pass. When conditions merit, traction devices may be required on any of these passes, so be prepared. Forest roads on the east slopes of the Cascades close by default when snow accumulates. Snowfall is light in the lowlands, and roads (including SR-14 through the Columbia Gorge) stay open all winter long, except for the occasional storm. Watch for ice, however. In spring, wind may hamper birding in open country. (The Kittitas Valley is notorious for this.) Strong, steady winds are characteristic of the Columbia Gorge in any season.

There are numerous motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other services in Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima, Toppenish, the Tri-Cities, and across the Columbia in Hood River and The Dalles, Oregon, as well as (less reliably) in smaller communities, especially along the I-90 and I-82 corridors. Campgrounds are plentiful along the various routes traversing national forest lands; elsewhere they are few and far between.