If the Selkirk Mountains of the Northeast put one in mind of the Canadian Rockies, with species such as Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, and White-winged Crossbill, then birders visiting the Blue Mountains of the Southeast might think they were in Utah. Here the ranges of species of the Middle  Rockies—Broad-tailed  Hummingbird,  Cordilleran  Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee—flirt with the corner of the state.

Remote and uninhabited, the rugged Blues rise as a forested rampart above a sea of former steppe habitats, now virtually all converted to cropland. The Columbia River borders the region on the west; the Snake River forms its eastern and part of its northern boundary. Many who live here are dependent on a resource-based economy, with wheat farming, cattle grazing, and logging as primary industries, though Walla Walla’s wine industry exploded in the first decade of this century. The Walla Walla Valley today is home to more than 100 wineries.

Tamed by four large dams, the Snake has become the region’s economic lifeline. Each year tugs push countless barges laden with millions of tons of grain, lumber, and other goods through the Snake River locks and along the Columbia River waterway. The once-legendary Snake River runs of salmon and Steelhead are now listed as endangered, an environmental cost of the dams.

The Southeast is divided into four subregions, each with its own distinctive topography, habitats, and birdlife.

The western lowlands provide typical Columbia Basin birding in the irrigated agricultural lands of the Walla Walla River drainage and along the shoreline of Lake Wallula, the reservoir at the region’s western edge. In particular, the Walla Walla delta is renowned as one of Eastern Washington’s consistently best sites for shorebirds, gulls, and waterfowl, with numerous records of rarities.

The deeply eroded Blue Mountains of Washington’s southeast corner and adjacent Oregon are home to owls, woodpeckers, and other forest birds in good variety and numbers. Forest types are transitional to those of the Rockies to the east, while brush associations have affinities with the Great Basin to the south. Far too seldom visited, the surprising Blues are one of the birding frontiers of the state.

The Grande Ronde volcano—source of the basalt flows that engulfed the Columbia Basin—forms the backside of the Blues, above a high plateau. Arid steppe habitats extend along the Snake and Grande Ronde River gorges. Very lightly birded, this remote and scenic region at the eastern edge of the state is great for birds of bare rock, high cliffs, open fields, and riparian vegetation in canyon bottoms.

North of the Snake River, the Palouse is an arresting landscape of great mounds of windblown silt from prehistoric floods, now given over to dryland wheat farming. Birds still thrive in the few remaining pockets of original grassland habitats. The highest spots are pre-Cambrian rocks of the ancient North American continent. Islands of trees and brush in the surrounding wheat barrens, these eminences offer good vagrant potential.

The climate of the Southeast varies considerably but predictably. Lake Wallula—in the lowest part of the Columbia Basin, just 340 feet above sea level—is hot in summer (temperatures exceeding 90 degrees on about 40 days during a typical year), fairly mild in winter (January average low 28 degrees), and dry (eight inches average annual precipitation). Thirty miles east and 1,000 feet above sea level, Walla Walla experiences similar temperatures but receives twice as much precipitation (18 inches). Although winter temperatures remain about the same as one moves toward the Idaho line, summers are cooler. Pullman (2,400 feet above sea level) sees 15 days above 90 degrees, while at Anatone, in the shadow of the eastern Blues at 3,570 feet, the thermometer climbs above 90 degrees only eight days per year. Precipitation increases slightly (22 inches at Pullman, 20 at Anatone).

The highlands are another story. Data are meager, but the Blues are much cooler and wetter than the rest of the region. Average annual precipitation in the highest parts (above 5,500 feet) is 8–10 times greater than at the Columbia River. Summer thunderstorms, though infrequent, may be severe; be alert for washouts. Most gravel roads in the high Blues are closed throughout the winter and may not be entirely snow-free until mid-June or even later.

Snowfall is generally light in the lowlands (19 inches annually at Walla Walla, 29 at Pullman, but 66 at Anatone). Highways and most secondary roads are kept plowed; nonetheless, watch for blowing and drifting snow. Be cautious if traveling off the main roads at this season.

Services, including accommodations, may be found in Walla Walla, Waitsburg, Dayton, Pomeroy, Clarkston, Pullman, and Colfax.