by Joe Lipar and John Roberson

revised by Mike Clarke

The Palouse (pronounced puh-LOOSE) is a 3,000-square-mile district covered by piles of windblown, yellowish-brown silt called loess (rhymes with muss). Each successive ice-age flood deposited thick layers of sediment in the lowest parts of the Columbia Basin to the southwest. Later, as the waters retreated, silt was carried by the prevailing southwest winds and dropped here, forming the Palouse Hills. In some places, the underlying basalt is covered by as much as 200 feet of loess. The rolling hills that the French-Canadian explorers and fur traders called la pelouse (grassland) were once a realm of bunchgrass with a high forb component. Ravines had dense stringers of Douglas Hawthorn and scattered Ponderosa Pine. North slopes were clothed in snowberry, serviceberry, and Woods Rose. This landscape has virtually all been converted to one of Washington’s most bountiful agricultural regions. Wheat is king. Only a few remnant tracts of native vegetation survive. Gone, too, are the huge numbers of Sharp-tailed Grouse, replaced by introduced Gray Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasant.

Pullman is home to Washington State University. Exploring the extensive mature plantings of conifers and deciduous trees in the older residential districts and on campus is worthwhile during migration. Winter brings flocks of Bohemian Waxwings and, in some years, Red and White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks. Black-billed Magpies are a common but showy presence. Away from Pullman, the following sites, though relatively small, have some of the best remaining patches of natural Palouse brush and grassland habitat.

An outstanding site close to Pullman is Rose Creek Nature Preserve,a 22-acre property of the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute. Take SR-27 (Grand Avenue) 2.2 miles north from SR-270 to Pullman-Albion Road. Turn left, go five miles to Albion, and turn right on Main Street. Go 2.8 miles on Palouse-Albion Road (Old Albion Road on some maps) to Shawnee Road (aka Four Mile Road). Turn left, make another left in 0.1 mile to stay on Shawnee Road, and continue 0.3 mile to the tiny parking area on the right at the entrance of the preserve. Look for the trailhead just west of the parking area. The trail winds through a remnant of Palouse riparian vegetation, featuring thickets of hawthorn, Bitter Cherry, and Cow Parsnip. More than 250 species of plants are recorded here, attracting mammals such as White-tailed Deer, Porcupine, and Coyote. Birds are abundant and varied. Permanent residents include California Quail, Gray Partridge, Northern Harrier, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, American Kestrel, and Bewick’s Wren. The riparian area comes alive in spring and summer— look then for Calliope Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos (migrant only), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (migrant), Western Bluebird, Veery (scarce), Gray Catbird, and MacGillivray’s and Yellow Warblers.

After birding the streamside woodland and scrub of Rose Creek, walk along Shawnee Road for birds of the open country and pine forests. The 750-acre tract west for the next mile is the university’s Hudson Biological Reserve. A mosaic of Ponderosa Pine forests, riparian areas, and steppe makes this a very birdy place, especially in spring and summer. In addition to the list for Rose Creek, look for Swainson’s (summer) and Rough-legged Hawks (winter), Hairy Woodpecker, Dusky Flycatcher, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Townsend’s Solitaire (winter, in junipers). Taken together, the Hudson Biological Reserve and Rose Creek make up one of the largest contiguous parcels of the Palouse ecosystem still in a natural or near-natural state.

Kamiak Butte is just northeast of Rose Creek. To get there, go back to Palouse-Albion Road, turn left, and go 5.1 miles to SR-27. Turn left and go 2.9 miles to Clear Creek Road. (If coming from Pullman, this is 11.8 miles north on SR-27 from its intersection with SR-270.) Turn left, keeping left again at the first junction (0.3 mile). You are now on Fugate Road. Go another 0.7 mile to the Kamiak Butte County Park entrance and turn left; parking is a mile up the hill. Park hours are dawn to dusk. A three-mile loop trail goes uphill from the parking area to the top of the butte, then along the crest and down to the upper parking area. At the top are magnificent views of the surrounding Palouse. Shorter hikes on a network of trails near the parking area are also possible.

Interesting resident species in the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-fir forests and extensive brushy understory include Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted, White-breasted, and Pygmy Nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, and Red and White-winged (during irruptions) Crossbills. Summer visitors of note are Red-naped Sapsucker, Olive-sided, Pacific-slope, and Cordilleran (not as yet incontrovertibly documented in Washington, but this site is a good bet) Flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireo, Western Bluebird, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Cassin’s Finch. Owling can be very good (best in March and April), mainly for Great Horned, Northern Pygmy-, Barred, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. As an isolated stand of trees in an otherwise mostly unforested landscape, Kamiak Butte offers the possibility of rare strays in migration. Black-billed Cuckoo and Hooded Warbler are two examples of vagrants that have been noted here.

A similar eminence is Steptoe Butte, an isolated, 3,612-foot hill of 400-million-year-old quartzite. From the junction of US-195 and SR-270 (two miles west of Pullman), go north 14.2 miles on US-195 to the junction with SR-26 in Colfax. Continue north on US-195 and in 6.6 miles turn right onto Hume Road. Stay right with Hume where it meets Scholz Road (1.2 miles); another 3.9 miles brings you to the Steptoe Butte State Park, on the left. The terrain is mostly open, lacking the forest cover of Kamiak Butte. However, deciduous trees and brush around the picnic area at the base of the butte provide habitat for a number of species including Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Bewick’s Wren, and Bullock’s Oriole.

As you wind your way to the top and a spectacular overlook of the Palouse (4.2 miles), look for Gray Partridge, Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Brewer’s, Vesper, Savannah, and Grasshopper Sparrows, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting. A few Black-throated Sparrows have been found here in summer with increasing frequency in recent years. Raptors are conspicuous, especially in March–April and again in September–October. Late fall through early spring can bring Common Redpolls to the base of the butte and Snow Buntings to the grassy slopes. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are regularly seen near the peak.

South of Pullman is Wawawai Canyon, which descends 2,000 feet to the Snake River. To reach it, take Davis Way (SR-270) west from Grand Avenue (SR-27) in Pullman 0.6 mile, turn left onto Old Wawawai Road, and continue 1.7 miles to US-195. Go straight across the highway (becomes Wawawai-Pullman Road) and continue to a T-intersection in 10 miles. Turn right into Wawawai Canyon on Wawawai Grade Road. Birding the riparian habitat along the creek and on brushy hillsides to the south can be profitable in spring and early summer. Near brushy terrain in particular, pull safely off the road and look for Willow Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Black-capped Chickadee, Gray Catbird, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Spotted Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting. In about 2.5 miles, before crossing to the north side of canyon, check the Mount Mazama ash deposit (from the violent explosion 6,600 years ago that led to the formation of Oregon’s Crater Lake) on the north side of the creek for nesting Bank Swallows. Continuing on another 2.5 miles, you will reach Wawawai County Park on the Snake River (Lower Granite Lake). Here you may find Bewick’s Wren in the brush, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Bullock’s Oriole nesting in the campground, or migrants in the ornamental plantings.

South from here, Wawawai River Road follows the Snake River through a gorge; various pullouts allow safe stops. Chukar, Red-tailed Hawk, Say’s Phoebe, and Rock and Canyon Wrens are common on the high cliffs. Bald (winter) and Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons might be seen. In 16.8 miles, pass Steptoe Canyon Road and continue to follow the river along Wawawai River Road. As you approach Clarkston, scan the water for American White Pelicans in summer and waterfowl, including Barrow’s Goldeneye, in winter. Checking brushy areas along the road in early spring can produce White-throated and Golden-crowned Sparrows, difficult to find in the region. A range expansion of Lesser Goldfinches in recent years has made them now relatively common here. Gulls roost along this section of the river in the winter, and occasionally Iceland (Kumlien’s), Thayer’s, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be found amongst the more common Ring-billed, California, and Herring. The Port of Wilma, 8.0 miles from Steptoe Canyon Road, is a good spot to view gulls coming in to roost in the evening. From here, continue travelling east for 4.5 miles and turn left onto US-12. Follow signs for US-95 to US-195 north to return to Pullman.