10/06/2018 Salmo Pass
We spent both last night and the night before in Spokane. In between, we drove up to Bunchgrass
Meadows and Salmo Pass in extreme northeastern Washington. It is a pilgrimage I perform almost
annually in search of three or four species of birds that are difficult to find elsewhere in the
state. Yesterday our quest was abundantly rewarded; we found all three of my target species.
Spruce Grouse are reported to prefer higher elevation lodgepole pine and Engelman spruce forest with
a relatively low understory of huckleberry and other shrubs, just the sort of habitat that surrounds
the broad grassy opening of Bunchgrass Meadows. Although I haven't personally seen Spruce Grouse
there, one had been reported within the past week so we drove up there first. We arrived pretty
early by our standards; the temperature was still in the low 30s. We parked at the first big
switchback above the meadow because I thought I heard Boreal Chickadee calls from a passing flock of
chickadees and nuthatches. Their calls are slightly slower and more nasal than those of the
Mountain Chickadees which often occur with them and in larger numbers. The flock moved on before I
could catch a glimpse of any of the birds in it. Darchelle was cold so she returned to the car.
Walking up around the next corner, I flushed four grouse from rather tall huckleberry and
rhododendron bushes 20 yards or more ahead of me. The grouse were small, dark gray and
short-tailed. Indisputably Spruce although uncharacteristically skittish. They shot up and away
like cannonballs. I retrieved Darchelle and we bushwhacked into the woods in pursuit of the birds
and managed to glimpse one or two of them as they flushed again from perches 30 feet or more up in
mossy spruce trees.
Back to the chickadees. We heard more of them and by imitating a Pygmy Owl call I was able to lure
them in fairly close but we still couldn't get a good view to confirm my aural identification of the
two species. Returning to the car, we drove slowly up to the crest of the gentle ridge south of the
Meadows. Characteristic of ridges in the region, the southwest side of the ridge is an open dry
meadow while the northeast side is a mixed age Engelman spruce forest. The meadow was easier
walking but the birds were in the woods - another mixed species flock with another two Boreal
Chickadees which again I was only able to identify by voice. We stopped again for another flock in
the spruce forest near where we'd seen the grouse and this time Darchelle was able to confirm my
chickadee "sightings" with an unfortunately blurry photo.
A male Spruce Grouse foraging in dried grass along Sullivan Creek Road did not stick around for
Darchelle to see. I didn't get much of a sighting either, just a very quick glimpse of bold white
spots arrayed in an arc across the dark gray rump of a small grouse.
When we reached Salmo Pass it began to snow. I had hoped to get there earlier but we went for a
hike anyhow, continuing east past the boulders in the road and out a mile or so in the falling snow
on the Shedroof Mountain trail. The trail climbs gently through open forest of Spruce and Subalpine
Fir with an understory of Cascade Azalea (Rhododendron albiflorum). As we hiked the clouds closed
in and the snow thickened a bit and the leafy yellow understory caught both the snow and the fading
light. We held hands in my coat pocket for the last mile back on the road. Having worn only my
sweatpants, I was thoroughly chilled by the time we reached the car.
We parked at the little campsite about a half-mile below the pass and ate a bit of supper while we
waited for darkness. It was already dark but not yet dark enough for owls. That little campsite
was where I slept in the car after the 50K on Mount Spokane where I was the sweeper, and good thing
too because otherwise I would not have made the 25K cutoff time. Apparently I had a signal there
because Darchelle, in Portland for the Marathon the next day, recalled my calling her and telling
her about the spot. If I tried for Boreal Owls that night, I must not have been successful because
I did not save a checklist. Last night, after our supper of sorts, Darchelle hooked my phone up to
portable speaker and we stepped out into the darkness and played the owl call. A Boreal Owl must
have been waiting for us because it let out a very loud "skiew" almost immediately. The owl waited
nearby while we fumbled around in the car for the flashlight but declined to appear once we found
it, though it kept calling from time to time as if to keep us apprised of its location.
On the way down the hill, the snow still falling gently, we caught a Snowshoe Hare flat-footed in
the middle of the road. Framed in our headlights, the little rabbit with big white feet zigzagged
down the road in front of us for almost half a mile while Darchelle tried for photos. Back in
Spokane we snagged the next-to-last room available at the Quality Inn Downtown 4th Avenue. Who knew
that so many people would converge on Spokane for parents weekend at Gonzaga University? It was a
bit more than we wanted to pay but the room was very comfortable and the breakfast this morning was
Before breakfast I remembered a dream about a bus.
I am waiting at a bus stop. The bus arrives and it is one of those short ones, and it is painted
white as if whitewashed. The bus is empty except for the male driver and a woman in the very back
of the bus on my side. She is shouting at me through the closed window. I can't make out what she
is saying but I understand that she is angry because she is trapped in the bus and it is my fault.
I go to get on the bus but there is no door in the usual place. Instead there is a triangular hole
about 2 feet tall around the corner from where the door should be, in the front end of the bus. At
the thought of crawling through the hole into the bus I feel an intense sense of claustrophobia. I
need to get on the bus but if I do I will be trapped, just like the woman is, and I will not be able
to get off again.
The whitewashed bus calls to mind the verse in the Bible in which Jesus refers to "whitewashed
sepulchers", so the bus has at least an association with death. I don't have any association with
the triangular opening, except perhaps like a traffic sign of the same shape, it serves as a
warning. The waiting at the bus stop, and the prospect of riding in the bus, raises a question of
agency. My only exercise of agency in the dream would be to get on the bus; at that point I would
relinquish control over my journey. Rather than choose to either board the bus or not, I wake up.
Nothing about the woman reminds me of anybody in particular except that perhaps in her anger and
blaming me for her predicament, she reminds me of my ex-wife. More likely though, both she and the
driver represent parts of myself.
Darchelle wanted to go to see her childhood home in Zambia and her boarding school in Zimbabwe. I
was willing to go because she wanted to, and and because we incorporated plans for birdwatching into
the trip. I planned (at least some of) the bird outings while she planned everything else except
the air travel to and from Johannesburg, which I researched and booked online. The cheapest fares
called for a long layover or two so I paid a little extra for one of the shorter flights, 26 hours
overall on Emirates with only a four hour stop in Dubai. I think it cost about $1300 each, booked
about a month in advance.
I had a window seat but there wasn't much to see. We took off from Seattle in the dark around 6PM
and basically did back-to-back redeye flights. Although we didn't almost miss our flight we didn't
reach the gate with any time to spare either. We didn't have time to stop at the bank for cash but
fortunately Darchelle was able to withdraw 1000 USD from a cash machine at the airport while I held
our place in the security line. We spent most of it in Victoria Falls and left the rest for
Thobekile. We flew over the pole in the dark (of course, since it is winter up there) and past
Sweden around 10 AM where it was light outside but unfortunately overcast so I couldn't spot Sarah
over in Rudu. In Dubai we walked perhaps a kilometer through the cavernous terminal then another
half a K down broad vacant halls lined with glitzy shops before reaching our new gate. Darchelle
crawled behind a row of seats to nap on the floor while I reclined somewhat uncomfortably above her.
An ad sprayed shower of $100 bills over and over again across a video screen outside a duty-free
shop across the aisle. Outside, it got dark again.
As soon as we disembarked the plane in Johannesburg I spotted my first African birds. One was a
rather swallow-like swift with a white rump, the other obviously a dove, blue-gray in color with
white wing bars and a V-shaped tail, like a grackle only shorter. Sometime later when I had
opportunity to peruse Roberts bird app on my phone I identified the first bird as a Little Swift and
the second as a Rock Pigeon. That's right, the common city pigeon. What can I say? It looked exotic.
The Little Swift actually was a life bird, my first of more than 250 for the trip.
David picked us up outside the terminal, exclaiming with delight at seeing Darchelle again after
more than 30 years. He whisked us out of the airport and drove at a brisk pace on the wrong side of
the road for about 20 minutes, past hillsides blanketed with new suburban subdivisions, older
neighborhoods dotted with purple flowering Jacaranda trees, boulevards curving into modern malls,
small patches of scrubby woodland interspersed with arid short-grazed pastures or weedy vacant lots,
marshy ponds in shallow valleys, and at every intersection lean black men hawking coat hangers,
shirts, boxes, belts, bulbs, shoes, furniture made of boxes and more. From the back seat while
Darchelle and David traded tales from high school, I peered out the window looking for birds. There
were swallows, black and white Corvids, a White-tailed Kite or a reasonable facsimile thereof, House
Sparrows, other things.
David deposited us at our home for the next 24 hours, a ground floor condo in a gated compound owned
by his wife, while he drove off to collect his family. We would spend the day together, he assured
us. We figured out how to plug in our phones then I stepped out to look around the grounds. The
weather was beautiful, bright sunshine, blue sky overhead, temperature in the mid-70s. The grounds
were not extensive but were nicely landscaped with dense green lawn, a water feature, trees and
shrubs, and birds. Lots of birds, and lots of birds sounds. The first bird I actually caught sight
of was easy to identify. It was a chicken. The others weren't so easy but by the end of the day I
managed to retroactively assemble a list
which I later fine-tuned with the help of Darchelle's photos and Roberts
David and his family took us to a fresh air Café in the shopping mall somewhere nearby. The eight
of us sat at a long table next to a wall open to the outdoors. With the breeze blowing through it
was almost a bit chilly. African Palm and Little Swifts and brown Martins circulated over the
parking lot outside while Mynas and a pair of the Mousebirds flew by. I would have done a list but
I could never figure out later where it was that we had been. Or what kind of Martins they were.
After breakfast we walked over to a bookstore in the same mall and David bought us a copy of Newman's
Birds of Southern Africa. I appreciated the gesture but found my phone apps more useful.
Our next stop was the Lion & Safari Park
about 40 minutes north of Johannesburg. Our Safari was self-guided; we drove through the lion
enclosure and observed the big cats close up, placidly gnawing on what looked like giant soup bones.
We mostly kept our windows closed since there was a rumor going around that a couple of years ago,
one of the lions had dragged a woman out of her car through an open window and eaten her. We
continued on our game drive through the park, a rocky brown landscape of dry grassland and scrubby
trees with big animals scattered here and there - Wildebeasts (who "gnu" Wildebeast is actually an
Afrikaans name that means "wild beast"?), Zebras (properly pronounced, rhymes with Deborah's),
Ostriches (not native but clearly naturalized, with chicken-sized babies), Giraffes (including one
on the front lawn munching on ice plants) and endangered (and sleepy) African wild dogs. Some of
the animals we saw were in pens, perhaps because they might otherwise eat people. The hyenas were
particularly intimidating with their massive heads and jaws. The cheetahs by contrast seemed to
have rather small heads but long lean bodies clearly built for speed. We spotted a few birds as
well though it was hot and sunny and the birds, like many of the animals, seemed to be taking a
Our next stop was at Tant Malie se Winkel, a restaurant and shop built back in the 1920s in the
style of an old South African trading post. We bought round black licorice candies there which were
formerly known by another name. The decor looked authentic. Outside along the road cars were lined
up waiting to cross the one lane road across Hartbeespoort dam, and black men were lined up peddling
ebony animal carvings and other goods. David bantered cheerfully, and I thought, respectfully, with
them while urging us not to accept the various items they proffered us through our open windows.
When our turn finally came to cross the dam I looked for ducks on the water but no water was visible,
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last summer by multiplying from three to thirty individual plants in a mere two months. Frost
stops it in Washington but not in South Africa.
Our final outing of the day was a ride up the Harties Cableway
to the crest of the
Magaliesberg mountain range
a sinuous ridge of rusty quartzite dipping to the west and north in a gentle slope down to a hazy
purple plain of arid-looking farmland. Whitish scars on the landscape at the foot of the slope
appeared to be mines but without binoculars I couldn't tell for sure. Later I learned that they were
platinum mines along the edge of the Bushveld Igneous Complex
, a layered ultramafic igneous intrusion which contains
about 75% of the known platinum reserves in the world. Black people work the mines; white people
collect the profits. David bought us all pizza at the little café on top and we ate at picnic
tables sheltered from the sun. A pair of Cape Buntings hopped around the edge of the lawn but there
weren't many other birds. Back at our condo though, a flock of Rosy-faced Lovebirds showed up in
the bare tree in the corner of the yard. They are native to southwestern Africa but probably not in
David gave us a ride to the airport in the morning and we flew to Cape Town. I had a window seat
and peered down at the landscape for most of the trip. Mostly flat, arid and pale orange. Were it
not for an occasional stream channel, it might have been the surface of Mars. In the last 20
minutes of the flight we leftf the plateau and descended over a series of precipitous little
mountain ranges popping up like islands out of flat farmland checkered in shades of green. I
wondered about the impact on bird populations of isolating the native vegetation on those islands
for the past 100 years or so. Probably minimal compared to the impact over the next 100 years or so
of increasing the average summer temperature by several degrees Celsius while decreasing the annual
rainfall. In a foretaste of things to come, Cape Town famously almost ran out of water last April.
As we walked out of the terminal building and over to the car rental place we flushed a couple of
rather tame Cape Wagtails. Anxious about driving on the right, we happily paid extra to reduce our
liability in case of a crash, and even with that, the car was ridiculously cheap. The drive into
the city was a tense affair for both of us but we arrived with both the car and our relationship
unscathed. A pervasive smell of urine enveloped us when we stepped out on the curb. I guessed it
hadn't rained recently. A parking attendant walked over to greet us and we paid her a few rand.
Later we learned that the payment is more for insurance against getting robbed than it is for the
parking, and that secured parking on the top floor of a cozy little parking garage was included with
our Air B&B apartment.
On the 17th floor, our glass-walled one-room penthouse looked out over the city and up at Table
Mountain although we didn't see that until the next morning. While Darchelle inspected the
amenities I surveyed the birds flying by outside. The pigeons courting on the rooftop below us were
Speckled and the large brown falcons stooping over the street were Peregrines. The swifts which
zipped by from time to time remained unidentified. Of the amenities, we enjoyed the bed, the shower
and the view but did not use the wine in the fridge or the grill on the deck. We did sit out under
the stars in the hot tub on the deck on our second night there.
Towards sunset we ventured out. We didn't bring the camera because I was afraid of getting robbed.
That was too bad because a brilliant little Malachite Kingfisher was perched on papyrus stalks in
the pools at the Company's Garden. Accustomed to people, it allowed us close approach. When it
flew out its wingbeats were a blur and when it plunged into the water it seemed to hit with a splat
as if it were too light to penetrate the surface. The other identifiable birds around the pools
were Egyptian Geese in various plumages. Definitely not the most of dapper of geese. We found
dinner at The Cousins, excellent pasta at about half the price I would've expected to pay.
A southerly wind roared outside the our apartment all night and in the morning all the chairs on the
deck were overturned. We were up at sunrise and out by 6:30AM at Truth Coffee across the street for
a croissant and a cup of what was voted by the Daily Telegraph in 2016 as the world's best coffee.
It was ok; the croissant was better and the steampunk decor of the coffee shop best of all. I sat
waiting for my coffee to cool while Darchelle bought a couple yogurts at a nearby hole-in-the-wall
grocery. Our bird guide for the day, Vince Ward from Birding Africa, showed up shortly afterwards.
Vince came well recommended as a guide who knew the local birds and where to find them but who could
also shed some light on local flora, geology and culture as well. We explained that we were
interested in everything but particularly in the birds, though later we wondered if perhaps we
didn't emphasize the bird part quite enough. He did show us lots of birds though so I had no
cause to complain.
Birding Africa offers several one-day trips out of Cape Town. After consulting with Vince we
decided on West Coast National Park for our first day and Kirstenbosch gardens for our second.
We were signed up for a pelagic trip over the weekend and decided that would be sufficient exposure
to the Cape Peninsula which was a third option. Before arriving in Cape Town I had done a little
research and identified three birds I particularly wanted to see - Penguins, Flamingos and
Ostriches. Flamingos I had already seen, in a ditch along the road from the airport. Penguins we
would see during the pelagic trip. By 10AM this morning we had ostriches in the wild as well, a
small group foraging in the fynbos along the road through the park. Fynbos is the name for the
native mixed shrub habitat in the Cape region, which encompasses the coastal plain and the
mountain ranges over which we flew on our descent into Cape Town. Although unimpressive to the
untrained eye, fynbos is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with more than 9000
species of plants. More than 6000 of them occur nowhere else. Bird life is not quite as diverse
although not too shabby either. South Africa has a list of about 850 species, almost as many
as the entire continent of North America. In two days with Vince we saw about 130 of them.
I also tasted one of them, ostrich, for lunch today at the Geelbek Restaurant in the park. The meat
was stringy, tough, dry and very dark. Smothered in a dark sweet sauce, I don't know what it tasted
like. I didn't mind; I was there to see birds, not eat them.
It was a busy day. Vince pointed out birds and identified them. I eBirded them and Darchelle
photographed them. I did not write up any memories at the time but Vince did a pretty good trip
report afterwards. Here is a link to my eBird list
and an excerpt from his report of our first stop, at the
"The freshwater wetland at Abrahamskraal was very busy. Several male Southern Black Korhaans were
calling from the surrounding Strandveld vegetation, which also held Cape Longclaws. The areas of
open water had Cape Shovellor, South Africa Shelduck, Yellow-billed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and
African Spoonbill. The wetland is also a favourite drinking spot for many of the park’s birds.
During our time at the hide, we recorded drinking Yellow Canaries, Cape Sparrows, Cape Buntings,
Pearl-breasted Swallows and several Namaqua Doves. This species is currently irrupting into the
south-western Cape, having been recorded down to southern tip of the Cape Peninsula. Other
highlights seen from the hide included a brief glimpse of a skulking Black Crake, and seeing a nest
change-over by the locally breeding African Marsh Harriers. The White-throated Swallow breeding in
the hide itself, were also very active."
The saltwater mud flats and marsh at Geelbek reminded me a little of Bottle Beach back home, and
even had a few of the same species, or close relatives at least. Here is a link to my
and here is
"We next headed over to the saltwater hides at Geelbek. These hides are famous amongst local
twitchers for turning up rare shorebirds/waders. Although we did not find any national rarities, we
did find two uncommon migrants: Terek Sandpiper and Eurasian Curlew, amongst the more common
Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrels, Common Greenshanks, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints.
The hide was also a good vantage for seeing species like African Black Oystercatcher, Greater and
Lesser Flamingos, African Fish Eagle and Caspian Terns."
The air had warmed up some and the wind diminished so I was almost comfortable at our third
destination, the Seeberg hide. We followed a meandering path through the fynbos to a small marsh
and some low, very white sand dunes. The water beyond was bright turquoise, sparkling in the
sunlight. Here is Vince's report.
"Our final stop in the park was the Seeberg hide. Birding from the boardwalk leading to hide was
exceptional. We started with excellent views of the nearby breeding pair of Black Harriers passing
food to each other, before encountering a feeding flock of eight Cape Penduline-tits, together with
several Long-billed Crombecs and Grey-backed Cisticolas. After all this excellent birding, we
finally got to the hide itself, finding our targets of Kittlitz’s, and White-fronted Plovers. The
drive out of the park delivered one last special in the form of a large female Puffadder on the
The White-fronted Plovers looked and acted just like Snowy Plovers back home. The Puff Adder sadly
was dead. It was not the only reptile in and along the road. The park also delivered Cape
Tortoises at almost every stop, drawn out into the open by recent rains. High-domed turtles up to
about 10 inches long, they were attractively colored in yellow and brown and always caught our
We were too tired to eat out but not too tired spent some time in the Jacuzzi out on the deck, part way
between the city lights below and the stars above.
On this, our second day with Vince, we visited the Kirstenbosch gardens in the morning and the
Rondevlei Nature Reserve in the afternoon and ended up with 83 species for the day, 7 fewer than
yesterday. Close-up views of many of those species more than made up for the lower count. I was
amazed at how close we were able to get to many of the birds in the gardens. Darchelle took lots
of photos, getting quite a few good ones. The flowers were stunning as well - lots of succulents
and a whole section of the garden devoted just to Proteas.
Like yesterday, the weather was sunny and cold, especially at the nature reserve in the afternoon
where Darchelle took a nap in a sheltered spot on the path while Vince and I shivered in the shady
Here is Vince's report from the day:
Our second day of birding started at the world famous Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. The
well laid out and extensive garden consists of a wide variety of different natural and planted
environments. The forested areas are home to specials like Cape Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher,
African Dusky Flycatcher, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Thrush, Cape Turtle (Ring-necked) Dove, African
Harrier-hawk, Spotted Eagle Owl and Black Saw-wing.
The open lawns and adjoining flower beds provided an ideal habitat for some of the garden’s more
colourful residents. Some of the day’s highlights included excellent views of Forest, Cape and
Brimstone Canaries, Swee Waxbills, and a wide diversity of nectivores like Southern Double-collared,
Malachite and Orange-breasted Sunbirds, and Cape Sugarbirds.
Overhead and against the towering cliffs of Table Mountain, we got views of Little, Alpine, African
Black and White-rumped Swifts, and a distant Jackal Buzzard.
After a delicious lunch at the Kirstenbosch Tea-room, we drove to Rondevlei Nature Reserve. The
reserve’s variety of freshwater habitats were very productive, and still benefitting from the recent
The ponds, shoreline and stretches of open water held species such as Red-billed and Hottentot Teal,
Yellow-billed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, Water Thick-knee, Egyptian Goose, Cape Shovellor, Southern
Pochard, Common Moorhen, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Red-knobbed Coot, Caspian and Whiskered
Tern, and a few Great White Pelicans.
The extensive reedbeds were busy with not only a wide variety of passerines: Levaillant’s Cisticola,
Cape Weaver, Southern Red Bishop, Little Rush, African Reed, and Lesser Swamp Warbler, but also
offered views of seldomly seen species like Purple Heron and Malachite Kingfisher. Although we find
not see the resident Hippotamus, their pathways in the reeds were very obvious.
The open skies above the wetland were equally busy, with a good diversity of aerial foragers taking
advantage of the abundant insect life. During our trip we recorded Rock and Brown-throated Martin;
Barn, Greater Striped and White-throated Swallows, and Little, White-rumped and Alpine Swifts.
White-necked Ravens and Pied Crows were also seen.
After birding we made our way over to Hout's Bay, a rather challenging drive on winding roads through
groves of eucalyptus trees, not unlike California except for driving on the left side of the road.
Darchelle had found a beautiful AirB&B there but the driveway was so steep that the owner had to
maneuver our car up for us. Deterred by the driveway, we did not make it out to dinner that night
Today we drove back into Cape Town to tour the city. We parked in a garage downtown and found our way to
Jason Bakery on Bree Street. As advertised, the breakfast was exceptional. Darchelle had something green
with lots of sliced avocado; I had poached eggs on sourdough and a croissant. The coffee was great too.
We walked down to the V&A Waterfront; I found it a bit disappointing, mostly just a bunch of shops and
quite crowded with tourists. We decided to catch a tour bus which we rode first through the city then
south along the coast as far as Camps Bay. That's where the movie stars hang out but we didn't see any;
though the beaches were bright and sunny, a cold seabreeze may have been keeping them inside. Back in
downtown Cape Town, we discovered we were too late to visit the Apartheid Museum so we wandered around
looking for a restaurant and/or a restroom. We found the latter in the Company's Garden but when we opened
the door to exit, we were accosted by a guard indignant over our immoral behavior. I was ready to yell
back at him but Darchelle more calmly explained that my arms were paralyzed and I couldn't use the restroom
on my own. He seemed only partially mollified but let us go on our way. We ended up at The Crypt Jazz
club in the basement of the St. George's Cathedral for dinner. We were one of the first couples seated
but not until we were halfway through our dinner did we realize that jazz was also on the menu and that
the cover charge would be added to our bill. Had we not been so tired we might have stayed but since
the server offered to remove the cover, we decided to head out early. It was dusk outside and the city
was shutting down already. We drove out to the Observatory Backpackers hostel, arranged for parking out
front and found our room upstairs. The room was pretty spare compared to our prior lodgings and the
bathroom was down the hall, a challenge for me in my current condition but it worked out okay. I was
too worried about our hike up Table Mountain in the morning to sleep well. We had heard reports that
muggings were common, even on the most frequently used trail, and I put a lot of thought
into how to best guard our phones and cash while on the mountain.