The Scenic Byway
A Washington State scenic byway twists and turns following a 25-mile stretch of the Yakima River through the Yakima Canyon. The sheer cliffs rise 2000 feet above the river, providing ideal nesting habitat for raptors, home to the state’s densest nesting population of eagles and hawks. The Yakima Canyon road is moderately trafficked, has a 45 mph speed limit, and many blind curves. Add to that a lack of safe pullouts, and it can be a bit challenging for a photographer to navigate.
Eagles, Hawks, and Ravens
At my first stop, I pulled off to watch a golden eagle soaring, swooping, and circling near the clifftops. The eagle repeatedly swoops low over a grassy bowl allowing me to practice panning with my heavier 150-600mm lens. Usually, I get a couple of quick shots before the bird sails out of sight. Today, I left before this bird did!
During one pass, the eagles had fisticuffs with a red-tailed hawk concealed in the grass. It happened in a flash. The eagle made his regular swoop low over the grass. Another eagle flew in. There was a flash of activity and then three birds were in the air.
The birds were talon to talon for a moment before breaking away.
Suddenly there are four raptors in the air. But there’s not a red-tail in the bunch. It’s ravens that are chasing off the eagles in a short-lived chase before they all go their separate ways. The ravens harassed the golden eagle on the same scale as a red-winged blackbird dogging a red-tailed hawk.
The golden eagle resumed his laps. Even after looking at the images, I can’t quite make sense of what happened.
The next turnout overlooks a horseshoe bend. There are animal trails worn into the opposite hillsides. I scanned with my binoculars, looking for bighorn sheep and mule deer, to no avail. From here, the road drops down to the Yakima River.
I pulled into a small parking lot and picnic area to get up next to the river. A small paved path beckons through the woods, along the river, and curves around a small, stagnant pond. Tall, knotty cottonwoods full of cedar waxwings line the route. A friendly, western terrestrial garter snake lies coiled in the sun soaking up the heat of the asphalt, disinclined to move as I slowly stepped past lupines and balsamroot bloom in a grassy field. The pond is quiet, void of life except for the mosquitoes that prevent any lingering.
My last stop is Umtanum Creek Recreation Area, “the best site in the canyon,” according to the Yakima Valley Audubon Society. A sturdy suspension bridge ferries me across the roaring, flooded river. Once on the other side, I step down into four-foot tall grasses that partially obscure the trail, and I think this might be a short hike. In ten feet, the path opens up the rocky bed of railroad tracks. I duck under the railroad bridge, where it traverses the creek and continues along the railway several dozen feet, where I’m relieved to see a bonafide trail heading into the valley.
I didn’t see the narrow, overgrown creekside trail spur, so I continued up the hillside, where I was rewarded with fantastic views down the valley. I spotted some people deep in the valley through my binoculars and thought, “that’s where I want to be,” and immediately backtracked to the creekside trail.
The greenway along the creek is full of bird activity; cedar waxwings, lazuli buntings, yellow-breasted chat, sparrows, and more.
I encountered three birders on their way out who were looking for a reported western kingbird nest. We scanned the trees along the creek without finding it.
A thick stand of cottonwoods opens up into a narrower valley. It keeps getting more beautiful at each turn.
It’s getting late, and the sun is low. Reluctantly, I turn back, making a note to explore this place a little more another day.
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