Columbia Plateau Ecoregion and Birding Sites

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Click to see a detailed map with birding sites.

Location

The entire south-central portion of Washington consists of a relatively low but rolling plateau bordered by higher plateaus and mountain ranges (Cascades to the west, Okanogan Highlands to the north, Rocky Mountains to the east and Blue Mountains to the southeast). The southern border of the state forms the southern Washington border of this extensive region, which extends through large parts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho.

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Physiography

The Columbia Plateau is the lowest region east of the Cascades in Washington, relatively flat but gently rolling in many parts. The plateau tilts generally upward from south to north, with a typical elevation range of about 500-2,500 feet (extremes 100-4,200 feet). Basalt underlies the plateau, deposited from repeated lava flows 17 to 6 million years ago. The huge floods caused when the Lake Missoula ice dams broke removed the soil from large areas and formed many of the plateau's existing features, including the parallel gouges of the Channeled Scablands. Finally, glaciers covered the northern part of the ecoregion, south to the Waterville and Omak areas. Now the plateau shows exposed rock everywhere, with many low cliffs, some large canyons ("coulees"), and many lakes. Low, rolling hills covered with volcanic loess soils overlie much of the eastern edge of the ecoregion in Whitman County and adjacent Idaho, a region known as the Palouse. The Columbia River and its major tributaries, the Yakima and the Snake, drain it all.

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Climate

Moisture from the Pacific Ocean is largely drained from the prevailing westerly winds, producing an extensive interior rain shadow. Thus this is the hottest and driest part of the state, with less than 10 inches of annual precipitation in the driest localities and less than 15 inches generally, highest around the edges. Summers are very hot and dry, with temperatures occasionally reaching 100 degrees F, but winters are cold and cloudy. Precipitation usually falls as rain, but at intervals snow may blanket the entire region. However, in most years it does not persist throughout the winter at the lower elevations.

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Habitats

Two major habitats occupy this ecoregion, true steppe (grassland) along the northeastern and eastern borders and shrub-steppe over the remainder. Much of the steppe corresponds to the Palouse region of loess soils. Bunchgrasses dominate, but other grasses and many forbs occur, some of them producing spectacular spring wildflower shows. The dominant shrub-steppe plant is big sagebrush, but other arid-land shrubs such as bitterbrush and greasewood are dominant in appropriate soils. Grasses and forbs of many kinds occur among the shrubs, many of the plant species the same as those of the grasslands. Desert parsleys and buckwheats are both abundant and diverse. Soil types range from pure sand to a thin film over lava rock, plant species varying accordingly; for example, three-tip sagebrush dominates on rock outcrops. In moist canyons and scattered hills with higher rainfall, limited stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir occur, and along rivers and streams, borders of riparian woodland include black cottonwood and peachleaf willow, with occasional stands of quaking aspen in seepage areas. Dense shrub thickets (rose, sumac, currant) may also occur in these situations. Alkaline and highly productive wetlands, mostly lakes and ponds but many with extensive marshes, are numerous in the Channeled Scablands and scattered elsewhere, and the large rivers form important migratory corridors for water birds.

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Human Impact

Although cities and towns are small and scattered, well over half of the region has been altered through agriculture. The presence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, with their associated dams, has allowed redistribution of water through many parts of the region, with enormous changes to regional ecosystems. Water can be pumped or delivered downstream from huge reservoirs-Banks Lake, Potholes Reservoir, and Scooteney Reservoir-to provide many parts of the ecoregion with irrigation water, allowing large-scale agricultural development for a great variety of crops. Rising water tables from irrigation have produced more wetlands in recent years. The slightly moister Palouse grasslands have been almost entirely transformed to dryland wheat. Still other grassland areas have been planted in pasture grasses to produce hay and straw. Grazing and introduced weedy herbs have severely compromised the integrity of most of the remaining stands of sagebrush and grassland.

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Abundance Code DefinitionsBird Checklist

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
BirdJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
Greater White-fronted GooseUFFFR RFFUU
Snow GooseFFFU UFF
Ross's Goose RRR
Cackling GooseFFFU UFF
Canada GooseCCCCCCCCCCCC
Trumpeter SwanRRRR RRR
Tundra SwanUFFR FFU
Wood DuckFFFFFFFFFFFF
GadwallCCCCCCCCCCCC
Eurasian WigeonUUUR UUU
American WigeonCCCFURRUUCCC
MallardCCCCCCCCCCCC
Blue-winged Teal FCCCFU
Cinnamon Teal FCCCCFUR
Northern ShovelerCCCCCFFFCCCC
Northern PintailCCCCUUUUFCCC
Green-winged TealCCCCCFFFCCCC
CanvasbackFFFFURRRUFFF
RedheadCCCCCCCCCCCC
Ring-necked DuckCCCCFRRUFCCC
Greater ScaupUUUUR RUUU
Lesser ScaupCCCCCFFFFFCC
Surf Scoter RR
White-winged Scoter RR
Long-tailed DuckRRR RRR
BuffleheadCCCCFRRRRCCC
Common GoldeneyeCCCFURRRRUCC
Barrow's GoldeneyeUUUUUUUUUUUU
Hooded MerganserUUUUR UFFF
Common MerganserCCCFUUUUUCCC
Red-breasted MerganserRRRR RRR
Ruddy DuckCCCCFFFCCCCC
ChukarFFFFFFFFFFFF
Gray PartridgeUUUUUUUUUUUU
Ring-necked PheasantFFFFFFFFFFFF
Ruffed GrouseRRRRRRRRRRRR
Greater Sage-GrouseRRRRRRRRRRRR
Sharp-tailed GrouseRRRRRRRRRRRR
Wild TurkeyRRRRRRRRRRRR
California QuailCCCCCCCCCCCC
Pacific LoonRR RRR
Common LoonFFFFURRRFFFF
Pied-billed GrebeFFCCCCCCCCCF
Horned GrebeFFFUR UFFF
Red-necked Grebe RRRRRRUUR
Eared GrebeFFCCCCCCCCFF
Western GrebeUUFCCCCCCCUU
Clark's Grebe RFFFFFUR
American White PelicanUUUFFCCCCCUU
Double-crested CormorantCCCCCCCCCCCC
American BitternRRRUUUUUURRR
Great Blue HeronCCCCCCCCCCCC
Great Egret FCCCCCCFUR
Cattle Egret RR
Black-crowned Night-HeronFFFFFFFFFFFF
White-faced Ibis RR
Turkey Vulture UUUUUUU
Osprey FFFFFFUR
Bald EagleFFFURRRRRUFF
Northern HarrierFFFFFFFFFFFF
Sharp-shinned HawkUUUUU FFUU
Cooper's HawkUUUUURRRFFUU
Northern GoshawkRRR RRR
Swainson's Hawk RFFFFFU
Red-tailed HawkCCCCCCCCCCCC
Ferruginous HawkRRUUUUURRRRR
Rough-legged HawkFFFFR RFFF
Golden EagleUUUUUUUUUUUU
American KestrelCCCCCCCCCCCC
MerlinUUUR RUUU
GyrfalconRRR RR
Peregrine FalconRRRRRRRRUURR
Prairie FalconUUUUUUUUUUUU
Virginia RailRRRUFFFFUURR
Sora RFFFFFFU
American CootCCCCCCCCCCCC
Sandhill Crane RCCU CC
Black-bellied Plover R RUU
American Golden-Plover RRR
Semipalmated Plover R RUU
KilldeerFCCCCCCCCCFF
Black-necked Stilt RCCCCFU
American Avocet UCCCCCUR
Spotted Sandpiper UFFFFU
Solitary Sandpiper RR RUU
Greater YellowlegsRUFCCRFFCFRR
Lesser Yellowlegs RURFCCR
Long-billed Curlew UUUUUR
Marbled Godwit RR
Sanderling RUR
Semipalmated Sandpiper UUR
Western Sandpiper FF CCCU
Least Sandpiper RFF FCFUR
Baird's Sandpiper RFR
Pectoral Sandpiper R RUFU
DunlinUUFFU FFF
Stilt Sandpiper RRR
Short-billed Dowitcher R RR
Long-billed Dowitcher F UCCCU
Wilson's SnipeUUFFFFFFFFFU
Wilson's Phalarope RCCCCU
Red-necked Phalarope U UFF
Franklin's Gull RR RRR
Bonaparte's Gull UU RUUFU
Mew GullRR RRR
Ring-billed GullCCCCCCCCCCCC
California GullCCCCCCCCCCCC
Herring GullFFFRR RRFFF
Thayer's GullRR RR
Glaucous-winged GullUUURRRRRUUUU
Glaucous GullRRR R
Sabine's Gull R
Caspian Tern UFFFFFU
Black Tern UUUU
Common Tern UFR
Forster's Tern UFFFFU
Parasitic Jaeger R
Rock PigeonCCCCCCCCCCCC
Mourning DoveCCCCCCCCCCCC
Barn OwlUUUUUUUUUUUU
Western Screech-OwlUUUUUUUUUUUU
Great Horned OwlFFFFFFFFFFFF
Snowy OwlRR RR
Northern Pygmy-OwlUURRRRRRUUUU
Burrowing OwlRUUUUUUURRRR
Barred OwlRRRRRRRRRRRR
Long-eared OwlUUUUUUUUUUUU
Short-eared OwlUUUUUUUUUUUU
Northern Saw-whet OwlRRRRRRRRRRRR
Common Nighthawk UCCCR
Common Poorwill UUUUUUR
Black Swift RRRR
Vaux's Swift RFFFFU
White-throated Swift RFCCFUR
Black-chinned Hummingbird UUUUR
Calliope Hummingbird UURRR
Rufous Hummingbird UURUUR
Belted KingfisherFFFFFFFFFFFF
Lewis's Woodpecker RRRRR
Red-naped Sapsucker UUFFUR
Downy WoodpeckerFFFFFFFFFFFF
Hairy WoodpeckerUUUUUUUUUUUU
Northern FlickerCCCCCCCCCCCC
Olive-sided Flycatcher RRRRR
Western Wood-Pewee CCCCC
Willow Flycatcher UFFFF
Least Flycatcher RRR
Hammond's Flycatcher U UU
Gray Flycatcher UUUUU
Dusky Flycatcher FFFFF
Pacific-slope Flycatcher UUUUU
Say's PhoebeRRUFFFFFURRR
Western Kingbird FCCCFR
Eastern Kingbird FCCCR
Loggerhead ShrikeRRUUUUUUURRR
Northern ShrikeFFF UFF
Cassin's Vireo UUUUUU
Warbling Vireo FUUFF
Red-eyed Vireo RR R
Steller's JayUUUUUUUUUUUU
Blue JayRR RRR
Clark's NutcrackerRRRRRRRRRRRR
Black-billed MagpieCCCCCCCCCCCC
American CrowCCCCCCCCCCCC
Common RavenCCCCCCCCCCCC
Horned LarkCCCCCCCCCCCC
Tree Swallow FCCCCF
Violet-green Swallow FCCCCCFR
Northern Rough-winged Swallow UFFFUUR
Bank Swallow CCCCCCR
Cliff Swallow UCCCCFR
Barn Swallow CCCCCCU
Black-capped ChickadeeCCCCCCCCCCCC
Mountain ChickadeeCCCCCCCCCCCC
BushtitRRRRRRRRRRRR
Red-breasted NuthatchUUUFURRUFUUU
White-breasted NuthatchFFFFFFFFFFFF
Pygmy NuthatchFFFFFFFFFFFF
Brown CreeperRRRRRRRRRRRR
Rock WrenRRUCCCCCCURR
Canyon WrenUUUUUUUUUUUU
Bewick's WrenFFFFFFFFFFFF
House Wren FCCCCC
Pacific WrenUUUU UUUU
Marsh WrenUUFCCCCCFUUU
Golden-crowned KingletUUFCU FFUU
Ruby-crowned KingletUUFCF CCUU
Western BluebirdRRUUUUUUUURR
Mountain BluebirdRRFFFFFFFURR
Townsend's SolitaireRRRUU RUURR
Veery FFFU
Swainson's Thrush R R
Hermit ThrushUUUUU UUUU
American RobinCCCCCCCCCCCC
Varied ThrushUUUUU RUUU
Gray Catbird UFFFU
Northern Mockingbird RRRRR
Sage Thrasher UFFFFFU
European StarlingCCCCCCCCCCCC
American Pipit RFU FFUR
Bohemian WaxwingUUU RUU
Cedar WaxwingCCCCCFFFFCCC
Orange-crowned WarblerRRRUF CCURR
Nashville Warbler UURRUU
Yellow Warbler RFCCFF
Yellow-rumped WarblerFFFCC UCCFF
Townsend's Warbler UFU FF
American Redstart RRRR
MacGillivray's Warbler URRUU
Common Yellowthroat FFFFFF
Wilson's Warbler RCR CC
Yellow-breasted Chat FFFFR
Western Tanager FRRUF
Spotted TowheeUUUFFFFFFUUU
American Tree SparrowUUR RUU
Chipping Sparrow UCCCCU
Brewer's Sparrow CCCFUU
Vesper Sparrow FCCCCCF
Lark Sparrow FFFUR
Black-throated Sparrow RRR
Sage Sparrow UFFFFFUU
Savannah SparrowRRFCCCCCCURR
Grasshopper Sparrow FFFF
Fox SparrowUUUUU UUUU
Song SparrowCCCCCCCCCCCC
Lincoln's SparrowRRRUU UUURR
White-throated SparrowRRRR RRRR
Harris's SparrowRRRR RR
White-crowned SparrowCCCCC CCCC
Golden-crowned SparrowRRRUU UURR
Dark-eyed JuncoCCCCF CCCC
Lapland LongspurRR RR
Snow BuntingFFU FF
Black-headed Grosbeak RCCCCR
Lazuli Bunting RUUUU
Bobolink RRR
Red-winged BlackbirdCCCCCCCCCCCC
Tricolored BlackbirdUUUUUUUUUUUU
Western MeadowlarkFFCCCCCCCCFF
Yellow-headed BlackbirdFFFFCCCFFFFF
Brewer's BlackbirdCCCCCCCCCCCC
Brown-headed CowbirdUUUCCCCUUUUU
Bullock's Oriole UCCCUR
Gray-crowned Rosy-FinchUURR RUU
Pine GrosbeakRR RRR
Purple FinchRRRRRRRRRRRR
Cassin's FinchRRRUUUUUURRR
House FinchCCCCCCCCCCCC
Red CrossbillUUUUUUUUUUUU
Common RedpollIII II
Pine SiskinUUUUUUUUUUUU
Lesser GoldfinchUUUUUUUUUUUU
American GoldfinchCCCCCCCCCCCC
Evening GrosbeakUUUUUUUUUUUU
House SparrowCCCCCCCCCCCC

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