By: Mason Maron 

Though many animals inhabit Kamiak Butte, bird species are most prevalent by far. Over 140 different species of bird have been observed and reported from Kamiak Butte. The diverse habitat the butte provides can be broken up into four primary sections: the base, the North Aspect, the South Aspect, and the “crest”. The Butte’s rich habitat isolated in a sea of wheat also turns it into a highly attractive stopover for vagrants, rare birds from other regions that are not found locally but have flown “off course”.

The base accounts for the most lack-luster vegetation at Kamiak Butte. This section is primarily wheat fields from the private land surrounding the butte, as well as a bit of grassland as the county park land border begins. Despite this, plenty of birds prefer this section of the butte. Raptor species, such as Red-tailed Hawk and Northern Harrier, constantly hunt in this section, utilizing the open ground cover to detect their prey more easily.  Other raptors also participate in this hunt—Swainson’s Hawks will hunt in these fields in the Summer, and Rough-legged Hawks in the winter, their migration patterns mirroring each other to “take each other’s places”. Common Ravens will also make frequent appearances in these fields, generally to feed on carrion, attempt to snag a fresh meal from the talons of a raptor, or just gather into a new flock. Aside from raptors, some passerines do inhabit this area; flocks of American Pipit can often be seen foraging for insects in the muddy wheat fields from Spring to Fall, while Western Meadowlarks can usually be heard singing from deep in the grasslands.

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

Red Tailed-Hawk  (Buteo Jamaicensis)

 In the North Aspect’s forest, an immediate increase of passerine activity can be noticed any time of year. From the county park parking lot to the crest of the butte, certain species are prevalent throughout this entire forest, such as Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Bewick’s Wren, Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the region’s three nuthatch species, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatch. Woodpeckers such as Northern Flicker and Downy Woodpecker are also prevalent in this section, utilizing Ponderosa Pine’s platy bark of to gain easy access to insects and thick trunks to drill into for nesting holes. Most of the sparrow activity also occurs in this forested section, with birds like Dark-eyed Junco and Song Sparrow actively foraging on the ground in flocks for seeds from both trees and understory shrubs and forbs. Overall, most of the butte’s passerine activity occurs within the North Aspect, as it provides plenty of cover that the generally small songbirds seek from rain, wind, and predators, as well as plenty of food in the form of seeds and invertebrates. Birds in this region often utilize the dense canopy cover to nest safely in the summer as well; species such as Cedar Waxwing, Swainson’s Thrush, and Cassin’s Finch can all be seen nesting in the branches of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and Western Larch, among many other species. Of course, just because these birds are in the cover of the forest does not mean they are safe from predators; “forest hawks” such as Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk actively hunt small mammals and birds in this forest. On top of this, owls actively hunt here, from large species such as Great-horned Owl to tiny ones such as Northern Pygmy-Owl, a bird no larger than the sparrows it hunts for dinner.

Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli)

Red-breast Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter Cooperii)

In stark contrast to the North Aspect, bird activity on the South Aspect of Kamiak Butte is incredibly lacking, regardless of season. This face provides birds with very little “useful” habitat, being predominantly covered in grasses and forbs. Nevertheless, some species not only live in this section of the butte, but prefer its habitat. Introduced gamebirds found in the Palouse region, such as the Ring-necked Pheasant and Wild Turkey, utilize this habitat for foraging, the slope providing them easy view of any predators and a more efficient method of escape. The grassland here also acts as a slightly less enticing version of the grassland at the base of the butte for passerines; while Western Meadowlark will occasionally perch in the shrubs here to sing, this aspect of the butte lacks the wet, muddy soil that American Pipits and Horned Larks use for foraging. However, raptors do still use the grassland on this slope to hunt for prey, as the updraft created by warm air building and rising off of the face of the butte provides the perfect conditions for hawks to hover in place and watch for small mammal movement below them.
The crest of the butte provides a different story than both the North Aspect and South Aspect. It sits in a prime location directly on the top of the butte, with a small portion of open area that borders and mixes with both the grasslands of the South Aspect and the forest of the North Aspect. The open, clustered stands of Ponderosa Pine here are very attractive to Hairy Woodpecker, a species that does not generally enjoy dense forests or sparse, lone trees. These same stands also pull many passerine species up from the North Aspect to feed on the Ponderosa’s cones, such as Mountain Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Red Crossbill. In Crossbill irruption years, White-winged Crossbill may also appear here in winter to feed on the cones. However, summer is more of the “prime time” for birds on Kamiak Butte’s crest, as one group is more prevalent here than all others; the Tyrant Flycatchers of the family Tyrannidae. Flycatchers are known for a behavior called “sallying”, sometimes simply referred to as “flycatching” because of the association with this family. Sallying is a simple hunting technique used by these birds; the bird flits quickly off of a perch, grabs a flying insect out of the air in its beak, and lands back on the original perch to eat its catch. Sallying is extremely efficient behavior, but it requires open snags to perform. There is a significant correlation between the presence of open snags and flycatchers, and it shows on Kamiak Butte, with the edge of the forest overlooking the grasslands that forms on the crest providing a continuous line of snags for flycatchers to perch on. In the spring, summer, and early fall, when Flycatchers have migrated into the Palouse area and are breeding on Kamiak Butte, it is easy to find several species sallying along the crest, such as Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Eastern Kingbird. Aside from these birds, many warblers, such as MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler can be found on the crest feeding alongside flycatchers; while the flycatchers sally for insects in the air, the warblers “glean” insects from the branches and leaves.

Ponderosa Pine Crossbill (Sitta canadensis)

Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii)

Kamiak Butte is “an isolated stand of trees in an otherwise mostly unforested landscape”, a quote from Western US naturalist Hal Opperman. This makes it stand out as an ideal stopover spot for migrating birds. When a bird gets lost or off course in migration, it can end up in the completely wrong location, and is known as a vagrant; birds like this are often exhausted from flying much longer than they prepared for, so noticing prime habitat below them entices them to fly down for a break. Because of this, Kamiak Butte has a long streak of hosting some amazing vagrant species, from species “not too far from home” such as Clark’s Nutcracker, a corvid found on nearby mountains in the Cascades and Rockies, to birds completely in the wrong location, such as Northern Parula, a migratory warbler found normally in the Eastern United States in summer. It has also hosted rarities such as Black-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Least Flycatcher.

Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Chipping Sparrow  (Spizella passerina)