Desert Wildlife Area

By Doug Schonewald

The Site

Desert Wildlife Area, also known as the South Columbia Basin Wildlife Area (Desert Unit), is a series of wetlands and riparian habitats interspersed with developed agricultural fields, sand dunes, and shrub-steppe. Dodson Road (the main access road to this area) runs from I-90 southward for approximately ten miles to its junction with Frenchman Hills Road. Frenchman Hills Road then runs east and west for approximately five and one-half miles to its junction with SR-262 (east) or to Road I SW (west). (SR-262 is the eastern continuation of Road A SE.) This complex includes several well-known birding locations such as BirderÔ??s Corner (the wetland to the west of the intersection of Dodson Road and Frenchman Hills Road), the Audubon Dodson Road Nature Trail, and several other Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) parking and access locations.

Much of the area is freshwater marshes, ponds, braiding channels, and small lakes. Tracts of sand dunes and shrub-steppe make up the remainder of the landmass. Riparian habitats are located along Frenchman Hills Road and Road C SE, with several isolated stands of Russian olive and willow along the wetlands. The shrub-steppe is composed of typical plant communities of sages, rabbitbrush, and bitterbrush interspersed with various grasses and forbs.

This area is important to birds both as a relatively undisturbed breeding area and as an important stopover point during migration to rest and refuel. Winter residents find the areas of thick brush an ideal location to find food and cover.

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The Birds

Year-round residents include Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Great Horned, Short-eared, and Long-eared Owls, Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron, several species of waterfowl, Song Sparrow, and Marsh Wren among others.

Breeding residents that migrate to and from this area include Black-necked Stilt (Birder's Corner), Swainson's Hawk (check all of the larger trees for nesting birds but do not disturb), Burrowing Owl (east of Dodson Road near Birder's Corner), American Bittern (Road I SW), Black Tern (Birder's Corner and Road I SW). A list of over 100 species from this area would not raise eyebrows.

Many migrants utilize the area and include Solitary Sandpiper (small ponds along Dodson Road in early fall), American White Pelican (wetlands to the north of Frenchman Hills Road), Tundra Swan, Bald Eagle, and the usual wading birds and waterfowl. Passerines find the thickets especially attractive, and Swamp, White-throated, and Harris's Sparrow have all been seen here. Many species of warblers, vireos, and thrushes also utilize these thickets. Raptors hunt the passerines, and Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks are common in late fall and winter. Merlins are also regular around the thickets in fall and winter. Snowy Owls have been observed in the dune areas near Road C SW.

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Directions and Suggestions

Best times to visit this area are early-to-late spring, late summer, and early fall, though any time of the year can be productive.

From I-90, take the Dodson Road exit. You can also reach the area via SR-262, either from SR-17 to the east or SR-26 to the south. Few maps locate the various dirt tracks that are available, though most roads mentioned in this text are located in DeLorme.

Most of the 35,000+ acres of the Desert Wildlife Area are not accessible by vehicle, but there are ample access points from which to explore on foot. These include Road I SW, Road 4 SW, and Road C SE. Vehicle Use Permits are required to park in any WDFW parking area. Some of the WDFW access sites include vault toilets, but no water is available. Several small restaurants and eateries are available a short distance away near Potholes Reservoir.

This is tick country and in the spring they can be very bad. Biting insects can also make an otherwise pleasant day miserable, so plan ahead. Weather conditions during certain times of the year can make roads difficult or impassable. The area is remote so use caution when traveling the back roads, taking particular care in wet or dry sand areas.

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References

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