OUTDOORS - Great wildlife and photos are a short drive from Walla Walla

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A common side-blotched lizard sub-species suns on the Wallula Habitat Management Unit.

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A painted turtle takes a dip in the Whitman Mission pond.

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Four young foxes enjoy the early morning sunshine.

WALLA WALLA - My wife Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I have logged many interesting wildlife sightings in the area this spring.

And we have photos.

Within about 30 miles of home we've seen bluebirds, quail, pheasants, herons, a family of red foxes, cottontails, deer, several snakes, lizards, baby great horned owls, raptors (including ospreys), turkeys, a painted turtle and pelicans.

I also missed a few shots.

On Lincton Mountain, for example, a kestrel perched on a post to munch a mouse. As the car drifted to a stop and I aimed the camera from the window, nosey Nora crowded up to see and her ear flapped in front of the lens.

The kestrel flew, and I missed it.

I didn't scold Nora, of course. She just wanted to see. Besides, a bluebird posed nearby and I got it.

Later, Nora proved to be a calm animal observer when we watched a family of foxes in a pasture a mere balloon flight from downtown.

We parked near a wire gate, 100 yards or so from the den. We saw the den mother trot across the field and enter a dark hole beneath a shrub.

Another time, we spent nearly an hour with the window down while watching four kits play. The mom sat on her haunches nearby and intently scanned the field for intruders (or dinner).

The kits, perhaps a month or two old, played with one another like puppies (which they were, I guess).

The mom had red legs and a grey back. Although usually a reddish orange, the red fox may be grey to black with silver-tipped hairs. A white tip always marks its long bushy tail.

Nora peered from the window without comment about the foxes or a covey of purring quail that skittered around us, pecking at the ground. She also ignored the cottontail rabbits that crept out of the weeds.

At Mill Creek, we saw the usual mallards, mergansers, herons and kingfishers, an occasional osprey and snakes. On one walk along the stream we saw two garter snakes, a 10-inch bull snake, a 20-inch rubber boa and a 4-foot bull snake. Nora ignored them all.

I laid my Swiss Army Knife beside the rubber boa to give an idea of its size. Then I held it at arm's length to get a better photo. Rubber boas seldom get angry, but I don't pick up an aggressive bull snake.

I did lie on the ground five feet away for a snake's eye-view of the 4-footer with its forked tongue flicking out.

We saw squadrons of white pelicans circling over the Walla Walla River, and floating on it, west of town.

When I heard that the Walla Walla area moose was hanging out near the Whitman Mission, we made an early morning trek to see for ourselves.

No moose, of course, but a painted turtle sunned on a float in the mission pond. A tom turkey and a rooster pheasant strutted in a nearby pasture, and an osprey perched on a power pole and tore into a fish.

One afternoon, Nora and I hiked up the north side of the Walla Walla River from the parking area at Refuge Pond. It took three hours to reach the white cliffs that are visible from Highway 12. We walked slow.

On the way, I spotted two lizards at a sandy bank marked by many holes and ledges.

The lizards had orange sides and turned out to be a sub-species of the common side-blotched lizard that has a black blotch behind its front legs. Both have spotted backs.

Finally, we approached the white cliffs.

I strolled to an edge, and angry beak-clacking erupted from a sage bush two feet below.

I backed up and put Nora on the leash fastened to my belt.

I retreated 10 feet down the trail and tip-toed carefully back toward the edge. An owlet stared at me from the sage with quarter-sized yellow eyes.

I blinked. The owl did not. It was about 10 feet away. Each eye had a pea-sized black dot in its center.

The clacking continued as I raised the camera, took a few shots and backed away.

Nora and I continued across the bluff and headed back to Refuge Pond along the bottom of the cliffs, with me snapping photos on the way.

So, we've seen some interesting critters this spring. And we still plan to see that moose.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com.

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