Camp Cascades Jul 25—Aug 06, 2009

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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For only the fifth time since 1987, Camp Cascades returned to the landscape of youth birding. Marking this important occasion, 13 inspired teenage boys and girls assembled in Seattle, Washington on July 25 to proclaim the start of a two-week odyssey of discovery and learning.

Almost none of the camp participants had previously traveled in the Pacific Northwest, let alone engaged in natural history study here. This created a perfect scenario for us because the quality that makes Washington such a super place to host a youth birding camp is its variety. This is an extraordinary state whose appeal lies in its boundless scenic beauty and wonderfully diverse geography, climate, and biology. In a small area, one may experience the rocky coastline and serene coniferous forests of Puget Sound, the lush river valleys and glacier-scoured peaks of the Cascades, the tundra that defines the highest life zone, and, finally, the volcanic, sage-clad Columbia Plateau. In pursuing an itinerary intended to deliver us to each of these major ecosystems, our goal was to see it all—birds, mammals, scenery, and habitats!

Whidbey Island, home of historic Fort Casey, provided an ideal base for exploring the Puget Sound. We barely had time to unpack before campers were logging their first lifers of the trip. Almost immediately reports came flooding in of Band-tailed Pigeons, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Violet-green Swallows, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees sighted in the surrounding woods. Exploration of the fort and its immediate precincts made for an excellent introduction to the richness of the coast-forest biological community. Landbirds and waterbirds were abundant at all times, and we also took our time identifying as many of the trees and plants as we could find. Cruising nearby Crockett Lake produced encounters with Northern Harriers and a variety of shorebirds while a field trip to South Whidbey State Park provided our first experiences in an old-growth forest. Deep in the shadows of giant Douglas firs, western red cedars, and big leaf maples, we found ourselves in a moss-draped cathedral, whose deep-forest-loving inhabitants included the likes of Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hutton's Vireo, and Red Crossbill.

For some, the highlight of our time at Whidbey Island was the spectacle of thousands of Rhinoceros Auklets, mixed with a smattering of Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots, coursing over the tidal rips off Port Townsend at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

Like many of the continent's great natural landmarks, the Cascades emit an undeniable mystique. Even the word "Cascades" evokes images of towering waterfalls, storm-blasted peaks, darkened forests, and roaring rivers. The time we spent exploring the habitats on both the west and east slopes of the hallowed massif allowed us to fold back the veil of mystery we initially felt. Near the town of Concrete, we set up shop for two nights of camping along the Skagit River. A morning below Cascade Pass started dubiously amid low clouds and intermittent rain, but later cleared to reveal a realm of glaciers, sheer-faced mountains, and massive old-growth forests still dripping from the recent precipitation. Our patience and perseverance paid off with sightings of Evening Grosbeaks, Varied Thrushes, and Townsend's Warblers.

Our travels across the mountains took us over the highest (elevation) paved roads in the state. Entering the boundary of North Cascades National Park, we were treated to Black and Vaux's swifts darting over the park visitor center. Further along, a hike to Rainy Lake culminated with views of a snowmelt-fed waterfall plunging into a spectacular alpine lake.

In the heart of the North Cascades we entered a wonderland of flower-spangled mountain meadows, thrusting peaks crowned with retreating snow, and vast glaciated bowls of impossibly perfect symmetry. Favorite memories from our time in this north country included hiking to the summit of Tiffany Mountain, finding two groups of ptarmigan at the base of Slate Peak, and traipsing into the forested belly of the Pasayten Wilderness. Though birds were not bountiful in these Canadian zone forests, the ones we did see were cause for celebration. Special sightings included Sooty and Dusky grouse along the roadsides, a retiring group of Boreal Chickadees at the end of a four-mile hike (one-way!), flocks of Evening Grosbeaks above Mazama, and Golden Eagle and Mountain Bluebirds gracing the high elevation meadows. For the butterfly enthusiasts, the forest fires from several years before created perfect conditions for summertime wildflower blooms, which, consequently, allowed for a profusion of fritillaries, blues, hairstreaks, commas, whites, sulfurs, and parnassians.

There were so many other wonderful sightings, to mention just a few: the profusion of hummingbirds, including the diminutive Calliopes, around our campsite at Perrygin Lake; the Prairie Falcon simultaneously soaring overhead; the Lewis's Woodpecker along the forest road outside camp; the Northern Pygmy-Owl in the dry forest above Sullivan Lake; and, especially, the mountain goat in the middle of the road below Hart's Pass.

Camp Cascades 2009 concluded on the stark Columbia Plateau—an arid and lonely land, yet one full of life thanks to the mighty Columbia River. But while thoughts of going home and coping with the end of summer were now creeping into the minds of many, we knew we still needed to fulfill a number of remaining life bird possibilities! Driving through the dusty, sun-baked landscape of the Grand Coulee, we did indeed find our quarry, with such targets as Barrow's Goldeneye, Clark's Grebe, and Sage Thrasher nabbed with ease.