Spring in the Washington Cascades May 24—30, 2010

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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Our Spring in the Washington Cascades tour proved Leavenworth, Washington to be an ideal venue for a spring nature tour. Leavenworth, east of Seattle across the Cascade Mountains, sits at the foot of Icicle Canyon, on the north side of scenic Mt. Stuart. At our lodgings, tucked right alongside the Wenatchee River, every guest room had a balcony overlooking the rushing river, where we could sit and watch birds in the morning or evening and during tour breaks. Balcony watchers saw Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers visiting the river's edge, as Violet-green Swallows and Ospreys flew along the stream. On the grounds of the inn we saw, almost daily, White-headed Woodpeckers and Pygmy Nuthatches, as well as several families of yellow-bellied marmots. Wildflowers carpeted the forest floor in yellow and blue, among the trunks of massive Ponderosa pines. And, our lodging was just a few minutes from fast-flowing Icicle Creek, where American Dippers bobbed on the rocks and pairs of Harlequin Ducks swam in the rushing water, as Townsend's Solitaires sang from the adjacent rock faces.

The tour began in Seattle, and its dates were set at an ideal season to bird across the Cascade Mountains.  As we neared Snoqualmie Pass, we heard the haunting notes of Varied Thrushes near the misty mountain pass. One of these exquisite thrushes was perched atop a spire-shaped fir as it sang, and nearby we scoped Red Crossbills so closely you could see the fine detail of the crossed bill tips.

Reaching Leavenworth, east of the Cascade crest, we spent four nights, all at the same lovely inn. From this wonderfully situated base, we explored a variety of sites within reasonable driving distance, including beautiful Icicle Canyon. On one day, we birded slowly up the full length of a canyon in the nearby Entiat Mountains. Beginning at the rocky cut of the Columbia River, the canyon opened with towering rimrock cliffs, then passed through sagebrush and hayfields, then higher into Ponderosa pine stands, and then firs, right up among aspen-rimmed beaver bogs. In the lower canyon we watched pair after pair of Bullock's Orioles—the males neon-orange—as they worked on weaving their sack-like nests. And all along the canyon we saw, one after another, scintillating male Lazuli Buntings, singing from low perches. Yellow-breasted Chats also sang all along the canyon, with the first of the day singing in the open from a bare tree, flashing its bright yellow breast. Here and throughout the tour, whenever we came near a creek or stream, Black-headed Grosbeaks belted out their rollicking songs, often from a bare twig atop a tree. Again and again, male Calliope Hummingbirds perched on lookouts atop a shrub, showing off the purple streamers of their gorgets.

At one spot in this same canyon, we stopped alongside an aspen grove, set in the stream bed and backed by firs and pines. Soon, to a bit of pygmy-owl imitation, a Downy Woodpecker appeared, followed quickly by a stunning male Red-naped Sapsucker. Then Nashville and MacGillivray's warblers, Cassin's Finches, and other small birds darted in and, after a few minutes, a Northern Pygmy-Owl began hooting. At first its hoots seemed distant, then much closer and, before long, we were watching the perched owl in the spotting scope. And as we admired the owl, a Golden Eagle soared by overhead. A definite tour highlight spot, in a canyon full of wonderful birds.

We also found time to explore back roads in the Wenatchee Mountains, where Ruffed Grouse drummed and Williamson's Sapsuckers tapped out their Morse Code-like rhythms on the huge pines. Hermit Thrushes seemed to sing all day, too. An optional evening drive in the mountains gave us great views of Common Poorwills. Another day took us into the nearby sage and potholes country, home to nesting Sage Thrashers and Brewer's and Sage sparrows, and where we saw Cinnamon Teal and Blue-winged Teal drakes side by side. Displaying male Ruddy Ducks flashed their blue bills as Yellow-headed Blackbirds clamored.

Although one cannot hope to see all the birds of Washington in a weeklong tour, this tour incorporates some of the richest spring birding possibilities in the Northwest, and the opportunity to spend most nights at one lodging while exploring diverse areas within a reasonable driving distance.