Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed and Easy Tour Jun 05—11, 2011

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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Day 3 of our 2011 Spring in the Washington Cascades tour took us into a canyon in the Entiat Mountains. The mouth of the canyon opens just above the massive Columbia River, where basalt cliffs several hundred feet high tower above steep slopes of grass and sagebrush. Here, a Rock Wren sang rhythmic, ringing phrases, and we soon spotted the bird perched on a large rock face, where it posed for scope views. Soon a Canyon Wren announced itself with a melodic slide of notes. Remarkably, the Canyon Wren appeared on the same rock face that a moment ago had held the Rock Wren. Boldly-marked White-throated Swifts zoomed low across the slope, alongside Violet-green Swallows.

The jumbled notes of a Lazuli Bunting now reached our ears. We located the male bunting singing atop an elderberry bush, its powder-blue sparkling in the morning light. It was the first of dozens of Lazuli Buntings that day. In a shrub adjacent to the bunting, a flash of orange and a guttural call drew our attention to a brilliantly colored Bullock's Oriole. Black-billed Magpies flew lazily back and forth, vividly patterned in black and white. A Say's Phoebe called plaintively, as a pair of California Quail whirred across the dirt road. We had moved only a few yards since first stepping out of the vans.

The canyon rises nine miles to the top, with water all along its run—a narrow creek leading upward to a series of beaver ponds. Habitat changes continually with elevation, and the north facing slope is more heavily wooded than the south facing. This creates an ideal formula for habitat variety and, with it, diversity of bird life. Through at least the lower half of the canyon, Yellow-breasted Chats were prominent, as were MacGillivray's and Nashville warblers. As we reached open pine woods in the fourth mile, Western Tanagers and Cassin's Vireos showed nicely, as did Cassin's Finches and Western Wood-Pewees. A tiny male Calliope Hummingbird perched atop a shrub to survey its territory, its wine-colored throat feathers glinting in the spotting scope. Halfway up the canyon, we picnicked at the edge of a wide meadow rimmed with pines and aspens and dotted with blue lupine flowers. Hundreds of butterflies attended a nearby puddle.

To this point, one key bird had still eluded our efforts: White-headed Woodpecker. Having heard one call during lunch, hopes were raised that one lurked nearby. Sure enough, at our next stop a short distance up the canyon, the much anticipated woodpecker was seen hitching up and down the Ponderosa pines just off the edge of the road—to everyone's delight.

The day in an Entiat Mountains canyon represents just one of five varied days of birding on this tour. Each day takes us to a different set of natural landscapes, to bird different habitats. Our tour, which meets in Seattle, is focused on the birds, other wildlife, and flora found east of the crest of the Cascade Mountains. The tour route crosses the Cascade Mountains to the east on the first morning, en route to Leavenworth, Washington at the foot of Mt. Stuart. We stay the next four nights at the same comfortable inn alongside the Wenatchee River. Every guest room has a balcony overlooking the rushing river, a fine place to sit and watch birds in the morning or evening and during tour breaks. One of VENT's Relaxed and Easy tours, we had an excellent breakfast at the inn each morning, picnicked at a good birding spot each lunchtime, and had a fine dinner close by in Leavenworth each evening. We took time for breaks at the inn during each day's series of events, and added options for those who might want a bit more birding time.

Highlights were many: Dippers bobbing atop boulders and diving in the middle of fast-flowing Icicle Creek; simultaneous views of Williamson's Sapsuckers and a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl; gorgeous male Western Tanagers and Evening Grosbeaks all but dripping from the trees; the ethereal songs of Varied, Hermit, and Swainson's thrushes—plus good views of all these superb singers; great views of western warblers such as MacGillivray's, Townsend's, and Black-throated Gray; nine flycatcher species, six of them unique to the West; lovely nesting ducks like Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, Common Merganser, and Barrow's Goldeneye; raucous Yellow-headed Blackbirds, sweet-singing Black-headed Grosbeaks, trilling Pacific Wrens; and the unanticipated good fortune of seeing a young Long-eared Owl on a day roost.

This tour offers the relaxed and easy opportunity to spend most nights at one comfortable inn, and use this as a base to explore diverse areas within a reasonable driving distance. And 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.