Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed and Easy Tour Jun 06—12, 2012

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 2012 Spring in the Washington Cascades tour proved once again that Leavenworth, Washington is an ideal venue for a spring nature tour. Two hours east of Seattle across the Cascade Mountains, Leavenworth sits at the foot of splendid, snow-capped Mt. Stuart, near the confluence of Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River. At our lodgings tucked right alongside the Wenatchee River, every guest room had a balcony overlooking the rushing river, a fine spot from which to sit and watch birds in the morning or later in the day. From the balcony one might watch Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers visiting the river's edge, as Violet-green Swallows flew along the stream, and yellow-bellied marmot families frolicked over the rocks. On a morning stroll from the inn, we watched a White-headed Woodpecker sneaking toward a nest hole, as Pygmy Nuthatches peeped nearby. Wildflowers carpeted the forest floor in yellow and blue, among the trunks of massive Ponderosa pines. A drive up fast-flowing Icicle Creek turned up three different gray birds along the stream: an American Dipper popping in and out of the frigid water, a Harlequin Duck paddling across a quiet stretch of water, and Townsend's Solitaires flycatching from atop boulders at the creek's edge.

The tour begins in Seattle and is timed for the ideal season to bird across the Cascade Mountains. The first morning, near Snoqualmie Pass, we watched several lovely Varied Thrushes foraging along the shady edge of forest road, as a Pacific Wren and Townsend's Warbler sang nearby. A mountain cabin's bird feeders hosted Gray and Steller's jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and an opportunistic raccoon. A bit later on the east slope of the Cascades, dramatically colored Evening Grosbeaks were in flocks in the town of Cle Elum, where we also saw our first beautiful Western Tanagers. Before the first afternoon was done, we had compared the blues of azure Mountain Bluebird and darker Western Bluebirds, encountered an inexplicable flock of hundreds of Chipping Sparrows, and listened to the liquid notes of Western Meadowlarks.

The following day took us through a canyon in the Entiat Mountains, one of my favorite birding spots anywhere. Our first stop was at the foot of the canyon, alongside the mighty Columbia River, where basalt cliffs several hundred feet high tower above steep slopes of grass and sagebrush. Immediately we heard the buzzy notes of a Lazuli Bunting, and soon had the sparkling blue male in the spotting scope. Now a Yellow-breasted Chat sang as it perched atop a shrub, showing alternately its bold yellow breast and the uncanny camouflage of its green back. Within a hundred yards up the canyon, a sudden flash of color drew our attention to a vividly orange Bullock's Oriole. Another flash, the yellow breast of a Western Kingbird.

Habitat changed continually as we worked our way slowly up the canyon, driving a bit then strolling a bit. A Golden Eagle soared over, as did an out-of-place Sandhill Crane. More chats, more buntings, assorted flycatchers, and then a Lewis's Woodpecker. The namesake of explorer Meriwether Lewis, we caught up with his famous partner's namesake a bit farther into the canyon, when a small group of Clark's Nutcrackers appeared in the Ponderosa pines. Just a bit farther up the road, a miniscule Calliope Hummingbird perched atop a shrub, its wine-colored throat feathers glittering. Even higher up the canyon road, where pines merged with firs, a Northern Pygmy-Owl perched atop a bare tree, hooting persistently, soon joined by a mobbing Nashville Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch.

The day in the Entiat Mountains canyon represents just one of five varied days of birding. Each day of the tour takes us to a different set of natural landscapes, to bird different habitats. One of VENT's Relaxed and Easy tours, we had an excellent breakfast at the inn each morning, picnicked at a good birding spot most lunchtimes, and had a fine dinner in Leavenworth each evening.

On other days we explored the sage and different canyon and streamside landscapes, as well as birding to higher elevation in the Wenatchee Mountains. We saw all three western sapsuckers—Williamson's, Red-naped, and Red-breasted—among eight different woodpeckers. Two family groups of Chukar strolled out of a grassy canyon slope, numbering nearly twenty birds in all. A pair of Gray Partridge were spotted in a closely cropped pasture, a lucky sighting during the nesting season for this secretive species. A male Wilson's Snipe stood obligingly, calling from atop a fence post, and a beautiful female Wilson's Phalarope was scoped at a pothole lake, alongside a synchronized feeding group of White Pelicans. Handsome Cinnamon Teal and blue-billed Ruddy Ducks also graced the pothole lakes, where Yellow-headed Blackbirds growled out their unmusical songs. At other spots, male Rufous Hummingbirds flashed their crimson gorgets, and Black Swifts soared below the clouds, just returned from their winter grounds in the Amazon Basin.

Even though you can't see all the June birds of Washington in a weeklong tour, VENT's Spring in the Washington Cascades tour goes a long way toward encountering many of the richest spring birding possibilities in the Northwest.