Camp Cascades Jul 29—Aug 08, 2012

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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The proud tradition of VENT youth birding camps continued in 2012 with the arrival of ten enthusiastic boys and girls at the airport in Seattle, Washington on July 29 for the start of Camp Cascades.

As this camp does not operate every year, our return to majestic Washington State is always cause for excitement. The camp began this year, as always, with a four-night stay on Whidbey Island on the shores of Puget Sound. Unlike other years, however, when we’ve then moved on to the North Cascades, this year we spent four days amid the splendor of Mount Rainier National Park.

One reason we love Washington is that the Pacific Northwest presents a mix of ecosystems and topography that seem almost otherworldly in comparison to the gentle landforms of the Midwest and East, where most of our campers are from. In this land of limitless scenic beauty one need not travel far to witness the sparkling waters of Puget Sound, towering forests, glacier-studded mountains, and crystal-clear rivers.

Strategically located at the mid-point of Whidbey Island, the Casey Conference Center provided an inviting and comfortable setting from which to explore the surrounding country. Our first morning in the field produced life birds for everyone as we nabbed a range of widespread western species and regional specialty birds. The appearance of Heermann's and Mew gulls, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pacific Wrens, and Red Crossbills brought smiles to the faces of more than a few.

An afternoon trip to Pondilla Lake at Fort Ebey State Park revealed a marvelously scenic stop and some unforgettable birding. In short order we located an imperious adult Bald Eagle perched over the lake, a male Pileated Woodpecker excavating a dead tree without concern for our presence, two Band-tailed Pigeons at close range, and a Merlin making repeated passes high overhead.

Other highlights from our time on the island included two awesome hikes in the deep forest of South Whidbey State Park, where we sighted Pacific-slope Flycatcher; afternoon shorebirding at Crockett Lake; and observing the daily passage of hundreds of alcids, gulls, and terns along Admiralty Inlet.

It goes without saying that a true highpoint was the day we spent on the Olympic Peninsula. An action-packed day in the field included an unforgettable two-hour boat trip to Protection Island for Tufted Puffins, Bald Eagles, hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets, and lesser numbers of Common Murres and Marbled Murrelets; a stop at Kah Tai Lagoon for ridiculously close views of Virginia Rails; a late morning visit to Anderson Lake State Park for Red-breasted Sapsucker, Willow Flycatcher, and Townsend's Warbler; and a drive to Port Angeles for Harlequin Ducks on the waterfront.

Bidding so long to the coast, we traveled to Mount Rainier National Park. Dividing our time between the Paradise and Sunrise sides of the park, we experienced the sensational wonders for which the park is so beloved: spectacular waterfalls, gushing rivers, stately forests, flower-festooned meadows, and the mighty mountain itself, snow-capped and spellbinding.

A "waterfall hike" took us by three of the park's best known cascades—Narada, Madcap, and Carter falls—and produced an impressive assortment of birds including Gray and Steller's jays, Vaux's Swift, Pacific Wren, and American Dipper. A male Sooty Grouse at close range on the following day was the perfect sendoff for our hike on the renowned Skyline Trail. This adventure, one of the crown jewels of the Mt. Rainier experience, took us well up the south slope of the mountain, an event that provided the proverbial feast for the senses. The five-mile loop trail brought exposure to mountain meadows that host some of the planet's greatest wildflower shows. A profusion of gentians, valerians, paintbrushes, heathers, and monkeyflowers rendered breathtaking displays of reds, violets, purples, whites, oranges, and blues. Higher up in the alpine zone, we enjoyed fine views of some of the park's many glaciers and the mountain's snow-crowned summit.

At Sunrise, a lengthy hike to the Mt. Fremont Lookout saw us back in the alpine zone where we finally located our coveted White-tailed Ptarmigan in addition to Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, a black bear, and American pika. We also took in stupendous views of the massive Emmons Glacier.

While Camp Cascades could be remembered for its excellent birding, it is the time we spent in several great ecosystems that provided the trip its mojo. Whether hiking in an old-growth forest, meandering through a flowery meadow, or standing in the mist of a thundering waterfall, it is activities such as these that fuel our passion for nature and the outdoors. Few places in the country can offer these kinds of experiences as well as Washington's Puget Sound and Cascades.