Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed and Easy Tour Jun 02—08, 2013

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


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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Leavenworth, Washington is a superb base for a spring nature tour in the state of Washington. Just two hours east across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle near the confluence of Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River, Leavenworth looks up at splendid, snow-capped Mt. Stuart. Our lodgings for four nights sit alongside the Wenatchee River as it tumbles down from the mountains, and every guest room features a balcony overlooking the rushing river. Early morning and during afternoon breaks, the balcony is a lovely spot to sit and watch: perhaps Evening Grosbeaks or Western Tanagers foraging near the river’s edge, Violet-green Swallows fluttering at the balcony railing, Common Mergansers flying along the river, or a family of marmots scampering among the rocks. White-headed Woodpeckers nest nearby, and are sometimes seen at the lodge, and Pygmy Nuthatches are regular visitors to the pines here.

The tour, which starts in Seattle, comes at a perfect season to bird across the Cascade Mountains and among the varied habitats within reasonable driving distance of Leavenworth. On the 2013 Spring in the Washington Cascades tour we got in a bit of birding the first morning west of the mountains, not far from Seattle, where we were fortunate to see both Red-breasted Sapsucker and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, two species more prevalent in these lowlands. Heading into the mountains near Snoqualmie Pass, we watched a shy Varied Thrush collect a beakful of insects in the shade of tall conifers, then saw a tiny Pacific Wren sing its startlingly long and fast song, as Townsend’s Warblers and Chestnut-backed Chickadees came into view in the nearby trees. Many new sightings followed quickly that first day: from a pair of striking Barrow’s Goldeneyes to dozens of Evening Grosbeaks, gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds, and an intimate view of a secretive Swainson’s Thrush. Arriving in Leavenworth for the first of four nights, we got in a bit of birding after an afternoon break and before dinner—just time for our first of several views during the tour of a male Calliope Hummingbird flashing its wine-colored gorget, and a first White-headed Woodpecker sighting—a high priority for most of the tour members.

The following day’s birding led up a road through a canyon in the Entiat Mountains, about half an hour from Leavenworth. At the first stop at the foot of the canyon where a basalt cliff rises a couple of hundred feet above a narrow green band of creek-side shrubs, the birding action was bountiful. The jumbled song of a Lazuli Bunting soon had us scoping the iridescent blue singer on its song perch. Bullock’s Orioles shone vivid orange in the shrub tops, and a Yellow-breasted Chat sang boldly from a bare branch. Hearing a Rock Wren’s rhythmic, ringing phrases, we soon had the wren in view as, simultaneously, a Canyon Wren sang atop a nearby rock face and White-throated Swifts arced across the basalt cliffs.
Habitat changed continually as we worked our way slowly up the canyon, driving a bit then strolling a bit. A distant Lewis’s Woodpecker was followed by a family of Clark’s Nutcrackers, both birds named for the legendary team of American explorers. MacGillivray’s and Nashville warblers showed nicely, as did pink-hued Cassin’s Finches, Dusky Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker and others. At a pleasant picnic spot mid-canyon, surrounded by many singing birds, we watched another White-headed Woodpecker as it climbed among the branches of a huge Ponderosa pine.

On other days we explored the sage and different canyon and streamside landscapes, as well as birding to higher elevation in the Wenatchee and Cascade Mountains. We added Williamson’s Sapsucker to the two other species seen previously (among nine woodpecker species for the tour), and watched a diminutive Northern Pygmy-Owl for a long time in the spotting scope. A “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrow sang at our picnic at Stevens Pass, as did a Hermit Thrush. In the pines near Umtanum Creek, we improved greatly on our previous view of Lewis’s Woodpeckers, as a pair posed on a nest tree showing off the red face, pink breast, and glinting green back that make them among the most beautiful birds in the family. At a picnic spot in the pines, we saw our first Gray Flycatcher—one of nine species of flycatchers for the tour. A pair of California Quail herded a dozen tiny chicks at the roadside. An American Dipper stood atop a boulder in the rapids of Icicle Creek, and a Harlequin Duck rode the rapids in the same creek. Near a wet meadow, a male Wilson’s Snipe stood obligingly, calling atop a fence post, and nesting Long-billed Curlews strode through a green pasture. At pothole lakes east of the Columbia River we hit the duck bonanza of the trip: Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal alongside Northern Shovelers, blue-billed Ruddy Ducks, Redheads and other ducks. Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds brayed from the bulrushes, not far from a small flock of White Pelicans.

Washington is a big state, and you can’t hope to see all of its birds in a week in June. But the Spring in the Washington Cascades tour goes a long way toward encountering many of the richest spring birding possibilities in the Northwest.