Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Jun 08—14, 2014
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
The morning of Day 3 of VENT’s 2014 Spring in the Washington Cascades Relaxed & Easy tour found us at the foot of a canyon in the Entiat Mountains, just where the canyon opens to the massive Columbia River. At the canyon’s mouth, basalt cliffs tower several hundred feet above steep slopes of grass and sagebrush. Boldly marked White-throated Swifts zipped across the high rim of the cliffs, alongside Violet-green Swallows. A Rock Wren sang rhythmic, ringing phrases, and we soon spotted the bird as it hopped from boulder to boulder. Now the jumbled notes of a Lazuli Bunting reached our ears, and we watched the male bunting singing atop a series of song perches, its iridescent turquoise sparkling in the morning light. Soon a Yellow-breasted Chat sang its way to the top of a bare twig, where spotting scope views enhanced the bold yellow of its breast. 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. Just up the road, a MacGillivray’s Warbler sang from a shrub, posing for amazing scope views of what is often a very shy warbler. We had moved only a few yards since first stepping out of the vans.
The canyon road ascends nine miles, with a narrow creek at its low point near the road, a creek that leads uphill through landscapes gradually changing from sage to pines to fir forest and aspen groves surrounding beaver ponds—an ideal formula for habitat variety and, with it, diversity of bird life. As we reached open pine woods in the fourth mile, Western Tanagers and Cassin’s Vireos showed nicely, as did Cassin’s Finches, Mountain Chickadees, Nashville Warblers, and Western Wood-Pewees. Halfway up the canyon, a tiny male Calliope Hummingbird held sentinel atop a shrub, its wine-colored throat feathers glinting in the sun.
The Spring in the Washington Cascades tour begins in Seattle during the perfect season to bird across the Cascade Mountains and among the varied habitats near Leavenworth, Washington. Just two hours east across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle and 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, and Violet-green Swallows fluttering at the balcony railing. On short walks near our lodging, set in Ponderosa pine woods, we had excellent looks at White-headed Woodpeckers, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Red Crossbills. One of VENT’s Relaxed and Easy tours, we had an excellent breakfast at the inn each morning, picnicked or dined at a café 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: an American Dipper preening atop a fallen log over Peshastin Creek, as a female Harlequin Duck with five tiny ducklings swam upstream through the rushing stream; a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers attending young in a nest cavity—just one of nine species of woodpeckers seen on the trip, including all three Western sapsuckers; a petite Northern Pygmy-Owl perched atop a fir tree for extended scope study; Evening Grosbeaks feeding at point-blank range on the roadside; a male Varied Thrush collecting bugs on a roadway; a Pacific Wren singing its long, rapid song from a perch near the roadside; a pair of Townsend’s Warblers foraging low in a conifer above another mountain stream; first morning views of Black and Vaux’s swifts soaring above a lake just east of Seattle; three different chickadee species all perched in the same tree; a Wilson’s Snipe standing atop a fence post at the roadside; a Black Bear wandering up a mountain meadow; bull Elk in velvet antlers crossing the road into the pines; and on the final tour day, scope views of Lewis’s Woodpeckers at a nest tree, revealing the red face, pink breast, gray collar, and glinting dark green back that help make this such a gorgeous bird.
Although one cannot hope to see all the birds of Washington during a weeklong tour, this tour incorporates some of the richest spring birding possibilities in the Northwest—and with the luxury of spending most nights at the same comfortable inn, with diverse natural landscapes within reasonable driving distance.