Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Jun 07—13, 2015

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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Just two hours east across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle, Leavenworth is a superb base for a spring nature tour in the state of Washington. Near the confluence of Icicle Creek and the Wenatchee River, Leavenworth looks up at splendid snowcapped 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 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 near the lodge, and Pygmy Nuthatches are regular visitors to the pines here. The town a mile away features some very nice restaurants.

The tour comes at a perfect season to bird across the Cascade Mountains, and great birding spots lie within a short distance of Leavenworth—an amazing assortment of mountain, canyon, streamside, and sagebrush. On the first full day of our tour, we got in a bit of birding the first morning west of the mountains, not far from Seattle: Red-breasted Sapsucker in the lowlands, and then on the higher slopes we watched a beautiful Varied Thrush collect a beakful of insects in the shade of tall conifers and a tiny Pacific Wren singing its startlingly long and fast song. After crossing a mountain pass to the east slope, new sightings followed quickly that first day: a female Barrow’s Goldeneye with two small ducklings, a pair of American Dippers jumping into a rushing creek, and a female Harlequin Duck with seven tiny ducklings sitting atop a boulder in the stream.

The following day’s birding led us into the Wenatchee Mountains, along back roads at about 3,000 feet elevation. Sparkling male Lazuli Buntings sang from shrub tops, and Calliope Hummingbirds with purple gorgets perched overlooking their territories. Nashville and MacGillivray’s warblers sang from brushy places, and Townsend’s Warblers sang from the conifers. We watched three species of chickadees in the same tree, and both Cassin’s and Purple finches peered down from the tree tops. Nice views of a Red-naped Sapsucker were soon followed by a wonderful study of a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers displaying side by side, a twosome so different in appearance they were once labeled distinct species. Evening Grosbeak pairs perched in the firs, and a much-anticipated Northern Pygmy-Owl, all 6 ¾ inches of it, called from a bare snag. After a nice afternoon break at the hotel during the hottest part of the day, we watched gorgeous Western Tanagers forage along the scenic upper reaches of Icicle Creek and were fortunate to get a terrific view of a White-headed Woodpecker.

On another day, we drove up a canyon in the Entiat Mountains, birding a variety of spots as the habitats change with elevation. Near a tall basalt cliff just above the Columbia River, White-throated Swifts sped across the rock face above. Closer at hand, we watched a Rock Wren sing from a boulder, Bullock’s Orioles shone vivid orange in the shrub tops, and a Yellow-breasted Chat sang atop a flowering shrub. Clark’s Nutcrackers and another White-headed Woodpecker, among many other birds, greeted us higher in the canyon. A Chukar posed high on the canyon wall on a later visit to the lower canyon.

On other days we explored the sage and pothole lakes, where Yellow-headed Blackbirds clamored and a pair of Virginia Rails showed nicely at the edge of a pond. In the pines near Umtanum Creek, a Lewis’s Woodpecker pair posed for the spotting scopes, showing off the red face, pink breast, and glinting green back that make them among the most beautiful birds of all woodpeckers. Nearby, we scoped a Gray Flycatcher—one of nine species of flycatchers for the tour—as it called from a bare branch. Mountain and Western bluebirds hovered near their nest boxes.

Washington is a big state, and you can’t hope to see all of its birds during one week in June. But VENT’s Spring in the Washington Cascades tour makes the most of some of the richest spring birding in the Northwest.