Spring in the Washington Cascades: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Jun 05—11, 2016

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 Spring in the Washington Cascades tour begins in Seattle and comes at a perfect season to bird across the Cascade Mountains and among the varied habitats near Leavenworth, Washington. Just over 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 Violet-green Swallows fluttering at the balcony railing, Common Mergansers flying up the river, or pairs of Vaux’s Swifts chattering overhead in synchronized flight.

On short walks near our lodging, which is set in Ponderosa pine woods, we had excellent views of White-headed Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, California Quail, and Black-headed Grosbeak. One of VENT’s Relaxed & 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. While we scoped an American Dipper standing on a stone in Icicle Creek, Rafael spotted Harlequin Ducks farther up the rushing stream. Taking positions on the bridge over the creek, we watched as a beautifully patterned male Harlequin Duck came bobbing down the fast-moving waters. The duck would float on the surface for a moment, then dive under in search of prey, and then reemerge ever closer to our viewpoint, finally cruising right under the bridge to continue its bobbing and diving until it disappeared downstream. A few moments later, it flew back upstream, likely to start the process all over again.

One morning 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, a pair of Peregrine Falcons screamed and glided back and forth until one of the pair rocketed across our view on a high speed stoop, snatching a swallow in midair. At other stops in the canyon, a Lewis’s Woodpecker swooped from pine branches as it caught insects in midair; Yellow-breasted Chats sang atop small saplings; a Canyon Wren sang its memorable glissandos; and a pair of Chukars walked off the roadside and up a rocky slope. Wet spots attracted hundreds of butterflies, many of them swallowtails. We picnicked among the songs of Cassin’s Vireos, grosbeaks, thrushes, chats, and other warblers, and then drove a bit higher into the canyon where a Northern Pygmy-Owl flew in and perched in the pines for superb scope views and photos.

In the Wenatchee Mountains one morning, we parked along a vast camas meadow backed by mountain conifer forest. Iridescent male Lazuli Buntings sang from perches atop the shrubs as tiny male Calliope Hummingbirds with purple gorgets held vigil over their territories while perching on bare twigs. Nashville and MacGillivray’s warblers sang from brushy places, and Townsend’s Warblers sang from the conifers. In an aspen grove, Red-naped Sapsuckers, Cassin’s Finches, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees mobbed an owl imitation—soon followed by a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers—one of the most anticipated birds of the tour. A bit farther along the road, a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers showed nicely as they bounded from tree to tree. An Evening Grosbeak dropped down to the roadside just a few feet from the group, picking up bits of gravel for its gizzard with its massive bill, while gorgeous Western Tanagers called overhead.

Early in the trip while still on the west slope of the Cascades, we had watched a pair of Red-breasted Sapsuckers at a nest cavity—giving us all three Western sapsucker species during the course of the tour. On other days in the higher elevations of mountain forest, we had great views of a petite Pacific Wren, lovely yellow and black Townsend’s Warblers, “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows, and Rufous Hummingbirds—as well as a sneaky pair of Varied Thrushes. At a tiny pond in the arid Columbia Basin, we watched a trio of Virginia Rails walk out from the cattails and approach within a few feet of the vans.

Washington is a big state with many kinds of natural landscapes, so it’s impossible to see all of its birds in a week-long tour. But VENT’s Spring in the Washington Cascades tour incorporates some of the richest spring birding possibilities in the region, and with the luxury of spending most nights at the same comfortable inn, with diverse wild country within reasonable easy distance.