Camp Cascades Jul 30—Aug 10, 2016

Posted by Michael O'Brien


Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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After a hiatus of three years, we ran this camp again in 2016, with a crew of fourteen enthusiastic and talented young naturalists. It was a special treat to have Victor Emanuel himself as one of the leaders on this event. The year 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of VENT’s youth birding camps, and Camp Cascades has been part of that program for much of that time. Congrats to Victor on 30 years of mentoring the next generation of birders, naturalists, and conservationists!

Skyline Trail, Mt. Rainier

Skyline Trail, Mt. Rainier— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Our visit to the Pacific Northwest was intended as an immersion into this region’s diverse natural history, with two main segments centered in the Puget Sound area and the Cascades. Throughout, we were treated to excellent birding, spectacular scenery, and (for the most part) delightful weather. In addition to watching birds, we took time to appreciate how the landscape and plant communities changed as we traveled from one location to the next, and we always kept an eye out for mammals, herps, butterflies, dragonflies, slugs, and any other interesting critters that crossed our path. 

After gathering at Sea-Tac airport, we made our way directly to Whidbey Island and Camp Casey Conference Center, where we would spend our first four nights. This wonderful facility, located immediately adjacent to Fort Casey State Park and Crockett Lake, was not only well located for our explorations of the Puget Sound region, but it also provided some excellent birding opportunities during down time. In fact, campers quickly took to “yard listing” from Camp Casey, and amassed an amazing 81 species right from the property! A short walk to sea cliffs overlooking the Straight of Juan de Fuca allowed us to become acquainted with local seabirds such as Harlequin Duck; Pelagic Cormorant; Common Murre; Pigeon Guillemot; Rhinoceros Auklet; and Heermann’s, California, and Glaucous-winged gulls. Mixed forest and trails around Fort Casey State Park gave us our first looks at resident and migrant songbirds such as Anna’s Hummingbird, Olive-sided and Pacific-slope flycatchers, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Pacific Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Purple Finch, and Red Crossbill. And mudflats on Crockett Lake provided excellent opportunities to study “peeps” including Baird’s, Least, Semipalmated, and Western sandpipers, many in pristine juvenal plumage.

Seawatching at Fort Casey

Seawatching at Fort Casey— Photo: Louise Zemaitis


A little farther afield, we visited some magnificent old-growth forest at South Whidbey State Park. At home among giant Western Red Cedars, Western Hemlocks, and Douglas-Firs were numerous Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Brown Creepers, Pacific Wrens, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Red Crossbills, not to mention a few Banana Slugs! Our travels brought us to several lakes and ponds, such as Kah Tai Lagoon where we had excellent views of Virginia Rail, Marsh Wren, and numerous waterfowl. Exploring coastal lagoons and shorelines produced sightings of Red-necked Grebe, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, and Mew Gull. And a real highlight for everyone was a two-hour boat trip to Protection Island. Although fog made viewing conditions challenging at times, we had a very successful trip, with highlights including Brandt’s Cormorant, Red-necked Phalarope, Marbled Murrelet, and close views of a Tufted Puffin!

Camp Cascades 2016 at Fort Casey

Camp Cascades 2016 at Fort Casey— Photo: Michael O’Brien


The second phase of our trip began on day five as we transferred from Whidbey Island to Mt. Rainier, a drive of about three and a half hours. A broken down van turned this into a longer day than planned, but we made it to Cougar Rock Campground by late afternoon, just in time to see our first Varied Thrush along the roadside, and set up camp as light was fading. During our time on Mt. Rainier, we took several wonderful hikes, each one slightly different. On Wonderland Trail, we enjoyed leisurely views of a juvenal American Dipper, and also had nice studies of a Hammond’s Flycatcher. A thwarted attempt at a hike above Sunrise turned into a wonderful birding experience as we spent more than two hours sorting through a large mixed flock of warblers and sparrows, with highlights including Mountain Bluebird; Orange-crowned, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, and Townsend’s warblers; Brewer’s Sparrow; and Cassin’s Finch. Short walks around our campgrounds were always rewarding, with several sightings of Varied Thrush being reward for those who got out early, and a small group of American Pikas being a real surprise so far below treeline at Cougar Rock Campground.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse— Photo: Michael O’Brien


One day, a short excursion to the east of Cascade Crest at White Pass brought us to much drier “rainshadow” habitats and a very different set of birds. We stopped first among the Ponderosa Pines at Snoqualmie National Forest, where new species included Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and White-breasted Nuthatch. But woodpeckers were the real highlight here, with prize sightings of Williamson’s Sapsucker and White-headed Woodpecker bringing smiles to all faces. Nearby, we also visited Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Again, woodpeckers stole the show, with an amazing tally of 28 Lewis’s Woodpeckers, along with Say’s Phoebe, Black-billed Magpie, and Lazuli Bunting. 

No doubt the highlight of our time on Mt. Rainier was our all-day hike on Skyline Trail. This glorious seven-mile loop took us from the Paradise Visitor Center to above treeline beyond Panorama Point. Beautiful sunny skies greeted us that day, making for endless photographic opportunities, both of the rugged landscape and the abundant wildflowers. Butterflies were particularly abundant on that hike, and we enjoyed the opportunity to work on identifying blues and fritillaries. Among thirty-seven species of birds we logged on that hike, highlights included Golden Eagle, Calliope Hummingbird, Prairie Falcon, Gray Jay, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. But the real icing on the cake was having prolonged views of four Sooty Grouse: the first was a male walking across the trail and dust-bathing right next to us; then a short ways down the trail, a female with two chicks allowed even closer views! 

A big thank you goes out to Leica Sport Optics, the American Birding Association, and Black Swamp Bird Observatory for co-sponsoring this camp.