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Dogwood First Leaf

A Question of Scale: Plant Phenology Across Time and Space

September 5th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Joe Loviska, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

March 20, 2016. I’ve been keeping an eye on the western flowering dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) out in the parking lot of the Learning Center. It’s a small tree, maybe twelve feet in height. Its gray trunk and branches are spindly, filling out the vague shape of a mop standing on its handle. This dogwood grows at 1,220 feet above sea level on the west slope of the Cascades. It occupies a site that has good southern exposure, with dry, well-drained soil and a closed canopy of Douglas firs above. All of these facts and more dictate the beginning of the spring season for this particular tree, which is today. Today its leaf tips are poking out. Yesterday they were not. My friend the dogwood tree is awake.

Now it just so happens that today, March 20, the 80th day of the year (DOY), is also the vernal equinox. That is, the year-long wobble of Earth’s axis has tilted in such a way that the equator is squarely facing the sun. Translation? Equal amounts of day and night across the globe. In the Northern Hemisphere, this means the first day of spring, right in time for the dogwood to open its buds. Coincidence? You decide.

» Continue reading A Question of Scale: Plant Phenology Across Time and Space

red huckleberry buds

A Phenology Fix

March 24th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

By Sasha Savoian, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

The shifting of seasons. Temperature begins to rise as the arch of the sun lifts. Winds push and pull pendulous crowns of Hemlock and Western Red Cedar while gusts careen through limbs of Doug fir. Rains drench the lichen and moss covered landscape. Sun surprises. Days overshadow night. Subtle, sweet scents of spring waft unexpectedly in a warm breeze. Buds begin to break. Robins appear overnight.

Red Huckelberry

A Red Huckleberry limb with breaking buds along the Diablo Lake trail at the Environmental Learning Center.

The shifting of seasons. Spring is recently arrived, but the harbingers have slowly appeared up here in the North Cascades at 1,200 feet: buds of Willow, Red Flowering Currant and Indian Plum awaken, the catkins of Hazel and Alder open and dangle in preparation of pollen release, Varied Thrush, Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Robins and Pacific wrens sing the morning alive, a frog note travels through the air at dusk. At least a few of us up at the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake are tuned to the frequency of phenology as we have eagerly awaited the firsts to unfurl. Phenology is essentially the study of seasonal cycles in the natural world, paying particular attention to the connectivity of the species within an ecosystem. Phenology encompasses events such as bird migration, phases of buds on trees and shrubs, hibernation and the hatching of insects related to changes in temperature, amount of sunlight and precipitation associated with shifts of seasons.

» Continue reading A Phenology Fix


Nature Notes: Phenology of the North Cascades Ecosystem

January 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute’s resident graduate students have the unique opportunity to live at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for the majority of the Environmental Education graduate program. Living in North Cascades National Park has more than a few perks. The backcountry is just a few steps outside of our back door and thousands of plant species and a diversity of wildlife are our neighbors. Living here also allows us to experience first hand the phenology of the surrounding ecosystem. As part of our graduate work, we take note of these environmental changes as we experience them. It may not be possible to accurately convey the magic of this experience, but we combined a brief list of our observations from autumn 2014 in an attempt to do so.



Larch needles beginning to turn on Maple Pass
  • In mid September, the vine maple leaves at the Learning Center began turning.
  • On the 21st a pika was seen dragging a false hellebore stem across Heather Pass trail.
  • Among the talus slopes near Heather Pass, a Northern flicker was heard and later sighted. Larches at Heather/Maple Pass were just on the brink of turning.
  • On the 27th black bear tracks were observed in the snowfield below Colonial Glacier.



Hydnellum peckii mushroom, certainly one of the most striking we’ve seen!
  • First week of October: the area around the Learning Center received record rainfall.
  • Early October: Summer Chinook salmon observed spawning in the Methow River.
  • Oct. 20th: pikas observed in talus slope below Cascade Pass.
  • Oct. 22nd: Sourdough Creek started flowing into Diablo Lake.
  • Mid to late October: the upper Skagit Valley’s array of fungal species were in full display.
  • Oct. 25th: the Oregon grape plants around the Learning Center trails no longer had berries.
  • Oct. 27th: black bear was seen on the Learning Center campus.
  • Oct. 28th: three mule deer (two does and one yearling) seen on the Learning Center campus.


  • Throughout the month: snow geese observed migrating down the Skagit Valley.
  • Nov. 11th: snow goose mates and goslings seen during a paddle on Diablo Lake, and black bear tracks were seen at Sourdough Camp.
  • Nov. 14th: a pika peeped at Heather Pass, and big leaf maple leaves crunch under feet at the Learning Center.
  • Nov. 22nd: bald eagle seen circling Ladder Creek Falls area in Newhalem.
  • Nov. 23rd: Highway 20 closes access to Washington Pass due to several slides and heavy snow.
  • Nov. 26th: first snow at the Learning Center (1200 feet).



Iced over roads by Buster Brown field
  • Dec. 2nd: multiple mammal tracks observed in the snow and mud on Diablo East trail: rabbit, possibly mink or fox, and deer.
  • Dec. 5th: almost stepped on a Douglas squirrel frantically running across path by the library at the Learning Center.
  • Dec. 12th: a windstorm and increased risk for landslides in the Skagit gorge caused graduate non-profit class to be dismissed early, and grads headed down valley for winter break.
All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
End of Mountain School

Seasons Change: Phenology and the end of Mountain School

November 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The changing seasons are a big deal in the North Cascades. 

This may seem like an obvious statement for an environmental learning center, but one in which I find more truth every day. As a person who spent so many formative years in the Middle East, a place where the changing seasons simply meant a change from “really hot” to “unbearably hot,” living in a place with four distinct, beautiful seasons brings a whole new set of knowledge.

As the new graduate student cohort (C14!), we spent our first few months at the ELC being introduced to this new, diverse ecosystem and the regular cast of characters around here. We learned the differences between fern types, how to tell a Mountain Hemlock apart from a Western Hemlock (it’s hard!), and all the types of ground cover we should try to avoid trampling in our excitement to explore. But we were also introduced to a concept still very much on our minds: phenology.

A quick internet search tells me that the definition of phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and how they are influenced by seasonal changes in climate, elevation, as well as changes from year to year. After a glorious late summer, it feels as if we’ve ramped up into phenological hyperdrive.

Sourdough Creek, which has been dry since our arrival at the ELC in late July, suddenly started flowing in late October, and it felt like a rite of passage for C14. Our first experience of the changing tides and our own evolution within this program. The waterfall at the top of the Sourdough Creek Trail which had slowed to a trickle with a dry stream bed over the summer now flows with a deafening roar. Suddenly we understand how avalanches and rock slides happen here. Green, leafy canopies that shaded us from the intense sun during our first grad school meetings gave way to picturesque golden walkways, then to skeletal brown arms that seem to reach for the sky in search of the elusive November sunlight. The pikas we once heard while passing talus slopes on campus have quieted down for the winter. Even Diablo Lake which greeted us in July with shades of turquoise, emerald, and serpentine now matches the color of the sky – a mix of blues and grays.


Aside from these beautiful, and occasionally stark, phenological changes we’ve witnessed, another major change has taken place: the end of the fall season of Mountain School. Cohort 14 got the sink-or-swim introduction to grad school, moving without rest from a month-long field expedition to a two week fall training at the ELC, and then into six weeks of teaching hands-on science curriculum to over 900 of western Washington’s fifth graders.

Much has been written about Mountain School over the years in Chattermarks, and with good reason. Along with the flora and fauna at the ELC, these energetic 10 and 11 year olds bring such a sense of life and activity to this ecosystem. For six weeks we taught lessons on rocks, the water cycle, and different biotic elements of this area, and found our own lessons changing with the seasons. We marveled right along with our students at the first sight of snow on Pyramid and Colonial Peaks, and then at the lowering snowline or, as I put it, the inescapable advance of winter. Our teaching flow and our choice of group games changed as sunlight waned and temperatures dropped. Hikes to the waterfall became less frequent, often being replaced by indoor lessons accompanied by hot chocolate.


Mountain School ended for the season on November 7th, the same day as the start of the Youth Leadership Conference. While the YLC deserves its own post, I will say that the theme of the conference – reflection and planning ahead – felt like a perfect way to mark the transition into the winter at the ELC. We too, staff and graduate students alike, are reflecting on the past weeks: lessons learned, experience gained, and goals for next season. We are planning for our own hibernation as programming at the ELC slows down and grad students turn our attention to non-profit management and curriculum design.

Very appropriately, just two days after the end of the Youth Leadership Conference and on the second day of the ongoing WildLinks Conference, we saw our first flakes of snow.

We are grateful for an amazing fall season of Mountain School, for the time to reflect and learn (indoors!) for the winter, and excited for the first 2015 session of Mountain School to begin which will, undoubtedly, carry with it a harbinger of spring.

Weekly Photo Roundup: January 15 2018

January 15th, 2018 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Every weekend I will post photos collected from various North Cascades Institute graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

This week graduate students in the M.Ed Residency Program returned from their holiday break. After three weeks of being gone, we all returned to see cold, white stuff everywhere at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Below is a video from Ashley Hill of students having a snowball fight while on a break from nonprofit class. Some of us couldn’t help but enjoy the newly fallen snow and the temptation to throw it at each other!

Graduate Student Charlee Corra caught a glimpse of deer enjoying the snow, too.

Photo of deer snacking by Marissa Bluestein

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: January 15 2018

Seasons in the Skagit: Spring

April 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Happy spring everyone! Winter proved to be quite the formidable season. At the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center we experienced heavy weather events, slides in the Skagit Gorge and even a snowy Mountain School session. As we move into spring the days are longer, the sun shines a little more often and the buds are bursting on the plants in the Skagit Valley. It’s getting greener every day!


After a quiet yet eventful winter, the road to the Environmental Learning Center is becoming busier. Snow slides occasionally blocked travel routes upriver, rain fell persistently in the lower valley, and snow-covered leaf buds stayed dormant, waiting for warmer days. As early as January, however, signs of spring were emerging in the valley. As winter ended and spring began we saw some phenological changes in the Skagit:

    • Feb. 9: A snowslide closed SR 20 at Newhalem. All WA mountain passes were closed.
    • Feb. 18: American robins (Turdus migratorius) are seen up valley.
    • March 18: Two western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta), rare migrant birds in the Upper Skagit, are seen near Diablo on the same day as a Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and a red-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
    • March 20: The official start of spring is marked by the Spring Equinox. Violet green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) and Ruby crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) are first seen in the Upper Skagit.
    • April 3: The daffodils (Narcissus) are blooming between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount.
    • April 9: A black bear (Ursus americanus) was spotted in Diablo.
    • April 14: There are open leaf buds on a dogwood (Cornus s. occidentalis) in Marblemount.


Phenology at the ELC

As spring progresses, the 16th M.Ed. graduate cohort (C16) are busy documenting phenological changes on a weekly basis at the Environmental Learning Center and in Marblemount. Here are some of our findings and notable observations:

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Blue House plot (facing northwest)

Sharing the Changes

As we move further into spring I find myself easily overwhelmed with the innumerable changes happening all around. If you are like me and find the many overlapping birdsongs and clustered plants hard to differentiate, here are two helpful resources that will hopefully aid in your species identification: the Cornell Lab Bird Guide and the UW Burke Museum botany and herbarium collections. I hope this season brings renewed energy and spirit to all in the NCI community.

Written by Smokey Brine – Phenology Graduate Assistant 
All photographs courtesy of Smokey Brine 

Weekly Photo Roundup: March 5 2017

March 5th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Naturalists and graduate students prepare for a new season of Mountain School. Photo by Angela Burlile

Smokey Brine, the phenology graduate assistant, explains how she tracks the seasonal changes at various plots around the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Angela Burlile

Mountain School instructors review the wolf debate, getting into character with the help of some fun costumes. Photo by Angela Burlile

Spring training wrapped up this week as naturalists and M.Ed. graduate students prepare for a new season of Mountain School. Together they reviewed curriculum, risk management protocol, new teamwork building activities, and more. On Monday, they will welcome Madison Elementary 5th graders, who will be attending Mountain School for their very first time!

Willow flower buds spotted on the road to Diablo. Photos by Dan Dubie

Beaked Hazelnut flowers blooming in Marblemount. Photos by Dan Dubie

Despite all the new snow this weekend, flowers are beginning to bloom down valley near Marblemount. While snow is projected for the rest of the week, we’re still hopeful for continuing signs of a new season.

Graduate students enjoying the fresh snow at Mt. Baker Ski Area. Photos by Kay Gallagher

Check out previous Photo Roundups here!

Title Photo by Angela Burlile