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Youth Leadership Ambassador Trip Report: Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay

March 3rd, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County. While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trip and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Ambassadors will contribute blog posts covering their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Celeste Guzman and Ana Lopez, who share their field trip to the Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay. 

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Celeste Guzman

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors day was filled with birding at the Skagit Flats and checking out Padilla Bay with Park Ranger Jason Bordelon.

The group listening to Park Ranger Jason. Photo by Celeste Guzman

The group started out at the Skagit Flats where Park Ranger Jason taught us some cool birding lingo. For example, “hand me the bennys” actually means, “hand me the binoculars.” With our binoculars we saw many eagles, snow geese and swans.

After our lesson, the group had lunch outside where it was very windy and cold. After we finished our lunch the group drove to the Wiley Slough where we learned about Padilla Bay and how it’s an estuary at the saltwater edge of the large delta of the Skagit River in the Salish Sea. The group then walked down to Padilla Bay so we could check it out for ourselves. We all had time to think alone while others were skipping rocks.

Fellow Youth Leadership Ambassador, Aaron, walking along the shore. Photo by Celeste Guzman

Later in the day, the group came together and we talked about what we had learned and liked about the day. It was fun being outdoors even though it was windy and cold. It was also exciting to grow closer to other ambassadors during this trip.


Youth Leadership Ambassador: Ana Lopez

Our second field trip with the Youth Leadership Ambassadors was on February 11th 2017. We started off at the Skagit Valley Wildlife Reservation where we did some bird watching and saw many eagles. It was amazing! We learned some ways to tell the difference between birds, such as their size, the shape of their wings and the sound they make. After that, we went to Padilla Bay and learned about why they were protecting it. Since it is an estuary, which is surrounded by buildings and roads that can contaminate the water from oil, they decided they would build a place where they can teach others about how they can take care of the environment.

While bird watching we spotted two eagles in their nest! Photo by Ana Lopez

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassador Trip Report: Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay

Pacific Wren

Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)

November 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

By Rob Rich

I came to the Pacific Northwest for many reasons, but one of them was, well, for the birds. Were those harlequin ducks for real? What was so special about the Pacific wren? And oh, how I longed to see the red-shafted Northern Flicker! These were some of my last thoughts before finally chasing the sun towards the Salish Sea. But since most birds don’t migrate from East to West, I knew I’d need a guide to set me straight.

Thankfully, I’d planned North Cascades Institute’s Spring Birding to be my first stop upon arrival. That’s right, I signed up from 3,000 miles away, tossed out my moving boxes in Bellingham and settled first things first: learning birds in the field with Libby Mills.

If you too feel like a lost goose at times, do not fear. Spring Birding is back, as are a host of other older Institute favorites – and some new ones that look out of this world. Literally. Where else but North Cascades Institute can you take a class that is astronomically synchronized for the nighttime awe of photographers? And where else can you hang out with snake experts, or decipher the clues of wildlife tracks in our precious winterscapes? As always, the great unveiling of the Institute’s January-June courses will expose natural curiosities you never knew you had. Experienced and emerging naturalists alike will both be forced to reckon with a growing list of reasons why the North Cascades are where it’s at.

Night photo

» Continue reading Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)


Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest

September 30th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Upcoming events:

North Cascades Institute’s Birds of Bellingham Bay outing on the Snow Goose; Oct. 5, 8 am-5 pm, $125. Info and registration at or (360) 854-2599

Sarah Swanson and Max Smith presentation at Village Books in Bellingham; Oct 2, 7 pm, free. Info at

Sarah Swanson and Max Smith, passionate birders living in Portland, have created a fantastic new natural history guidebook with Timber Press called Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike other guides, Must-See Birds doesn’t attempt to describe every winged creature in our region but instead hones in on 85 species that provide a rich cross-section of the avian riches unique to Washington and Orgeon. Divided in to sections like “Beach Birds,” “Big Birds,” “Tree Trunk Birds” and “Urban Birds,” their tome tells the stories of each species, illustrated by sumptuous photographs and, most helpful, where to find them. It closes with eight distinct weekend birding trip itineraries, including “Nesting Season on the Central Oregon Coast,” “The Canyon Country of Central Washington” and “The Salish Sea in Winter.”

Swanson and Smith will bring their book to life when they join local bird authority Joe Meche to lead a day-long “Avifauna Afloat” exploration of Bellingham Bay aboard the Snow Goose with North Cascades Institute on October 5. We talked with them about Must-See Birds ahead of their visit.

Christian Martin:  How did you determine what birds in the Northwest are “must see”?

Sarah Swanson: The 85 birds in the book are ones that should excite birders and ones that they should be able to find and identify without too much trouble. We included species with interesting plumage and behavior and excluded ones that are too rare (Snowy Owl) or hard to identify for beginners (Pacific-slope Flycatcher).

CM: What is the larger goal of creating this guide?

SS: We want to get more people out birding and to help them expand their birding horizons geographically and taxonomically. The more that people enjoy birds and birding, the more they will do what they can to help protect birds and their habitats.

CM: What is unique about birds in our region?

» Continue reading Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest

Winter’s swan song

March 3rd, 2010 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

As anyone in the Skagit Valley may recall, this past Saturday wasn’t as bright and dry as some of the days previous. However, as stories like these usually begin, the weather was unsuccessful in deterring a group of enthusiastic kids from the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Project and some equally enthusiastic adults from the US Forest Service and North Cascades Institute from partaking in a day outside learning about and observing the birds of the Samish Flats.

Our adventure began on Saturday, February 27th in the morning at the Kulshan Creek Community Center in Mount Vernon. As the students trickled in, they were met with hot chocolate—provided by a generous parent—and snacks. Lee Whitford, outreach naturalist for the Forest Service, and Orlando Garcia, of the US Forest Service, and I helped get the students situated and the day rolling.

Before we headed out onto our field trip, Don Gay, a wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service, gave a great presentation about the life history and migrational patterns of the Trumpeter Swans that temporarily inhabit the coastal farmlands of the Skagit River Valley. “Ooohs and ahhhs” were murmured throughout the room when Don explained that if a Trumpeter Swan was turned on its side with its wings out, it would have a wingspan that could reach from the floor past the ceiling of the room we were sitting in.

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Group birding

Becoming bird observers

February 15th, 2010 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

A flit of gold. A flicker of green. Soft song notes from within a tangle of blackberry vines. A surprising whoosh of hovering wing-sweeps, mere inches above ground.

Birds. They are some of the Skagit Valley’s most compelling and charismatic creatures. In winter, the Skagit farmlands teem with all kinds – song birds, raptors, shorebirds, local and migratory waterfowl. You need not have fancy equipment nor years of experience to be a birder here. What it takes is the curiosity to know more and the patience to practice deep observation.

(Title) Graduate students of Cohort 9 extend their birding eye on the Skagit flats (Above) The Hayton Reserve is one Skagit Valley location to go bird watching

» Continue reading Becoming bird observers

Trumpeters flying

Watching winged friends

December 29th, 2009 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

When the crops of the Skagit farmlands are put to rest for winter, they come.

With the sky’s gray backdrop so common to a winter in western Washington, they glisten like diamonds. Birds. By the hundreds, thousands even, they flock from near and far to the fertile, tilled soils at the mouth of the Skagit River, one destination of many on their migratory journey.

Snow geese. Trumpeter swans. Bald eagles. These are but a few of the many species you will find on an adventure of bird watching across the flats. Other local residents, such as a variety of hawks and ducks, the barred owl, and the infamous great blue heron, paint an elaborate portrait in winter, making the Skagit Valley one of the most prized destinations for bird watching in the Pacific Northwest.

» Continue reading Watching winged friends