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2011 Instructor Exchange Eagle Watching

Time Along the Skagit: Eagle Watching With Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors

March 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Adventures

January can be warm on the lower Skagit and this late January Saturday was no exception. As Becky Moore, Alexei Desmarais and I arrived at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit River in Rockport, WA, we looked to see if there were any Bald Eagles present around the river.

As graduate M.Ed. students at North Cascades Institute, we live and study near the headwaters of the Skagit River. We had come to the river this morning to meet a fellow graduate student and along with the US Forest Service, provide an interpretive and educational experience for two unique organizations – Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors. Both organizations mean to bring families and kids to rural areas with open public lands, giving them opportunity to have fun and get outside.

That morning we met to learn about salmon and what they mean to the Skagit River and the animals, plants and humans that live here. We hoped to see Bald Eagles, which spend the winters here feeding on dead salmon which have spawned during the fall and winter. These salmon carcasses provide high energy food for many predators in this ecosystem.

Participants from the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors enjoying the afternoon learning about salmon ecology and the Skagit River watershed. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Having a large number of participants, we split up into four smaller groups, deciding to mix up their time with games and a chance to walk around and enjoy the river. In my group we decided to play a salmon game in which a group of folks are chosen to represent salmon fry which go out in the ocean, grab food, and make their way back to the stream where they were born without getting tagged by other folks who represent dangers such as whales, fisherman, eagles, and bears. We played the game a few times, increasing the numbers of dangers in order to show how hard it really is for a salmon population to sustain itself without a large robust population.

Students have fun while learning about salmon population! Photos by Daniel Dubie

As the day continued, we interpreted salmon and eagle ecology in relation to the Skagit River to our groups and visited the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. I feel that these peaceful and fun experiences here along the river and the land surrounding it, can be instrumental in forming relationships with the lan and our greater world.

Written by Daniel Dubie, avid naturalist and graduate M.Ed. student at North Cascades Institute. 


Springing into Learning: Graduate Spring Natural History Retreat

June 9th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

At the Institute, the graduate students of the 15th cohort (C15) have been hard at work this past year teaching Mountain School, assisting in adult programs and visiting non-profits, all while finishing assignments and trying to find some sleep! Every season though, the graduate students leave all that behind to learn from experts in the field and be fully immersed into the wilderness of the North Cascades. Last fall we worked with beavers and hawks. In the winter we dived into snow ecology and wolverines. Just last week, we ventured out on our last natural history retreat where we tracked our natural neighbors, captured native bees and kept up with all of the birds!


Our first stop was with author, photographer and educator David Moskowitz. Since the fall we as a cohort had been using his book Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest as our go-to guide on all things tracking. Having a class with the man himself was an experience all its own.


Using some of our newly acquired tracking skills.

» Continue reading Springing into Learning: Graduate Spring Natural History Retreat

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!)

2015 Classes & Family Getaways, Holiday Gift Certificates

December 1st, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News


North Cascades Institute is excited to announce new Winter and Spring Field Excursions just posted to our website and open for registration:

Dec 6: Salmon and Eagles of the Skagit with Libby Mills
Jan 17: Salmon on the Nooksack with Brady Green
Feb 8: Birding Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo with Joe Meche
Feb 21: Birding the Greater Skagit Delta with Libby Mills
Feb 22: Winter Tracking Snowshoe Excursion with David Moskowitz
April 3: Ross Lake: Exploring the Draw Down by Canoe with John Reidel

Class descriptions, pricing and registration at or (360) 854-2599.

We’ve also posted and opened for registration Family Getaways 2015, earlier than ever before! Plan ahead and choose your weekend for an epic family adventure at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in the heart of North Cascades National Park.

July 3-5, 2015 July 17-19, 2015 | July 24-26, 2015 August 14-16, 2015 | August 28-30, 2015 

Information and registration at


Tis the season! Once again we are offering our annual Extended Value holiday gift certificate promotion, where you can purchase $100 value towards 2015 Institute programs for only $80! Purchase before Dec. 22 and we’ll include a package of our blank note cards featuring art from Molly Hashimoto, John Cole and other Northwest artists. It’s okay to gift yourself and there is no limit on how many gift certificates you can buy!

Purchase by calling (360) 854-2599 or emailing

murrelet andrew reding

Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet in the North Cascades

November 15th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Maria Mudd Ruth

Maria Mudd Ruth presents from her book Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet at Village Books in Bellingham at 4 pm on Sunday, November 17, as part of our Nature of Writing Fall 2013 series.

William Leon Dawson (1873-1928), a well-respected naturalist, egg collector, and author was hot on the trail of the murrelet’s nest at the turn of the 19th century and wrote about his pursuits in his charming and authoritative book, The Birds of Washington, published in 1909.

Dawson was inclined to dismiss the Quileute Indian stories he had heard about murrelets nesting in trees in the Olympic Mountains, but that changed one morning when he was camping at Glacier “…on the North Fork of the Nooksak River, and near the foot of Mount Baker, having risen before daybreak for an early bird walk, on the morning of May 11, 1905, I heard voices form an invisible party of marbled murrelets high in the air as they proceeded down the valley, as tho to repair to the sea for the day’s fishing.” (Birds of Washington, p. 921-922)

Glacier is 24 miles inland from the nearest salt water. Dawson, like most naturalists and ornithologists at the time, could not accept the idea that a web-footed seabird would nest in trees in the forest–not to mention so far inland. Other birds in the alcid family to which murrelets belong nested on rocky cliffs, offshore islets, in burrows in coastal bluffs–not in the forest.

This inland sighting at Glacier, however, allowed Dawson to be open to the possibility of a forest-nesting seabird. Following his sightings at Glacier, Dawson documented sightings of murrelets in California alone and with Joseph Grinnell in the 1920s. Both these men documented their sightings and thereby left a paper trail that eventually lead to the first nest discovery  in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains in 1974.


fledgling (tom hamer)A young murrelet about to fledge near the Snohomish River in western Washington. Photo by Tom Hamer.

In 1989, wildlife ecologist Tom Hamer was camping in Dawson’s stomping grounds in the North Cascades. Hamer had just finished nine years of spotted-owl research and was ready for a change. When he heard about a “strange creature” called the marbled murrelet, he wanted to see one. He joined some colleagues on a camping trip in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest along the South Fork of the Nooksack River. On his first morning, he heard and saw birds flying up the river drainage. A year later, he was surveying murrelets in the forest here and, using his own invented strategy for finding murrelet nests, found first marbled murrelet nest in Washington.

With his characteristic enthusiasm, energy, and brilliance, Tom Hamer began collaborating with other biologists in the 1990s to develop nest-finding strategies so the breeding habits of the murrelet could be understood. Through the Pacific Seabird Group and now through his own consulting firm, Hamer Environmental (based Mt. Vernon WA), Hamer’s contribution to murrelet research is major, critical, and highly respected in the scientific community.


Excerpts from Maria Mudd Ruth’s Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet (Reprinted by The Mountaineers Books, 2013), courtesy of the author.

Leading photo: ancient murrelet flicking tail up as it prepares to dive deep at the intersection of Bellingham and Guemes Channels near Anacortes.  © 2013 Andrew A Reding.


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


Backyard bird sightings

June 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“There’s a bird outside the window,” I said. “I think it’s a Spotted Towhee.” I turned to look at my dad who was cooking at the stove. “Is that the right name for them…? I can’t remember if that’s the new name or the old name…”

“A Spotted Towhee?!” My dad sounded excited. He dropped the wooden spoon onto the counter and quickly walked over to look out the window over the sink. “Wow,” he said, “and look! There’s a baby!”

There was indeed a baby—fluffy, slightly disheveled, and not as distinctly colored as its parent.

“Look—it can’t fly yet,” my dad went on. I looked. It was hopping around on the lattice archway. The parent bird flew back and forth between the lattice and a nearby tree, but the baby stayed put, hopping, a couple of times nearly falling through the square holes.

baby towhee behind leavesTry as I might, I couldn’t really capture the baby Towhee on film. Everywhere it hopped, there was always lattice or leaves in the way. Photo by Ryan Weisberg
Spotted Towhee babyThis is what they look like without lattice and leaves in the way… (photo courtesy of Google images)

My confusion over old names and new names happens a lot with birds. The Spotted Towhee was formerly known as the Rufous-sided Towhee, before it was discovered to be a different species than the Eastern Towhee. Now both birds have different names. The same thing happened with one of my favorites, the Winter Wren, which now refers to the Eastern species, while Pacific Wren is our Western species of the little brown bird.

Though I do enjoy the company of small birds with beautiful songs, I can only identify six of the small-to-medium-sized variety of birds by sight, five of which I also know by ear. I would say that I’m working on this, but that would be only half true. I seem to enjoy learning about birds when I’m able to just pick up little bits of information. If I sit down and try to study it, I lose interest. Not so for plants, but for some reason this is how it is for me with birds. I guess the birder inside me is still a work in progress…

Leading photo: Adult Spotted Towhee. (courtesy of Google images)


Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.