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Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

May 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Spring has come here in the upper Skagit River valley and our April showers have indeed brought May flowers. With the increase of daylight and clear days, the valleys in-between the still snow-covered mountains have turned bright shades of green. The shorelines along the river and its reservoirs are in great contrast against the dark, evergreen hue of the high slopes. While the waking up of the forest rejuvenates even the deepest winter doldrums, there are surprises along the forest floor that bring spring’s energy forth for those willing to go look.

Calypso orchid (Colypso bulbosa) on Sourdough Mountain Trail. Photo by Dan Dubie

Our spring wildflower bloom has begun and is now in full swing. A few weeks ago, as the spring sun started to warm the floors of our valleys and deep forests, the first plant harbingers of spring began to grow. Just as our migrating birds returned to their homes for the summer, our resident perennial and annual wildflowers began their annual strive for life. Quickly after the snow leaves, the first herbaceous flowers to arise are those with energy reserves stored in corms or “bulbs” beneath the ground. These flowers quickly get to work, growing a few leaves and showy flowers that attract the early spring flies and solitary bees. Examples of these are the glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflora), which is known to sprout through snow; the amazingly small calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa); and the bright white western trillium (Trillium ovatum), which shines like a light on our deep, moist forest floors.

» Continue reading Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

Photo Roundup: May 7 2017

May 7th, 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.

Rufous hummingbirds in Diablo, Washington. Photos by Daniel Dubie

A fun photo by graduate student, Daniel Dubie, watching the rufous hummingbirds take over his bird feeder in the town of Diablo. These feisty hummingbirds are common visitors to bird feeders and can be quite territorial, chasing much larger visiting bird species away. Don’t let their tiny size fool you – despite being just over three inches long, rufous hummingbirds travel roughly 4,000 miles from Alaska to Mexico (one-way), during their long migration each year.

Heartleaf twayblade (Listera cordata), a small orchid, near Ross Lake trailhead. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) on the Fourth of July Pass Trail. Photo by Daniel Dubie

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: May 7 2017

Spring Bird Migration in the Upper Skagit

May 2nd, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Here in upper Skagit River valley – a window into the mighty mountains of the North Cascades – spring is in full swing. Along with the milder temps and the breaks in the clouds, we are also welcoming a flurry of seasonal bird species that call these mountains home for the summer. Over 50 species of migratory birds of all types breed in these mountains and use the Skagit River as their door into the high country.

As the heavy snowpack still hangs to the mountains, the valley is slowly heating up, popping leaves and early spring flowers. Though our first migrating birds have been showing up since February, it’s only been since the middle of March that the breeding migrants have really begun to show up. In the cold spring rain, came the local breeders which have spent the winter in the warm temperate Puget Sound. The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), northern flicker( Collates auratus), spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) and familiar red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus rubern) showed up just as the snow was melting on the lawns and a few insects were emerging.

A northern flicker. Photo by Dan Dubie

Then on the first day of spring, March 20, the first swallows showed up. A flock of 15 violet green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) welcomed spring to the upper Skagit with their acrobatic insect catching flights over Gorge Lake. These birds eat only flying insects and many times are found congregating over fields and bodies of water. That day they were a sure sign of warmer times after a long wet winter.

A yellow-rumped warbler. Photo by Dan Dubie

After an unseasonably wet March, April brought warmer temperatures and few more beams of sunlight. The first week of April saw our first migrating warbler species, the yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata). A very prolific species, it is the first warbler to show up in many parts of the country. It has a beautiful robust trilling song that usually teeters off at the end. Being very showy, it is seen singing in most forest habitats and is distinguished by its bright yellow, black and white plumage while having bright yellow patches on its rump.

Following this first warbler, we’ve seen many more birds show up over the last three weeks. As the flowers have started blooming and the insects hatching daily, we’ve seen large numbers of the following species:

  • yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata)
  • ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula)
  • white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
  • tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)
  • northern rough-winged swallows Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
  • American robins (Turdus migratorius)
  • song sparrows (Melospiza melodia)
  • pine siskins (Spinus pinus)
  • rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorusrufus)
  • Chinese Teapots
  • Wholesale Chinese Teapots
  • Amber Spiral Bracelets

Other species that have been seen but in smaller numbers include:

  • common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
  • black-throated grey warbler (Dendroica nigrescens)
  • Townsend’s warbler (Dendroica townsendi)
  • Nashville warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla)
  • orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)
  • Wilson’s warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
  • Cassin’s vireo (Vireo cassinii)
  • Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii)
  • barn swallows (Hirundo rustica)
  • cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
  • Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)
  • chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)
  • red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
  • Townsend’s solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)
  • western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

Out of these bird species, I want to note the types which have traveled the farthest to reside in these deep forests and valleys. Many of our breeding warblers, our one western tanager, some swallows, some flycatchers, our hummingbirds and our vireos, all make an arduous journey which encompass thousands of miles and countless barriers. Some, such as the western tanager, are so bright and colorful that they yell “jungle” and surely they have just completed their journey all the way from the rainforests of Mexico and Central and South America. Many of our warblers, some in bright yellow and green plumage, also take on a huge journey from the tropics to join us here for our warm lush summer.

A yellow warbler. Photo by Dan Dubie

» Continue reading Spring Bird Migration in the Upper Skagit

Photo Roundup: April 23 2017

April 23rd, 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.

Photos by Kay Gallagher

The appearance of the sun at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center, has been a rare treat this spring. Last weekend, we had a few beautiful days of sunshine and everyone went out to soak up that vitamin D! Our on-campus graduate students kicked off their Easter with a gorgeous paddle around Diablo Lake.

A rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). Photos by Kay Gallagher

This little one and some friends have been hanging around the lilac bush in front of graduate housing in Diablo, anxiously waiting for it to bloom. Fun fact: a group of hummingbirds can be called a shimmer, a charm, a bouquet or a hover!

Beaver signs near Cascade River. Photos by Calvin Laatsch

Conference and Retreats Coordinator, Calvin Laatsch, saw some pretty distinct beaver markings on this tree along the Cascade River in Marblemount. Beavers, (Castor canadensis) cut down trees, shrubs and other available vegetation for food and building material. Beavers are considered ecosystem engineers – their dams slow the flow of water in a stream, creating wetlands which many native North American fauna species rely on. Dams also slow the movement of nutrient-rich sediment in a stream, causing it to build up in a pond. These sediments not only provide food for creatures who live at the bottom of the pond but also enriches the soil once the water drains away!

This week, Seattle City Light opened a flood gate on Diablo dam to let out excess water from the spring melt. Students walked onto the dam to learn the history of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and see the water cycle in action. Photo by Angela Burlile

A highlight for many students in the Wolverine trail group was our Sit Spot activity. Done each day, students are asked to find a peaceful place somewhere along the trail and to sit silently, making observations about the natural world around them. Photo by Angela Burlile

It was a gorgeous, sunny day on Friday and Lincoln Elementary School took full advantage of the clear skies and sweeping views of Pyramid and Colonial Peak for this group photo. Photo by Angela Burlile

Mt. Vernon’s Lincoln Elementary School arrived on Wednesday to participate in our Mountain School Program. Students explore how all parts of the ecosystem are interconnected through lessons and activities on the trails surrounding our Environmental Learning Center.

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: April 23 2017

Winter Birds of the North Cascades

February 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Here in the northern reaches of one of the most rugged and remote mountain ranges in the continental US, winter has brought traditional snows and a quite cool December. For many, winter in these mountains means cold rain, snow, and brief glimpses of sun. The landscape for the most part is asleep, resting under snow waiting patiently for the return of the sun and the life of its warmth. Not all are asleep and if you know who to look for, the forest and rivers are busy with our winter friends.

Birds are amazing creatures and even in these remote snowy mountains, glimpses of them can be seen on a daily basis. Winter is a time of scarcity but for the birds who can eke out a living here, the competition is low.  

Members of the finch family, common throughout northern North American, are regularly found here during both winter and summer. Two species that I have seen throughout the winter are the Pine Siskin Spinus pinus and the bright showy Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra. Both birds are exclusively seed eaters. The crossbills have highly adapted bills that cross over themselves and are used to pry open conifer cones, as their tongue then reaches in and grabs the seed.  Pine siskin have thin strong bills for prying into small cones such as hemlock and for extracting the small seeds of birches and alders. These two species are some of the stars here during the winter and can be noticed quite easily due to their highly vocal flocking habits.

A male red crossbill. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Pine siskin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

» Continue reading Winter Birds of the North Cascades

Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

January 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Hello and welcome to 2017 everyone! I am very pleased to greet you in the new year and share with you some of the changes we have recently seen in the Skagit. As we start winter and a new cycle around the sun I invite you to embrace the beginning of our calendar year and perhaps start phenological practices of your own. Welcome to winter!

Highway 20 is very quiet in the upper Skagit. Massive icicles are hanging from the rocks in the Gorge. Most of the trees are bare and almost no birds are heard singing in the branches. Winter has settled into the Skagit Valley. As fall ended and winter began we saw some notable phenological events in our watershed:

  • Nov. 19: Four Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on fish carcasses across the river from Cascadian Farms. Eagle sightings are increasing.
  • Nov. 21: Washington Pass on SR 20 closed for the winter.
  • Nov. 25: Mt. Baker Ski Area opens for the season.
  • Dec. 3:Daniel Dubie (C16 M.Ed. graduate student) saw approximately 20 Bald Eagles at the Samish Flats!
  • Dec. 4: The first snow fell at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.
  • Dec. 8: Nine Bald Eagles spotted on the drive between the Blue House and the ELC, two of which were juveniles.

Although it may seem quiet in the valley and upriver there are still many things changing around us, whether we notice them or not.

» Continue reading Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

30 Year Anniversary: A Look Back at 2016

December 31st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

As today marks the last day of 2016, what better place than Chattermarks to look back at the memories and highlights of the year here at the North Cascades Institute. I have only recently joined as a contributor to the blog and many of the posts this past year were submitted by guests, naturalists, C15 graduate students and Ben Kusserow – our previous blog editor who left intimidatingly large shoes to fill! Before I started the graduate residency program, I frequently came to Chattermarks to get a better idea as to what my life would be like in the upper Skagit and the work being done by the Institute. The first hand narratives, naturalist tidbits, and expertise of all these contributors painted a rich picture, helping to prepare me for this year of living in the North Cascades. I hope you’ve found their contributions as helpful and informative as I did. Enjoy this look back at 2016!

Mountain School

One last group photo before these 5th graders head back to Bellingham after three days of Mountain School.

In my mind there isn’t a program at NCI that can compete with the energy and enthusiasm of Mountain School. Hundreds of students from all over the state participate in the program during fall and spring, spending three to five days exploring the trails and learning about mountain ecosystems through interdisciplinary activities.

  • We always hope that when the students leave, they are taking with them positive and lasting memories. This year, instructors shared some of the letters they received from students in the post, “Dear Mountain School,” affirming our hopes.
  • In October, we were all excited to see Mountain School in the cover story of National Geographic. The article highlighted the importance of getting young people and people of color into our National Parks.

 

Naturalist Notes

Photo courtesy of Ben Kusserow, from his natural history project on bats in the North Cascades National Park.

2016 was full of educational opportunities here on Chattermarks. If you feel like your naturalist skills could use a brush up or you just want to learn something new, look no further. This year seemed to have a little bit of everything, from fungi to fire lookouts.

» Continue reading 30 Year Anniversary: A Look Back at 2016