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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 14 2017

May 14th, 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.

Photo by Alex Patia

North Cascades Institute Naturalist and graduate M.Ed. alumni, Alex Patia, snapped this photo of a Canada goose watching over her goslings near his front lawn in the town of Diablo. Canada Geese love to hang out on open lawns as they can feed on grass and (especially with their young) easily spot any approaching predators. These birds mate for life and pairs stay together throughout the year. Most Canada Geese do not breed until their fourth year.

Diablo Lake from the overlook off Highway 20. Photo by Angela Burlile

The North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center is right on the shore of Diablo Lake and it has been a fun little practice of watching it slowly change with the seasons. Much of the water in this lake is fed by glaciers in Thunder Creek Basin. Skagit gneiss (a mineral) or as we tell Mountain School students, ‘glacial flour’, is eroded by ice and flows down glacial streams, entering Diablo Lake. As the sun hits these tiny rock particles suspended in the lake, they reflect off this beautiful jade green color. In the spring and summer when runoff is higher, the lake gets brighter! The top photo is from this past week, the middle photo from December and the bottom photo from last July.

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: May 14 2017

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

Photo Roundup: April 16 2017

April 16th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

After a month long hiatus, the roundup is back! 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.

Capstones are a culmination of the work and passion behind each graduate students’ studies. For her capstone, Annah Young delivered an experiential presentation on food sovereignty and justice. Photo by Kay Gallagher

At the end of March, we celebrated the graduation of the 15th graduate cohort (C15) here at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. This group of individuals arrived to the ELC in the summer of 2015 and began a year long residency of teaching and learning in the North Cascades. Having just completed their final quarter at Western Washington University, grads returned to the Institute to present their capstone projects and receive their certificates in Non-Profit Leadership & Administration and Northwest Natural History.

 

The Passing of the Paddle ceremony with C15 and C16. Photo by Aly Gourd

During this week of capstone presentations, a little known ceremony – Passing the Paddle – occurs between cohorts. This tradition is a time for the graduating cohort to pass down a paddle to the newest cohort, symbolizing that they are now in control of the direction and movement of the program. Along with the paddle, the graduating cohort offers the newest cohort their final words of advice and wisdom and the expectation that this ceremony will continue on for future cohorts to come.

Top photo: Emma Ewert and Joe Loviska graduate in style. Bottom photo: C15 poses with graduate director, Joshua Porter, graduate coordinator, Lindsey McDonald and graduate professor, Nick Stanger. Photos by Joshua Porter

After the week of capstone presentations at the Institute, grads, family and friends headed down valley to attend the official graduation ceremony at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Photo by Angela Burlile

After what seemed like months of darkness and rain, the sun came out and it started to really feel like spring this week! There is still a lot of snow in the upper elevations but many of the trails around the Environmental Learning Center are clear!

Photos courtesy of WSDOT Flickr page

On Wednesday, we woke to news that a rockslide occurred on Highway 20, between Newhalem and Diablo. Unlike the avalanche that extended the stay of Henry M. Jackson high school, students participating in Mountain School were able to leave that day. The road remained closed to traffic into the weekend while WSDOT crews worked to move and break up the large pieces of rock that had fallen onto the highway. On Saturday afternoon, WSDOT opened the road to both lanes of traffic (though the highway still remains closed at mile 134 near Ross Dam trailhead). Check out more photos here on the WSDOT Flickr account.

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: April 16 2017

A Snowy Start to Spring Mountain School

March 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

There really wasn’t anything ‘spring-like’ about our first spring Mountain School session of the year. With almost a foot of snow falling the night before and continuing snowfall throughout the day, 5th grade students from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School arrived on March 6th to a winter wonderland at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

With a few lesson modifications, extra layers from our gear closet and frequent hot chocolate breaks, students and instructors took advantage of this seasonally atypical weather.

A Madison Elementary student enjoying some snowy exploration along the shore of Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

At Mountain School, 5th grade students spend three days examining the interconnectedness between abiotic (non living) and biotic (living) elements of an ecosystem through interdisciplinary and experiential learning activities. The late snowfall allowed instructors an opportunity to incorporate pieces such as the effects of snowpack on the local watershed, life in the subnivean zone (the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack) and winter adaptations of animals found within the park into their lessons.

Graduate student, Becky Moore, leads her trail group through the motions of the water cycle dance. Photo by Angela Burlile

For more on our first day of Mountain School, check out the video below.