Summer Birding Tips: Go Up and Go East
Go up in elevation, that is, and go east across the Cascade Range for the best of western Washington summer birding.
By Andy McCormick
We are fortunate to have one of America’s great mountain ranges in the Eastside Audubon service area, and summer is the time to explore up and over the Cascades to their eastern slope.
Mount Rainier and other Washington volcanoes, the North Cascades, and the Olympic Range also qualify for good summer birding, but for this article I am going to focus on areas in or close to Eastside Audubon territory and share my suggestions about how to bird and what to expect based on my experience.
These areas are easily accessible from I-90, and I list them from west to east by exit number. Driving directions are drawn from Hal Opperman’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Washington, to which the citations refer. (Opperman, H. . A Birder’s Guide to Washington. American Birding Association, Colorado Springs, Colorado.)
Photo: Mountain Bluebird, by Mick Thompson
Exit 32: Rattlesnake Lake (Elevation 1,000 – 1,500 feet)
The first stop I recommend off I-90 gets you above the foothills. You will still be in mixed deciduous woodland, with moist meadows and small lakes providing good habitat for flycatchers such as Olive-sided, Pacific-slope and Willow.
Other birds you can find at this elevation are Rufous Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Western Tanager, and Pileated Woodpecker. (Opperman, page 168.)
Exit 52: Snoqualmie Pass (Elevation 3,000 feet)
A stop at the pass puts you into a conifer forest at the edge of the subalpine region. The Pacific Coast Trail can be accessed from the north end of the first parking lot for the West Summit chair lifts, located to the right from the exit ramp at the West Summit exit. You can bird in the forest along the trail and look for Sooty Grouse, California Quail, and possibly Townsend’s Solitaire.
In addition, birding along the shrubs around the parking area and walking up along the north (right) side of the ski slope through a brushy area could lead you to Willow Flycatchers and Yellow and MacGillivray’s Warblers. (Opperman, page 269.)
Exit 62: Stampede Pass (Elevation 3,700 feet at the pass)
A worthwhile stop on the Eastern slope of the Cascades. The swampy area just in from the freeway is a good location for several species of woodpecker, including Red-breasted Sapsucker and Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers.
Both Vaux’s and Black Swifts are possible. Townsend’s Warblers have been seen here as well.
You can continue along the dirt road to Stampede Pass itself in search of birds at a higher elevation. (Opperman, page 271.)
Exit 80: Cle Elum Area Elevation 2,247 and ascending
From the exit, cross the freeway to go north toward Roslyn on Bullfrog Road. Bullfrog Pond will be on your left behind the guard rail. Parking is on the right beyond the pond and just before a road. This is an excellent spot to get close to many bird species.
Cross the road and walk south inside the guard rail, then down a gravel road past a small building. Highlights here include Warbling and Red-eyed Vireo, Veery, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and several woodpecker species. Western Bluebirds are also seen in this area. (Opperman, page 273.)
Northern Pacific Ponds
Also called Railroad Ponds by many birders, this is an area of mixed habitats. The pond is nesting grounds for Hooded and Common Mergansers, Wood Ducks, and other waterfowl.
Shrubby habitat is good for Nashville and Yellow-rumped Warblers, possible Mountain Chickadee. Snags along the north side of the road house nesting Pygmy Nuthatches and Western Bluebirds. Osprey and Turkey Vulture are common in summer.
To get here from Bullfrog Pond, continue on Bullfrog Road, turn right onto SR-903, then right onto Stafford Street, then pass under I-90 and immediately turn right onto Charter Road. (Opperman, page 277.)
Head back to SR-903 and turn right to continue into Cle Elum. A drive east along 2nd Avenue is recommended for Eurasian Collared-Doves along the wires, Evening Grosbeaks in many of the trees, and House and Purple Finches and American Goldfinch in yards and at feeders. (Opperman, page 277–278.)
Leave SR-903 to bird along Airport Road before taking SR-970 east. At the junction of SR-10 go right to the bridge over the Teanaway River.
Search under the bridge for American Dipper, and walk back along the road birding both sides in the shrubs surrounding the pond and in the Black Cottonwoods for various warblers, sparrows, Western Wood-Pewee, Pileated Woodpecker, and Western Tanager.
Various ducks can be found on the pond. (Opperman, page 278.)
I highly recommend continuing east along SR-970 to the Teanaway and Swauk Prairie area. Turn left at Teanaway Road, then take the first right for Ballard Hill Road. Drive past the farm looking for Black-billed Magpie, then up the hill as the road turns to gravel. Listen for Western Meadowlark in the grasses and watch for American Kestrels kiting over the field.
Continue to the end and turn left on Swauk Prairie Road (watch for Chipping Sparrows at the intersection), then immediately left into Swauk Cemetery at about 2,300 feet in elevation.
The cemetery is a Ponderosa Pine wood that forms a bit of an island in the surrounding meadows and agricultural fields and attracts a variety of birds, including Pygmy Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee, with Red-tailed Hawks often flying low over the hill.
The area can have surprises: I have seen Red Crossbill, White-headed Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker in the cemetery.
Upon leaving the cemetery, turn left onto Swauk Prairie Road and then immediately onto a dirt road where you’ll want to watch the fences for Western and Mountain Bluebirds and Vesper Sparrows.
The road turns to the right and rejoins SR-970, where you can turn right to return to Cle Elum or turn left toward the intersection with SR-97.
On SR-97 you can go north to Blewett Pass or south to Ellensburg to rejoin I-90. A detour along Bettas Road provides a side trip on the way to Ellensburg and the decision whether to return by I-90 or just keep on birding. (Opperman, page 283.)