Thursday, August 21, 2014

Aug 20 (Day 232) - North Cascades Highway traverse, Great bird find!

First, Sonia got a big promotion today! She is now a Senior Travel Manager at Cognizant. We are both very happy for her. She is very deserving of this recognition.

I knew today was going to be one of the toughest days of the year.  I managed to cross the very long, very challenging 78-mile stretch from Mazama, WA on the eastern side of the North Cascades to Marblemount on the Western side. However, this is only half of the story. I also took a 6-hour, 8-mile hike that climbed ~2,300' into the mountains. This made for 6 hours of biking and 6 hours of hiking today. I am exhausted. I am going to give myself a day off tomorrow and do some local birding around Marblemount; This will let my legs and ass heal after a grueling day today.

Simply put, this ride is absolutely incredible. The well-maintained Highway 20 runs through some of the most unspoiled wilderness in the Lower 48 States. It was just sprawling forest surrounding the amazingly rugged peaks that rise high above treelike. This area is too rugged for a ski industry to have developed (yay!), so its still very pristine unlike much of Utah and Colorado. I am just gonna start throwing out photos since I took a lot of them today.

Local birders Victor and Libby Glick 
recognized me on the road just as
I started the big climb!

View up the last 4 miles of the killer 18-mile, 3,700' 
climb to start the day. I passed just below that 
huge formation right of center

View looking back down/west during 
the last mile of that same climb

Starting the descent after crossing Washington Pass

Now this is where things got really interesting. The Maple Pass hike that I did today just after crossing Washington Pass was potentially the single best day hike I have ever done. The road is great, but you simply must get a bit higher to really appreciate what's going on in the North Cascades!

I had a nice chat about birds and science with Scott Price
at the top of the pass

Besides the incredible scenery, there was a bird-motivated reason behind this hike. In speaking with a long-time birding friend, Barry Lyon, he suggested that I look for Gray-crowned rosy-finch on the hike to Maple Pass. His rationale was that I was already going to be at 5,000' when I biked by the trailhead, so what effort was it to climb to  ~7,000' (easier said than done)? If I could find the bird here, it would mean I might be able to skip Mount Rainier. Rainier NP is a very reliable place for this species since it is heavily glaciated; Rosy-finches like it high and cold. However, Rainier would be a bit of a detour back to the east from my potentially more coastal route. It would also require biking back up to 5,000 feet of elevation (from sea level) and hiking to around 8,000 feet to have a good shot at the birds. This would be a lot of effort. With all of this in mind, I arrived at the trailhead, stashed my bike in the woods and began the amazing hike pictured above. 

Birding was slow on the ascent. I did find one very nice mixed flock with Red-breasted nuthatch, both Kinglets, Brown creeper, and Chestnut-backed chickadee for year bird #521. This was one of those free birds I figured I would get this week. I thought I might also get Pacific wren or Varied thrush, but I dipped on these. I am sure both will be added in short order, so it's nothing to worry about. Reaching the top of Maple Pass, I was concerned that I was not high enough to find rosy-finches. There were some small patches of snow near where I stopped for lunch, but the most rugged areas with the best snow cover were a bit higher and inaccessible from where I was eating. Several people lunching at the same spot recognized me from the road - they had passed me on my bike while they were driving. I explained Biking for Birds and how I was looking for a small finch that I was not optimistic about finding. Not two minutes later I heard a very distinctive buzzing sound coming from the cliffs to my right. What the hell? Could it actually be the finches? I leapt up and stared down the slope. It took me a few moments to locate the source of the sound, and when I did I saw a few birds flying up towards me at the pass. I didn't even need to see them to know what they were. The calls had already given them away. I got a short and quite unsatisfactory view of one of the birds as it crested at the ridge and disappeared up into the rocky formations above my head. 5 trailing birds with the same stocky, compact, finch shape followed for a total of 6 Gray-crowned rosy-finches. The look was a real let down compared to how well I saw Black rosy-finch and Brown-capped rosy-finch earlier in the trip. Needless to say no photo was obtained. I waited around for another 1.5 hours hoping they would return. They did not, and I will be forced to live with the brief, crappy view I got today. It was really the call that enabled the ID. 

The Rosy-finches were on this rock slide below me
and/or the rock face above me

I had to stick to my pre-determined 2:30pm descent time since I still had 52 miles to cover to reach Marblemount. Yes, most of it was downhill but it took 3.5 hours with a stiff 20 MPH headwind blowing west up through the valley. I arrived at my home for the night at 7:45pm, 13 hours after I rolled out the door in Mazama. It was a long day, but it was a visual beautiful and bird-productive one as well. Yes, I got really lucky with the rosy-finches today. However, I put myself in a position to be lucky by killing myself physically to reach Maple Pass. I can say without question that no one in the history of the world has burned more calories in a single day searching for this species. Big props to Barry for this idea!

With GCRF ticked, I have a lot more flexibility. The last "high" elevation bird that I need to find is Sooty grouse. This species isn't even a high elevation specialist; It's more low to mid elevation, but I'll still likely need to do some climbing to get it. I am now at 340' above sea level. This is the lowest I have been since I left High Island, TX on April 27/28! I will actually keep my eyes open for Sooty grouse as I bird above Marblemount tomorrow. The issue is that the best place to find this bird is Rainier, so I might end up going there anyway. The difference is that I only need to get one bird since I dealt with the rosy-finch today. I am hoping I can get lucky and find it between here and Rainier. This bird can also be found in Western Oregon and Northern California, both areas I will visit. However, I do not want to bypass Rainier since it is such a good spot for Sooty grouse. Unless I get some intel on other really consistent spots for this bird, I can't yet rule out a Rainier run. Washington and Oregon folks please chime in if you have ideas on this bird (

Lastly, I had a beautiful male Ruffed grouse in the road when I turned into my hosts's driveway at the end of my long ride. It was a really nice way to finish out an incredible day.

Midnight - bedtime!


  1. Not sure if you will hit Olympic National Park on the Washington coast? That is a great spot for Sooty Grouse. Better in my opinion than Rainier.

  2. Awesome day! Major climb on the bike AND major hike. You're a monster! Congrats on the GCRF.

  3. Hi Dorian. Don't let the eBird pin prick density fool you, as it's mostly an indication of birder density, not bird density. Mount Rainier is in no way the "best" spot for Sooty Grouse. This species is equally common all over western WA in suitable habitat.

  4. Mark's right about sooty grouse at ONP. Give me a shout if you head over to the peninsula. I'm just down the street from the park entrance up to Hurricane Ridge—not an easy ride up but lots of cyclists do it. Sooty's pretty reliable up there. You could nab a bunch of your shorebirds out here as well around Sequim (Dungeness area) and Port Angeles (Ediz Hook) and then out to the coast.

  5. Ah Dorian, you didn't see the RIGHT mountains in Utah and Colorado to see how pristine, and epic they are. You took the beaten path--where everyone goes and got what everyone gets. But off the beaten path, out of the way, the mountains in Utah and Colorado are top notch. But that's the limit of your bike I guess! Congrats on the Rosy-Finch.

  6. That huge feature is called the Liberty Bell, ye from Philadelphia, and I have skied it.

  7. Every now and then our Mother of Nature chooses one of us to be the recipient of one of her private and spectacular displays of beauty. Dorian, today was your turn to witness her show and fortunately you had a camera with you to preserve the wonderful and spectacular views to revisit over and over again. I envy you in the sights and sounds and views that you are experiencing . Those mountain views of the North Cascades are comparable to the views that I have experienced in my 3 1,000 mile bicycle rides through Alaska. I told you at the beginning of this epic adventure that this was more of a cycling event than a birding event. Whether you get 550 or 600 species is not relevant (that's the destination) it's the journey that makes this trip so important and memorable. You will soon forget where you spotted this or that bird but these memorable sights and tough climbs and wonderful people and small towns and stores and shops and camp grounds,. and visits in these remote spots by Sonia will stick with you forever. Be careful and stay safe.