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Summer’s end in the North Cascades

August 24, 2010

As happens far too often it seems, Marg and I realized last week that we hadn’t done any hiking in the high country yet this year, so we blocked off a couple of days this past weekend and headed for Manning Park.  We stopped in Princeton on the way to take in a day of the Princeton Traditional Music Festival—we’d heard of this small gem of a festival before but had never made it up the Similkameen while it was on.  What a great event—an d free to boot!  A bit of a cold front rolled in late Sunday afternoon, but Ex Pirata International Company (clearly the crowd favourite) kept everyone warm with their fantastic French accordion and Canadian fiddle tunes.

The Winthrop Range (left) and Mount Frosty (right)

We dragged ourselves away from the music and continued along Highway 3 up into the North Cascades and Manning Park.  It was clear that the dog days of summer were over when we woke on Monday morning to low clouds and 3°C (37°F) temperatures.  After a lazy start (breakfast in Pinewoods!) we drove up to the alpine meadows and started out on the Heather Trail.  By then the sun was out and the water drops from last night’s rain were glistening from every leaf in the meadows.  A perfect day for a hike.


Male Spruce Grouse

A lot of songbirds obviously felt it was a good day to be on the move, too, and we were in almost constant contact with mixed species flocks.  Juncos were the commonest members of these flocks, the juveniles looking a bit ratty as they’d almost—but not quite—completed their moult into their first winter plumage.  Mountain Chickadees gave their nasal calls, joined by the even more whiny-sounding zitzi-dzay of the Boreal Chickadees.  Townsend’s and MacGillivray’s Warblers added a bit of yellow splash to the flocks, while Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets flitted nervously in the branches.  A few Townsend’s even tried to sing now and then, perhaps stimulated by the shortening day length, now the same as that in April when their breeding season begins.  At the creek crossing a Pacific Wren gave the chit-chit call typical of its newly-minted species.

Male Sooty Grouse

The Heather Trail is a great route for seeing grouse, and it wasn’t long before we saw the first trio of Spruce Grouse, their tails obviously foreshortened by active moult, with the new, jet black feathers barely extending beyond the white spangles of the upper tail coverts.  A few hundred metres later we saw a female Sooty Grouse with two large young, then at the two-kilometre mark heard the insistent hooting of a male Sooty.  Marg soon spotted him as he walked through the heather, pausing to inflate the egg-yolk-yellow air sacs on his neck and give the deep hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo call meant to attract mates.  He was obviously a bit over-optimistic if he felt the female nearby was thinking of nesting again this season, but I guess it never hurts to try.  This is an interesting site to check out Sooty Grouse, since the Heather Trail is right on the contact zone between this coastal species and its Interior cousin, the Dusky Grouse.  The two are very similar (formerly considered one species, the Blue Grouse), but differ in a number of features.  The Dusky Grouse in this area have all-black tails, while those of the Sooties are broadly tipped with pale grey.  The males of both species give the series of deep hooting calls, but the calls of the Dusky are so low-pitched that I can’t hear them even when the bird is right in front of me.  Another difference is the colour of those neck sacs on displaying males—instead of yellow sacs, the Dusky has dark reddish-purple sacs.

Fritillary nectaring on aster flowers

Most of the flowers in the meadows had set seed already—the tousled heads of the western anemones, the green pods clustered on wood betony stalks.  The greenish flowers of the hellebore were tipped brown and had lost the watermelon scent they have when fresh.  The flat-topped masses of cow parsnip flowers were covered in flies taking advantage of the warm afternoon for another good feast.  Many people think of bees when they think of pollination, but white flowers such as the cow parsnip are usually pollinated by flies.  A few paintbrush flowers still glowed scarlet against the dark green meadows, and a lone hummingbird refuelled on one of them, then buzzed down the ridge before I could get a good look at it.  Probably a Rufous.

Fly party on cow parsnip flowers

We climbed up through the old burn (still very much an open meadow 65 years after the fire) and had lunch on Big Buck Ridge, with a view to the Cathedrals in the east, the Winthrops and Frosty to the south, and the spire of Hozameen in the southeast.  The skies were a little hazy with forest fire smoke but the scene was still breathtaking.  A Pine Grosbeak ate its lunch of grouseberries beside us while ravens played on the afternoon wind.  Next year we will do more of this.  I promise.

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