Washington: Birding with a Camera® (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera Tour. The goal of the tour is to see a lot of great birds but also, to take great photos of certain species. This tour is timed for when the birds are starting to breed or already breeding, meaning that most of the species are in the best breeding plumage, and are very active at this time. A lot of time will be spent with each individual species, and the size of the trip list is not a priority.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, with Covid-19 in mind, here are guidelines and tour practices, which we aim to adhere to: US Tours Covid Policy Update.

Washington, the “Evergreen state” is rightly famed for its dramatic scenery, but is often overlooked as a premier destination for bird photography. This photo tour combines the Olympic Peninsula, with its yawning miles of coastlines and forests bordering this, with a trip into the east of Washington, where forested highlands and sagebrush lowlands will be on the agenda, along with a multitude of wetland areas. Thus, the tour will visit a bounty of excellent bird habitats, including dramatic jagged mountains, glacial valleys, and ancient old growth forests, as well as the seemingly endless western coastlines. When many people think of Washington, they think of the coast and waterbirds. This indeed applies to this tour with birds like Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser likely on the Olympic Peninsula part. However, an abundance of songbirds breed in the state, particularly in forests and steppes in the east. We will be visiting areas of the scenically-stunning cascades to seek out photographs of species like Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and Western Tanager, in addition to inland breeding waterbirds like Ruddy Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye. It cannot be overstated quite how oddly underrated this region is for the bird photographer; this tour will provide an abundance of proof of this. On many days we have multiple options on where to photograph birds in a vast region with plentiful habitats and breeding birds all around, and so the detailed day plan will often evolve based on what species we are still looking to photograph at that point.

Day 1: Arrival in Seattle. Following afternoon arrivals, and an airport transfer, the group will meet for dinner in the evening at our local Seattle hotel. The day plan will be outlined in the evening by your guide, who will also give some tips on some photography principles to take into the field with you the next day. A single night will be spent near the airport in Seattle.

Colliope Hummingbirds will have returned to breed
Colliope Hummingbirds will have returned to breed (Ben Knoot)

Day 2: Seattle to Neah Bay. The tour will start with a ferry ride to the Olympic Peninsula, where we will explore the coast at the western end, around Neah Bay. This place is steeped in history, being home to the Makah tribe, who have referred to themselves as “the people who live by the rocks and seagulls”. Neah Bay offers excellent coastal birding at this time of year, as seabirds have moved in en-masse to breed, and the vegetation closeby is home to breeding songbirds too. Out in the bay, we may find seafaring birds such as the multi-hued Harlequin Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-throated and Common Loons, Red-necked Grebe, Marbled Murrelet, and Rhinoceros Auklet, while in the coastal vegetation the beautiful sounds of the Varied Thrush may be heard, and the peninsula is also home to Golden-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Spotted Towhee, and Pacific Wren. Bald Eagles are particularly abundant and conspicuous in the area, while shorebirds combing the beaches could include Western Sandpiper, looking at their very best in this season. A single night will be spent in the village of Neah Bay.

Eared Grebes are dashing in this season
Eared Grebes are dashing in this season (Ben Knoot)

Day 3: Neah Bay to Sequim. Today we will move east along the Olympic Peninsula to Sequim, home of the excellent Dungeness NWR. This will not only provide further chances at birds on the water, but the primary focus will be on the riparian woodland habitats, which abound with breeding songbirds at this time. Feeders at the center may feature species like California Quail, Steller’s Jay, and Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds. The old growth woods beside, (comprised of alders, cedars, firs and cottonwoods), provide vital breeding habitat for Swainson’s Thrush, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Evening Grosbeak, Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and both Hutton’s and Cassin’s Vireos. The night will be spent inland, in Sequim.

Western Bluebird, as well as Mountain Bluebird are both species on the itinerary
Western Bluebird, as well as Mountain Bluebird are both species on the itinerary (Ben Knoot)

Day 4: The Olympic Peninsula to Mainland Washington. We will head east to Port Townsend, on the eastern side of the Peninsula, and take the ferry to Fort Casey, a journey that usually offers up pelagic birds like Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Marbled and Ancient Murrelets. Orcas may also accompany us on the crossing too. Once reaching the mainland, we shall visit nearby Crockett Lake for marsh birds like Common Yellowthroat, Northern Harrier, and an array of shorebirds, including dowitchers, sandpipers and plovers, a variety of which frequent the edges. After that we will undertake a long, but dramatically scenic drive through the cascades to the town of Winthrop. This area is famed for its dramatic landscapes, with jagged, alpine peaks, interspersed with forested valleys, and studded with glaciers. While we may stop for birds at any time during the route, it is just as likely that the journey will be paused for the dizzying array of spectacular landscapes that will be bombarding us throughout. Three nights will be spent in the beautiful town of Winthrop.

Black-headed Grosbeaks breed in the old growth forests
Black-headed Grosbeaks breed in the old growth forests (Ben Knoot)

Days 5-6: Methow Valley. Situated in Okanogan County, Winthrop sits within the heart of the Methow Valley, making the perfect base for our bird photography forays. This small, charming western-themed town has a population of only around 500 people, and can also lay claim to the oldest legal saloon in the state! Two full days in the sixty-mile long glacial valley of Methow are well worthwhile; it has a bounty of varied birding hotspots, and a birdlist tipping over 250 species. Winthrop lies between the Methow Valley Wildlife Area and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and so has an abundance and variety of birding habitats closeby. This includes wetlands, riparian deciduous woodland, ponderosa pine, and shrubby steppe too. Beautiful landscapes will be with us throughout, and those with a penchant for photographing these will not struggle for opportunities. Over these two days we will explore the bewildering variety of bird photography spots, targeting breeding songbirds and waterbirds too. By covering a range of habitats, we will be on the lookout for a long list of breeding species, like Dusky Grouse, Black Swift, Red-naped Sapsucker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black-billed Magpie, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Veery, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Violet-green Swallow, Western Meadowlark, Lazuli Bunting, Cassin’s and Purple Finches, Pine Siskin, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Western Tanager, along with breeding Spotted Sandpiper and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Flycatchers are conspicuous breeders in this area, and include Western Kingbird, Say’s Phoebe, Western Wood-Pewee, and Dusky and Hammond’s Flycatchers, to name a few. As you can tell, we will not be short of things to point our cameras at, in this bumper season!

Western Tanager, a gorgeous bird that will be on our radar at numerous sites
Western Tanager, a gorgeous bird that will be on our radar at numerous sites (Ben Knoot)

Day 7: Okanogan Highlands to Moses Lake. Following a long stint covering plentiful breeding species in the Methow Valley, we will depart early, and head north into the Okanogan Highlands, near the town of Oroville. The area is dominated by pine at its highest points, and is home to breeding Golden Eagle, Spruce Grouse (some luck required!), Northern Goshawk, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Williamson’s Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Clark’s Nutcracker, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, and even on rare occasions, Great Gray Owl can be found. While it is prime habitat for the latter (the Phantom of the North), they are thinly distributed, and so good fortune is still required to find them even here! In the afternoon, we will shift gears again, heading southwards to Moses Lake for the final two nights.

We'll be on the lookout for the cute Pygmy Nuthatch in the pine forests
We'll be on the lookout for the cute Pygmy Nuthatch in the pine forests (Ben Knoot)

Day 8: Moses Lake. This is the largest city in Grant County, and located in an area of shrub steppe, reservoirs and irrigated areas, making it a big draw for wetland birds and open country species too. It is therefore a fantastic location for bird photography. Sage brush habitats support Burrowing Owl, Sagebrush Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, and Western Meadowlark. This habitat dominates much of the region, and so these species may be encountered on several of the days, and we will get repeated chances at these sage bird. In the any wet areas, dotted with islands and edged with grasslands, we might find Western and Clark’s Grebes, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, American White Pelicans, nesting Black-necked Stilts, Song and Lark Sparrows, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. A remarkable six species of swallow can also be found in the area during spring-summer too! It is also a notable area for raptors, with Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, and American Kestrel among the regular ones in the area. Moses Lake, like so many locations on this tour, has a myriad of local birding sites to visit, and so we will be constantly evaluating the best of these to visit, based on which birds have not yet been photographed.

Brushy areas are home to handsome Spotted Towhee
Brushy areas are home to handsome Spotted Towhee (Ben Knoot)

Day 9: Moses Lake to Seattle and Departure. After some final photography near Moses Lake in the morning, we will depart for Seattle in time for evening departures, taking lunch on the way there.

Common Loons are a great sight and sound in this season
Common Loons are a great sight and sound in this season (Ben Knoot)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy – Moderate. There are some early starts to be out before the heat of the day. The days are long, but we usually have a nice break mid-day to get out of the heat. Eastern Washington is a dry, arid sage brush habitat so it can be quite hot during midday and the birds will act accordingly so we aren’t missing too much by doing this. There are some small hikes on trails that may have uneven ground so strong sturdy shoes (not necessarily hiking boots) are needed for some of these. Some of these hikes are done on rocky uneven trails.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy – Moderate. Most of our birding/photography is going to be close to the vehicle, but some will be done on trails. All of the water photography is safe. Some time will be devoted to trying to get some great photos of ducks where we may spend a half hour or so with a single species so please keep that in mind. Elevation on this tour is not a concern. The highest we will travel is in the car when we pass through the cascades. This will be around 7000ft. or so. There are few long drives on this tour, but we do have to cross the cascade mountain range to reach the east on day 4. This drive can take up to four hours (direct) depending on traffic; but we are sure to take longer with birding stops along the way!

CLIMATE: Days will be warm to hot (especially in the east) and nights will be cool. At this time of year daytime highs can reach in the 80’s Fahrenheit (mid 20’s Celsius), and nighttime temperatures in the low 60’s Fahrenheit (16 Celsius) are expected. This tour is timed during the end of the rainy and cold season when the birds start becoming very active but we may still run into some rain, so a raincoat is definitely recommended.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent throughout, with full-time electricity, hot water and en-suite facilities at the standard motels used everywhere. All places used have Wi-Fi Internet.

WHEN TO GO: This is an excellent time to visit Washington State. July is when the birds have nested and are rearing young, meaning everything is increasingly active as they feed their offspring. Also, because this is the tail end of the rainy season, it is warm and unlikely to pour with rain while we are out in the field, which is not something you want when you’re trying to find birds!

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a Birding With a Camera tour. There are only feeders in one site, so most of the photography will be taking advantage of photographic opportunities that arise during our birding outings. The guide will be using a speaker and playback where allowed and suitable to provide the best photo opportunities.

GEAR: Binoculars and camera equipment are essential items. The guide will have a scope which of course you are welcome to use too. If you would like to bring your own scope you may do so. A tripod is always welcome but keep in mind that all of our photography will be opportunistic which means you will have to be quick. Monopods are often a better, quicker and more portable option. However, neither a monopod or tripod is necessary to join this tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 9; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the tour driver) with audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 9; airport shuttle to the hotel in Seattle for arrival; one group airport drop off on day 9; ground transport for the group to all sites mentioned in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the morning of day 9 in a rental vehicle (tour leader is also the driver on this tour); entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the driver on this tour); tips for any luggage porters used; any flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.