Birding Seattle's Skagit

Padilla Bay
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No aspiring birder should leave the Seattle area without having encountered Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Located between the towns of Anacortes and Bayview, perhaps 80 minutes north of the city, this 11,200-acre preserve is world-famous among birders; the diversity of species here, and the sheer numbers of some species, is unparalleled in North America.

From the moment one hits “the flats” of the delta formed by the Skagit and Samish rivers, approaching Puget Sound, one realizes this is a uniquely fertile landscape. In farm fields adjoining the reserve, red-tailed hawks are literally everywhere; rough-legged hawks join them in the winter months, along with other raptors — it is possible in this area to see five species of falcon in a single day: the peregrine and prairie falcons, American kestrel, gyrfalcon, and merlin; last year, a wandering Eurasian kestrel made headlines when it appeared on the wrong side of the Pacific. Another uncommon but remarkable event involves snowy owls. Every seven years or so, when their northern prey base grows scarce, these immense, ghostly birds appear in large numbers around the reserve. A Padilla Bay biologist says the owls haven't shown up in notable numbers for several years now.

The Year at Padilla Bay

The yearly appearance of migratory waterfowl is equally remarkable. The rich eelgrass beds and seagrass meadows attract vast numbers of ducks, swans, and geese. Black brant, a mallard-sized member of the goose family, make their herculean migration from the Alaskan Peninsula to Padilla Bay in one nonstop flight; the more than 130,000 brant landing here in November will have lost one-third of their body weight by the time they arrive. The brant seen at Padilla are a subspecies, genetically distinct, and do not intermix with other flocks that pass through en route to wintering grounds in Mexico. In coloration they more closely resemble brant found on the Atlantic coast.

A typical sampling of waterfowl between fall and spring may include three species of North American loon — the yellow-billed, Arctic, and common — along with many varieties of diving and dabbling ducks, including the Eurasian and American wigeons, hooded and red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, and ruddy duck, among many others. Snow geese in numbers of 10,000 or more stop over on Skagit Bay. Also passing through are the largest of all North American waterfowl, the trumpeter swan, along with its close relative, the tundra swan. Are they easy to tell apart? No. Can it be done? Yes. A good bird guide and a good ear — each species' call is distinct — are the best tools for identification.

Most every other species of bird associated with water is present at some point in the year. Wading birds and shorebirds are prolific in season. A brief sampling of the latter group includes the red knot, American avocet, marbled godwit, long-billed and short-billed dowitchers, along with many species of sandpipers and plovers. Another fun birding challenge is gull identification. Sorting out the many species in adult plumage is the first hurdle; trying to identify the sooty-colored juvenile or subadult birds is even tougher, though it can be done. Given the many gull species here here — Thayer's, herring, California, ring-billed, and glaucous, among others — even the most accomplished gull-o-phile will be sorely tested.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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