M + P’s Favorite Birding Spots in Western WA

Some local residents... Have you seen any of these creatures?

I must say that this is one of my favorite times of the year.  Unpredictable and exciting, the weather vacillates between rainy and brisk one day, then springlike and sunny the next.

Young Stinging Nettles are gracing the moist earth, Indian Plum and Salmonberry are leafing out, Skunk Cabbage is emerging, and I’ve noticed quite a few Scarlet Elf Cup mushrooms fruiting amongst the decaying sticks.  Spring is coming!!

Aside from wild plant and fungus happenings, there are some really exciting things going on in the bird world these days, as resident songbirds such as Robins, Towhees, Juncos, and finches are singing and starting to define their territories, while hummingbirds and owls are already sitting on eggs (I would imagine some species already have hatched!), and northbound migrating waterfowl are making cameo appearances on local ponds and lakes.  With so much change in the air, right now is the perfect time to go on a birding excursion.  There are few things I enjoy more than hopping in my car with Patrick on a Sunday morning and cruising over to one of our favorite birding hotspots with our binoculars in tow.

Today I felt inspired to share with you a list of some of our favorite birding spots in Western Washington.  I have separated the list by county, though you might notice that I don’t have any listed for Whatcom, as we are still getting acquainted with this beautiful area.  I hear that Birch Bay and Semiahmoo Spit are home to some exceptional birding areas, and I look forward to visiting those places soon!  And from what I’ve seen of Lake Padden, Whatcom Falls Park, Sehome Arboretum, and Larrabee State Park so far, there’s lots of great birding around town. 

However, if you and your family are up for a birding excursion south of Bellingham, here are some places that are a bit of a drive but totally worth it.  The following is a list of birding spots that Patrick and I have visited several times a year for the past ten years.  They hold a special place in our hearts as we’ve enjoyed many magical bird encounters as well as exciting animal tracking adventures in these areas.

Skagit County

Travel South from Bellingham down WA-11 through the town of Bow and you may notice an incredible amount of birds over the open meadows and agricultural lands along the road.  Lots of Snow Geese, Tundra Swans and Trumpeter Swans can be found lingering amongst these fields in winter, while hundreds of Bald Eagles roost in the Cottonwoods above.  Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls and Red-tailed Hawks abound.  At night, watch for Barn Owls swooping across the road.  There are countless areas to explore in the Skagit Flats, but one of our favorites is:

Skagit Bay Estuary (WDFW Water Access Site)
13517 Rawlins Rd, Mt Vernon

This is a biodiverse estuary with access to sandy beaches, mud flats, grassland, and immature forest.  Some of our highlights here include:  witnessing hundreds of overwintering Snow Geese being spooked by Bald Eagles, spotting Long-eared and Short-eared Owls doing some daytime hunting over the flats in winter, and observing countless Northern Harriers.  It’s extra exciting as the Short-eared Owls often roost low and seem to appear out of nowhere as they rise from the grasslands! So magical!

Snohomish County

Leque Island- Eide Rd, Stanwood

Just west of the town of Stanwood, en route to Camano Island, there is a small preserve called Leque Island, which offers estuary access, grass and marsh land habitat, as well as a couple of shallow ponds.  We love visiting here in winter.  Some of our highlights from this area include observing Northern Harriers harass Short-eared Owls hunting by day, and watching through a fellow birder’s spotting scope a Long-eared Owl roosting low in a tree and then waking up for his evening hunt.  There are some really fun trails to walk, filled with Warblers in the thick shrubs.  If you're feeling adventurous, there are some super fun yet mucky shorelines to explore.  Shorebirds abound in the surrounding waters.

Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve
14913 Connelly Rd, Snohomish

We love this park, as it's a spot we would often frequent when we first moved to Washington.  This preserve offers lots of biodiversity through open grasslands, two lakes, and access along the Snohomish River.  Some of our highlights there include: observing a Barn Owl roosting in a tree cavity, discovering a plethora of animal tricks in the sand, including River Otter, Beaver, Mink, and Coyote, seeing lots and lots of Bald Eagles, observing a Harbor Seal lounging on a rock in the river (!!!), sitting near dusk as large flocks of Swans and Geese descend upon the main pond, and getting up close and personal with a tiny little Golden-crowned Kinglet.

King County

Union Bay Natural Area (Montlake Fill)
3501 Northeast 41st Street, Seattle  

This former landfill is now home to an abundance of an incredible variety of birds, as its open fields and freshwater ponds provide ample habitat.  Montlake Fill is likened to an island in the city and is a haven for many migrating birds and local residents. Regularly visited by a horde of dedicated local birders, around 250 different species of birds have been observed here since 1985.  Check out Larry Hubbell’s great blog, “Union Bay Watch”, for amazing pictures and stories of the creatures of the Fill.   Pat and I spent countless hours here when we lived in Seattle, and we could probably fill a book with stories.  Listening to Virginia Rails, spooking Wilson’s Snipes out of hiding, watching Pied-billed Grebes doing their mating dance, counting hunting Great Blue Herons by the dozens, watching (and hearing) a Cooper’s Hawk noisily eat a Robin 7 feet above the Yesler Swamp trail, seeing Sharp-shinned Hawks fly over the lot, watching a Killdeer display us away from their nest, observing Northern Shovelers swimming in dizzying circles, getting a sore neck looking for warblers in the canopy, seeing countless raptors fly through, watching an Osprey actively hunt for over a half an hour only to have a massive Bald Eagle swoop in and steal the Salmon dinner it had worked so hard for, and discovering hummingbirds nesting in the Salmonberry.  My heart soars thinking about this place.  I didn’t even mention all of the beavers, raccoons, snakes, otters, coyotes, turtles and all manner of other creatures that frequent this rare jewel in the Emerald City.

Thurston County

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
100 Brown Farm Rd NE, Olympia

This area is home to an incredible variety of songbirds, water fowl, and raptors that can be observed as you walk along the boardwalk, which spans the Nisqually River Delta, one of Washington’s largest estuaries.  Billy Frank Jr. was a great Nisqually man who fought his whole life for tribal fishing rights and the environment.  He helped restore the estuary to its original glory in 2009 by removing dikes and reconnecting 762 acres with the tides of Puget Sound.  A few of our highlights from past visits to Nisqually include:  Spotting a Loggerhead Shrike for the first time, watching Great Horned Owl babies sleep after trying to fly, discovering fresh River Otter tracks on the sand, and finding mountains of owl pellets underneath the barns in the field.  We’ve seen Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Merlins, Northern Harriers, Ospreys, Turkey Vultures, many waterbirds, and many varieties of warblers in this incredible place.  Simply put, every time we have ever been here has been pure magic. I want to go right now…

As you can see, Pat and I are pretty passionate about birding (and animal tracking!) in these incredibly biodiverse places, and we hope this list has inspired you to get out and explore some of these areas with your family.  We're so grateful to live in such a wild and wondrous place!  

Got a story to share from your own birding adventures?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!  Got a favorite birding spot that you’d like to recommend?  Please do. . . we're always up for exploring new places!

Many Snow Geese take flight, Kulshan in the distance, a Long-eared Owl about to go hunting, and a Barn Owl that didn't survive the winter...

A Groggy Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) waking up in Stanwood, WA...

Otter tracks at low tide, sign where a Bald Eagle had fed and a Happy Birder on a driftwood log...