When the five YNS ‘revival’ (not founding!) members sat down last year to discuss what expeditions the YNS could undertake, we were all very excited about our Skagit birding trip. The Skagit floodplain is an area known amongst birders because many Arctic bird species over-winter here. The fallow grain fields leave not only a decent amount of grain and plant material for the birds, but also create a habitat for many small rodents. The species with high numbers are trumpeter swans, snow geese, many duck species, and many raptors including bald eagles, northern harriers, and red-tailed hawks. The species in low numbers are tundra swans, Ross’s geese, rough-legged hawks, and gyrfalcons, amongst others. A group of us had previously done this exact trip last winter and had great success with seeing owls and raptors in addition to many anseriforms (ducks and geese). Needless to say, we were very excited with the prospect about seeing the same occurrences with more like-minded people this year!
Our group of 20+ members and 7 cars left the Burke Museum at ~8:30am on Saturday (January 25th); our first scheduled stop was just south of Stanwood at Thomle Road. It was at this location last year that a few of us saw two snowy owls and a short-eared owl on two occasions. Spirits were high as the sunshine poked through at our re-grouping pre-Thomle, and in minutes we chalked up over 10 species of Passeriformes, Falconiformes, and Anseriformes. On the way to Thomle Road, we saw the approaching wall of soupy white fog, but that didn’t stop a couple cars from spotting a merlin in the top of a Douglas fir on the roadside! The fog had reduced visibility to ~150’ at our first destination, and after inspecting some goose carcasses (hunter scraps) and waiting 15 minutes for the fog to burn off, we decided to check a nearby road for better visibility.
On our way to the next stop, a couple cars were able to have nice looks at a peregrine falcon on treetop just off of the road. Shortly thereafter, a few YNSers were lucky enough to see a coyote along the edge of an agricultural field! The fog had largely lifted by the time we reached the Skagit Wildlife Area on the end of Wylie Road. With a nice mix of brush, marsh, and river delta, we added a number of new species on the day including slate-colored junco, downy woodpecker, spotted towhee, and belted kingfisher. As we were about to leave this locale, we heard the unmistakable sound of thousands of snow geese taking to the air. This was our first exposure of the day to the impressively large flock sizes that snow geese can reach!
Short-eared owls and gyrfalcons were still on many of our minds, so our next stop was at Blake’s Boat Launch, a locality that is frequented by this species. But on the drive, we had to divert and stop to get up close and personal with a large flock of snow geese that were serendipitously feeding in a nearby field. We were able to get within 100’ of the edge of the flock, so we got really great views of the details and behaviors of these beautiful animals! The more avid birders scanned the flock for blue geese (a type of snow goose), Ross’s geese, and numbers of the bird bands of some individuals to determine where exactly in the Arctic these individuals were born. Over the ~30 minutes that we observed this flock, a couple thousand more geese flew in during what were dubbed “goose-nadoes”. Everyone was very enthused with this experience, particularly because the scene was backdropped by the imposing Mt. Baker, so we next headed to the spot for short-eared owls.
Blake’s Boat Launch, as it’s known by local birders, was a cool habitat of driftwood, delta shoreline, and agricultural fields.
We quickly picked up a couple new species here including marsh wren and western meadowlarks singing in the nearby field. And it didn’t take long until YNS members had located a short-eared owl! This individual gave us many good looks in flight (tussling with a northern harrier), in addition to perched, allowing us to observe some diurnal owl behavior and get some great views through the spotting scope. This was a new species (“lifer”) for many YNS members, making it a great find for the day!
After eating some much needed food from the local’s bar in Edison, we made it to our last stop of the day on the eastern shores of Padilla Bay near the Padilla Bay Foundation to hopefully tack on a couple more duck species to the list. This location has a nice viewing platform ~50’ above the shoreline, allowing for nice long views and a chance to spot a good diversity of waterfowl. From here, we saw many northern pintails, wigeon, and great blue herons, all set against a pretty setting sun. This was a fantastic way to end another successful trip for the Young Naturalists’ Society of the Pacific Northwest, and a great reminder of the natural beauty around us in the Pacific Northwest!
And here are some more photos!
We hope to see you next time!