We’ve all seen them soaring in the sky: those magnificent bald eagles with their massive wing spans, gliding effortlessly on the thermals or watching us from the lofty branches of evergreem trees throughout the Bellingham region. Our bald eagles and the statuesque great blue herons we often see fishing in the tidal flats are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to birdwatching. Also known as ornithology, an interest in birds is an addictive hobby that leads to a broad appreciation of the environment and the beauty of the many bird species that inhabit it. Moreover, it’s a fun family activity that’s inexpensive and can take place wherever you happen to be. All you need is a keenness to appreciate the sights and sounds around you and a willingness to look up instead of down into the screen of a smartphone.
Washington State’s northwest corner is on the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. That means you’re in a prime location for birdwatching, wherever you are in Whatcom County. Except the mall, perhaps.
A good place to start is the Wings Over Water Northwest Birding Festival, (March 11-13, 2016) an annual event in Blaine, WA that includes field trips, nature cruises, wildlife speakers and demonstrations. Though it takes place in the rainy season, the cold, wet weather is a prime time for celebrating the many species of migratory birds that stop to rest and feed in the county’s tidelands, estuaries, flats and woodlands.
San Juan Cruises will be doing two-hour-long pelagic cruises from Semiahmoo Spit to Point Roberts that weekend, with naturalists on board to help identify birds and wildlife in the Salish Sea ($50). A less expensive, shorter option ($5) is the Plover Passenger Ferry Nature Cruises in Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay, where a wildlife biologist will be on board.
Fire up your new hobby with a stop at Village Books in Bellingham or Lynden, both great places to pick up a birding guide that will help you identify the species you spot. As a long-time birdwatcher I recommend choosing a book as localized as possible, such as “Birds of the Pacific Northwest” or “Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest,” rather than a heavier compendium that lists all of North America’s many thousands of species. Look for a publication with a combination of pictures and text that will make identification as easy as possible – you’ll be grateful for it when you’re trying to identify one bird variety from another with similar features. A pair of light, compact binoculars is a handy tool, too and you can pick up a set for as little as $12 on Amazon. Keep your birdwatching book in your vehicle – it’s a handy resource and one you’ll likely want to flip through when you least expect you’ll need it.
The North Cascades Audubon Society lists 15 hotspots in Whatcom County, great daytrip excursions where the chances of seeing a large variety of birdlife are superb. Here’s a few of the top places in the county for birdwatching and what you can expect to see there.
- Drayton Harbor/Semiahmoo Spit: home to large numbers of loons, sea ducks, dabbling and diving ducks, grebes and other species, especially during winter and in migration.
- Birch Bay State Park: This large, shallow bay, also an especially good birdwatching site in winter and in migration, is home to large concentrations of scoters, loons, gulls, murres, and other species feed on herring roe.
- Tennant Lake Wildlife Area: Good area for waterfowl and raptors in winter with bitterns, Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, swallows, rails, and herons among the regular breeding species in spring and early summer.
- Lummi Flats: one of the best sites in the county for raptors including falcons, buteos and eagles. Also a good places to see shrikes, swans and other waterfowl.
- Whatcom Falls Park: Scudder Pond is an urban preserve owned by North Cascades Audubon that is showing amazing potential for species including wood ducks, night herons, green herons, Virginia Rails, and soras. A trail leads from the pond into Whatcom Falls Park where there’s a good chance of spotting numerous woodland species.
- Larrabee State Park: From saltwater to upland habitats on Chuckanut Mountain, this is a seasonally-rich area with many nesting birds in spring and early summer. Four species of owls are resident in this area.
- Lake Padden: Lake Padden has a variety of waterfowl during the winter in addition to the permanent residents that frequent the lake. You can expect to see buffleheads, ring-necked ducks and American wigeons, and possibly a Eurasion wigeon that has been hanging around for the last several years.