Old friends + soaring birds = High spirits in the magic Skagit

Swans flap over the Samish Flats in the northern Skagit Valley as mists shroud the Chuckanut Mountains and Cascade foothills.

‘WOO HOO!’ CAME THE ASTONISHED CRY from everyone in our band of birders as a low-flying flock of Dunlin flash-mobbed us earlier this week on Fir Island.

“Flash mob” is a perfect metaphor for a flock of these medium-sized, long-beaked shorebirds that typically fly at high-speed in cigar-shaped formations. Mystically coordinating pell-mell flight in perfect unison, as they change direction their white breasts can glint as brightly as a lighthouse beam shining across the surrounding marshes and saltwater flats. Thus the “flash.”

In this case, scores of Dunlin strafed our winter-swaddled group of 10, zooming just a few feet above our beanies.

“I’ve never had that happen before!” exulted Woody Wheeler, Seattle-area birder extraordinaire, who was acting as our informal guide for the day. He was among a group I accompanied on a day of winter birding around the Skagit Valley. Some were new friends, others old pals I’d not seen in a few years.

Our day alternated between moody mists shrouding the Cascade foothills, blueberry sky and bright sun, drenching showers and pelting hail. We saw dozens of Bald Eagles, thousands of Snow Geese, entire orchestras of Trumpeter Swans. It was February birding in the magic Skagit.

Snow Geese, unworried the day after hunting season ended, carpet the Samish Flats.

Woody is a natural guide, offering nuggets of knowledge to chew on, even in the face of frigid winds. Starting our day on the Samish Flats, as we looked out at a fallow field where 50 or so Trumpeters waddled he offered this food for thought.

“We are looking at what was equal to the entire American population of Trumpeters in the mid-1930s,” he told us. “That’s right, the population had dwindled that much. Who knows why?”

From the Skagit Valley’s “Eagle Tree,” a Bald Eagle seems to smile for the camera.

Lead shot, from shotguns, several of us guessed. (Nope, that’s a more modern problem.) Oh, I know, feathers for women’s hats in the 1920s, someone else suggested. (Good guess, but wrong.)

In fact, the overhunting of swans had started in the 18th century, when swan quills were prized as writing implements. “In fact, our Declaration of Independence was probably written with a swan quill,” Woody suggested.*

The Skagit is a winter birder’s paradise. Our spotting started with a Merlin on a treetop as we met up outside Breadfarm bakery in Edison. On the Samish Flats, we saw a dozen eagles and a giant nest in what’s locally known as the Eagle Tree, and a Rough-Legged Hawk.

To quickly identify a “Roughie,” as they’re commonly known, Woody advised to look for the head that is like “a Styrofoam ball with a beak.”

“That light-colored head is a giveaway,” he noted. “Like Marilyn Monroe,” someone else chirped.

Woody smiled. “And to continue the Marilyn theme, look for the mascara!” A dark eye-ring finishes in a swooping arc toward the back of the bird’s head.

Christi Norman, left, and Hilary Hilscher, next to her, created the Great Washington State Birding Trail for Audubon Washington. They still enjoy visiting sites they mapped 20 years ago.

A few moments later, another Roughie hovered in place above a stand of cattails. “Look, he’s kiting, he’s kiting!” Woody called. With short, quick wing flaps, it hung in the air as if gravity had been turned off, peering down for possible prey.

Cries of excitement rippled through our little crowd every time our car caravan pulled off the side of the road or into another Fish and Wildlife site.

“There’s a harrier!” Woody called, as a big hawk with an owl-like face soared above us.
“A marsh hawk!” exclaimed my friend Hilary Hilscher, using the bird’s common name. Hilary was one of two former Audubon Washington employees who together drove all over the state to formulate the Great Washington State Birding Trail, created 20 years ago as a guide to the state’s best birding sites. Her cohort, Christi Norman, was also along with us this day.

At the West 90 site managed by Fish and Wildlife, we saw a field white with thousands of snow geese, filling the chill air with a cacophony of honks and hoots. “They weren’t hanging out here a few days ago, there were hunters,” Woody told us. Our day out was the first day after waterfowl-hunting season ended. “They know!”

During a lunch stop in a picnic shelter at Bay View State Park, Woody’s binoculars spotted goldeneyes, buffleheads and black brant swimming on Padilla Bay. Our final stop of the day, at the Hayton Reserve on Fir Island, in the Skagit River estuary, we saw some male Green-Winged Teal, North America’s smallest dabbling duck, their natty cinnamon-colored heads accented with a swoop of iridescent green around the eye. Also Wigeons, Northern Pintails, and all those Dunlin. And where marshlands are so rich in prey, there are raptors. In treetops and atop stumps, we saw roosting Bald Eagles, a Peregrine Falcon, another harrier and a Red-Tailed Hawk.

A Northern Pintail swims the marshy waters at Skagit Wildlife Area’s Hayton Reserve on Fir Island.

“In fact, there’s three eagles in a row — an eagle candleabra!” one wag noted.

In the meantime, angry gray clouds had blotted out the blue sky and billowed up against the nearby foothills. As hail started to pelt us, we swooped back to our cars. With the precision of a flock of Dunlin, you might say.

*See Woody Wheeler’s “Conservation Catalyst” blog for more stories of recovered bird species you might see in the Skagit Valley.

6 thoughts on “Old friends + soaring birds = High spirits in the magic Skagit

  1. What a beautifully-written acount of our journey. Thank you for capturing the spirit and experiences of the day so well!


  2. What a great story, Brian! Your companions remind me of friendly birders I chat with at parks and trails who share their interest with such joy and enthusiasm.
    Love the photo of the “smiling” eagle!


  3. We penciled in this date (the day after hunting season) last November and it all actually came together! I’ve always thought of trips as having three parts: planning, the event itself, and reminiscing. But now a fourth must be added: a marvelous story to capture the magic of the day. Thank you for your good company and helping us all fetch up on the Skagit reef with you.
    PS. Christi Norman was the true mastermind of the great Great Washington State Birding Trail.


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