Winter in Northwest Washington means birds — and lots of them. Dozens of species spend the season in Whatcom and Skagit counties, migrating from colder areas across the globe or simply congregating because food is plentiful in certain locations.
The large, white waterfowl flock to farm fields across rural Whatcom County and areas of western Skagit County. They make an impressive sight on the ground or in flight.
“This is world-renowned birding here,” said Glen Alexander, education coordinator at Breazeale Interpretive Center, a natural history museum and aquarium that’s part of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in coastal Skagit County.
Alexander said tourists and local residents alike enjoy driving the area’s rural backroads, searching for huge flocks of swans and snow geese that sometimes number in the hundreds if not thousands. Maps of general birding areas are available at the nature center and online at padillabay.gov/recopportunities.asp.
“We have snow geese and swans mounted (in displays) here so they can see what they look like,” Alexander said.
Joe Meche of Bellingham, a birder and past president of North Cascades Audubon Society, said swans and snow geese feed on the leavings of harvested fields.
Meche said swans and snow geese are sometimes found together, but snow geese tend to prefer the agricultural fields of Skagit County. Swans in Whatcom County can be difficult to locate, he said, but they are seen most frequently in the Lummi Flats south of Slater Road and in the fallow fields north of Lynden and east to Sumas.
“Any place that has harvested corn or other crops ... swans go crazy,” Meche said. “Their locations are never quite as predictable. It always depends on what’s been planted and what’s been harvested.”
Alexander said snow geese have been somewhat elusive this year, but he and Meche agree that birders will hit the jackpot at Fir Island in the Skagit River delta southwest of Mount Vernon.
“The single best place to see both is Fir Island,” Meche said. “It is the No.1 spot in Northwest Washington to see both.”
Meche said the easiest way to reach Fir Island is to drive Interstate 5 south from Bellingham, exit at Conway (milepost 221) go west and “look for seas of white.” Alexander said snow geese also can be seen along Pioneer Highway south from Conway and in the fields around Silvana on the Stillaguamish River.
For people who seek a more leisurely day trip, Meche suggests driving south on Chuckanut Drive and turning west on Bow Hill Road to explore the area south of Edison, along Farm to Market Road and LaConner Whitley Road on the way to Fir Island.
Both Meche and Alexander said swans and snow geese shouldn’t be disturbed. It’s preferable to watch from your car through binoculars, because the birds often are on private land. Rural roads can be hazardous, and it’s advisable to pull off the road entirely, use your hazard lights and keep an eye on small children.
Visitors to the Skagit Wildlife Area on Fir Island will need a state Discover Pass, available online at discoverpass.wa.gov for $11 (day use) and $33 (annual).