Whatcom Magazine

Bird-watching abounds in Whatcom County

Eagles feast on dead salmon along the Nooksack River near Deming.
Eagles feast on dead salmon along the Nooksack River near Deming. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

Whatcom County is known for its quality of life. That’s especially true if you are a bird, or a human who enjoys watching them.

About the only kind of habitat the county lacks is desert, so you won’t see any roadrunners. But the county does have alpine meadows, old-growth forest, second-growth forests, rivers, creeks, lakes, marshes, grassy fields, farmland, rocky coastlines and muddy tide flats, with distinctive bird life in each setting.

Bellingham resident Joe Meche, a past president of North Cascades Audubon Society, has two favorite spots: Semiahmoo County Park, near Blaine, and Whatcom Falls Park in the heart of Bellingham.

“The beauty is that you can do both in an easy day of birding,” he says.

Semiahmoo is a terrific spot to see water birds. Although many of them are more numerous in the winter, there’s no real shortage as spring shifts into summer, and the lovely park doesn’t seem to draw the fair-weather crowds that tend to scare off birds from nearby Birch Bay State Park.

Semiahmoo spit a good place to see water birds, including gulls, terns, and pintail ducks.

On the west side of the long sandspit south of Semiahmoo Resort, the cobbled shoreline and tide flats attract sandpiper-type birds, as well as a variety of gulls and an occasional tern. To the east, the sheltered water of Drayton Harbor is popular with ducks, such as pintails.

Don’t forget to watch for upland birds in the grass and shrubbery between the two shorelines. Such habitat attracts interesting sparrows and warblers, and a Western bluebird popped up there not long ago.

At Whatcom Falls Park, watch for the amusing little American Dipper, bobbing on foot or swimming amid the riffles, picking and pecking at insects at the foot of the main falls.

Other bird-watching locales include Scudder Pond, Austin Pass, and Hovander Homestead Park.

From the falls, it’s a lovely woodland walk to Scudder Pond, not far from Lake Whatcom and Bloedel-Donovan Park. Watch for golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers, and downy woodpeckers along the way.

At the pond, red-wing blackbirds nest by the dozen in spring and early summer. You’ll see the males clinging to cattails, flashing their red-orange wing patches and making loud, metallic cries.

The multicolored wood duck also lives there, along with the elusive Virginia rail.

The barred owl, a daytime hunter, is occasionally seen along the creek. Meche has photographed them wading into shallow water to grab crayfish.

For alpine birds, head to the Austin Pass picnic area and Chain Lakes Trail above Mt. Baker Ski Area. Take a picnic lunch and the gray jays will find you. The bolder ones will swoop right down onto your table looking for morsels to steal.

Watch for blue grouse in higher-elevation forests on trails near the pass. In alpine meadows, sharp-eyed hikers can spot the well-camouflaged white-tailed ptarmigan.

One more favorite location: Hovander Homestead and Tennant Lake parks. The lily pad-choked Tennant Lake is a good spot for a variety of ducks, plus the rare American bittern, rare now because human activity has disrupted so many nesting areas.

The best birding there is along the path that connects Hovander and Tennant Lake, winding through marshy fields and cattail swamps. Watch for the marsh wren and for the common yellowthroat, with its raccoon-style mask.

Join the fun

North Cascades Audubon Society: northcascadesaudubon.org, info@northcascadesaudubon.org

Birding Resources

Once you get serious about watching birds, you’ll want some kind of a guide to help you identify them.

For the old-school, book-in-the-hand birder, current favorites include guides produced by David Sibley. If you expect to stay in the area, get “Sibley Birds West.” If you plan to roam the continent, you’ll want to add the similar “Sibley Birds East,” or go for the one-volume “The Sibley Guide to Birds.”

Sibley’s full-size guide is also available in ebook form for phone or tablet, which comes with a huge advantage: You can listen to the recorded call of each bird, which is often the best way to distinguish similar species.

You might also want to check out the free Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell University. Cornell provides an enormous birders’ online resource, besides the app. Among other things, you can create an account and report your bird sightings on the site, and can scan reports posted by others.