Winter Birding Old and New in Skagit County

Short-eared owl
photo: Joe Meche

Throughout the Covid Summer of 2020 and into the fall, many of us have sought ways and means to deal with a world turned upside down by the ongoing pandemic. Before the great news from the recent election, we were still trying to distance ourselves from any and all news sources to free ourselves of the inherent stress. Along with most Americans, we felt the dire need for a change in the other Washington. As it turned out, our wishes came to fruition and a collective sigh of relief was heard and felt across the country and even around the world.

As the pandemic worsened through November and into December, I continued to rely on birds to distract me on a daily basis. In the process, I found a new place to visit and revisited a few old haunts. On the occasion of my birthday, we set out to explore a new-to-me location for birds and birdwatchers. A friend posted on Facebook (a cultural phenomenon) about her visit to a place I had never heard of, much less visited. So, we took a birthday outing into Skagit County with the kind of excitement that comes from exploring new places.

Opened to the public in 2014, the Kukutali Preserve is co-managed by the Swinomish Indian Tribe and Washington State Parks. This unique preserve consists of two islands, Kiket and Flagstaff. While the latter has limited access for habitat restoration, the former is wide open for exploration and open only to pedestrians, and no bikes or pets. Three trails allow passage between the two beaches that connect the islands to each other and the mainland. Signs are posted to be aware of high tides that might leave you stranded.

The North Trail reaches the highest elevation on Kiket Island and meanders through mixed forest habitat that is ideal for owls and woodland birds such as hermit and varied thrushes and woodpeckers. The Kiket and South Trails are the easiest with very little elevation gain. All three of the trails start and end in the same place, so there’s no fear of getting lost on the island. Restrooms are available at both ends of the trail and a large, well-maintained picnic area is ideal for extended daytime visits.

Kiket Bay is on the south side of the island and Similk Bay borders on the north. Both of these bays are protected havens for waterfowl and seabirds. The sandy beaches that connect the islands offer prime feeding areas for shorebirds, while the rocky shorelines are ideal for turnstones, surfbirds, and black oystercatchers. The best rating I can give for this hidden gem is that we’ll be back for a longer visit! The closest town is La Conner, which has its own appeal, not to mention good food and drink. If you ever wish to take a day off for birding and relaxing, consider Kukutali and some of these nearby birding locations.

Black turnstone
photo: Joe Meche

Deception Pass State Park has been featured here in a previous column as a super location for birding the year round. From the very accessible West Beach area and around the shoreline to the bridge, there are expansive views across the pass and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Waterfowl and seabirds thrive in the active currents of Deception Pass, while oystercatchers and shorebirds prowl the offshore rocks and beaches. Cranberry Lake is a winter haven for freshwater species of waterfowl. Across the pass and part of the state park is Rosario Beach, another must visit for birders. The back road from here leads into the southwest part of Anacortes.

The area around Anacortes is rich with birding opportunities. The entire waterfront area that stretches along the Guemes Channel to the San Juan Islands’ ferry terminal offers numerous pullouts to scope for water birds. The uplands around Little Cranberry Lake have numerous habitats for forest birds and waterfowl. When I participated in the Fidalgo Bay Christmas Bird Count, all of this was in my territory. Washington Park and the Cap Sante Marina are other locations that will add to the day.

On the way home, a great loop to follow is the March Point Road which is accessible from Hwy. 20. Even though refineries occupy the interior of the point, ignore them and focus on the water side. The road follows the shoreline and is another great place to add to your day list of birds. Loons, grebes, mergansers, and a variety of raptors are to be expected on this lazy drive, complete with numerous pullouts for scoping or just relaxing with views of Mt. Baker and the North Cascades.

Heading east, take the Bayview-Edison Road exit off Hwy. 20 to enjoy Bayview State Park and the Samish Flats … the last best spot for birding before you start home on Chuckanut Drive. The entire flats area plays host every winter to numerous raptor species including eagles, hawks, and falcons. The intersection of the Bayview-Edison and Samish Island roads forms a “T” at the stop sign, East and west of this intersection, the roads form perfect 90 degree turns and are so named the East and West 90. These are two of the best places for winter birds. One of the biggest attractions in recent years has been the guarantee of short-eared owl sightings. Mini-traffic jams usually occur at the East 90 while an ample parking lot is available at the West 90 with a valid Discover Pass. These areas are also open to hunting so be aware of your surroundings.

Enjoy the days ahead and stay healthy!
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Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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