February is a good month to view swans, snow geese and raptors in the Skagit Valley.
CONWAY, Skagit County — On a chilly winter morning, hearty members of the Pilchuck Audubon Society have flocked to the Skagit Wildlife Area. Specifically, the Wiley Slough area and its two-mile dike-top trail that meanders throughout the Skagit River estuary. As usual, they’ve got birds on the brain. The birds, however, are playing hard to spot.
It’s bitter cold, and a biting wind has club members bundled up under layers of Gore-Tex, fleece, wool, flannel, that brownish Carhartt material and the like. As for the birds, they might have bird brains but they’re not stupid. Most of them, it seems, have puffed out their feathers and bundled themselves deep under the tall grasses, reeds and scrubby alders out of the wind, and largely out of sight.
Still, we see a steady stream of pine siskins and towhees; ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned sparrows; green-winged teals, buffleheads and the like. And overhead, eagles, red-tailed hawks and Northern harriers veer erratically in the wind, like they’re being batted back and forth by invisible tennis rackets.
Seems like plenty to the tagalong reporter in the group’s midst, but so far, sightings aren’t in the numbers that the Pilchuck group had hoped.
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“It must be the cold,” says Arlington’s Virginia Clark, the group’s trip leader, affectionately referred to by other members as “General Clark.”
There’s talk of an owl’s nest, however, and talk of owls never fails to prick up this reporter’s ears. I’m not sure how many unsuccessful owl outings my dad took us on during my New Jersey youth, but I bet a hundred would be an underestimate. During my 20-plus years in Washington state, my success rate has been much better. Probably 50 percent, which includes the six snowy owls I once saw on a barn roof not far from Wiley Slough.
Who’s up there?
Nearing the end of our loop, someone points out the owl’s nest, high in a leafless tree decked out in its wintry lack of finery. Unoccupied. Oh, well. Fifty percent means that half the time I won’t see them. We don’t walk more than 10 steps, however, before we spot one of the nest’s tenants, a great-horned owl, practically right above our heads, wedged against the trunk of a cedar tree.
Though it’s only 15 feet above us, there are so many overhanging branches and limbs that we can barely see it. The owl has picked the perfect spot, impenetrable to any sparrows or crows that might have divebomb sorties on their minds.
The owl is so obscured, in fact, that at first we don’t realize that there’s actually two of them up there. But almost as soon as someone whispers “There’re two,” the second one darts away into the brush toward their nest.
“Did you notice how quiet it was when it flew away — it barely made a sound,” comments Audubon member Bill Davey of Lynnwood. “They have fluted edges on their wing feathers so they can fly quietly. It’s better for hunting.”
No more shotguns
Speaking of hunting: With duck- and goose-hunting season over for the winter — it ended Jan. 25 — places such as Wiley Slough are once again safer and quieter for bird-watching outings. And because the trail at Wiley leads to within view of Skagit Bay, it’s a haven for those eager to check off ducks and shorebirds from their life lists. Look for grebes, loons, dunlins, sandpipers, mergansers, sanderlings, scoters, godwits, plovers, scaups and more.
And of course, this being winter in the Skagit Valley, a person would have to be blindfolded with their eyes shut and a sweater pulled over their head not to see snow geese by the thousands, swans by the hundreds, and eagles by the dozen. (Truth be told, we probably saw more birds on the 2-mile drive from the Skagit River bridge onto Fir Island to Wiley Slough than at Wiley itself.)
“Oh, what do you know, we’ve got a tundra,” says Clark, peering into a spotting scope mounted on a tripod by the side of Mann Road. After meeting up at a church parking lot just across the Skagit River bridge, our caravan has driven all of a quarter-mile before we’ve come across a field of feeding swans. They’re about 200 yards away, a couple of hundred white pillows with long curved necks and black beaks.
“These are all trumpeters but we’ve found one tundra swan,” Clark says, inviting me to take a look into the scope. “Bill (Davey) found it; he always finds good stuff.”
Through the scope there it is: The lone tundra swan looks like the rest of them — regal carriage, swooping neck, the only difference being that it looks like it’s not yet wiped off a blotch of yellow paint that spilled on its beak. Tundras are also a little smaller than trumpeters, which are four-plus feet long with wingspans that can be twice that.
(The following day, my son and I returned to the exact spot and found ourselves in the midst of a 10,000-strong gaggle of snow geese. Every once in a while they’d shift position, rising up almost as one — like they were playing musical chairs — and the sky became a tornado of geese. A buzzing, flapping, honking tornado. It was awe-inspiring.)
Every which way, birds
Continuing on our drive to Wiley Slough, we slow down several times. For a flock of teals. For a woodpecker that flew away before anyone could make a positive ID. For a kingfisher. When we come to an open stretch with expansive fields on either side, it’s time to get out and set up the scopes: There seem to be raptors in every direction. A possible peregrine falcon eating something on the ground. A rough-legged hawk in the far trees at the edge of the field. A northern harrier flapping wildly but seemingly stuck in midair. Eagles this way, that way, and way, way down there.
“That’s one of the great things about going out with these guys,” says longtime Pilchuck member Rick Brauer, of Edmonds. “They know where to stop. It looks like some little nondescript place on the side of the road but you end up seeing all these great things.”
The potential peregrine, which we observe through the scope tucking into a fresh starling, causes a good-natured split in the group. Half the group is sure it’s a prairie falcon — rare in these parts — while the other half say it’s an immature peregrine.
“We end up having these discussions a lot,” says Art Wait, of Snohomish.
In the end, they agree to disagree, reload the caravan and head for Wiley Slough. An appointment with some great-horned owls awaits.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades.”