In autumn, the Padilla Bay Reserve welcomes migratory birds and — with its trails, beach, campsites and interpretive center — people, too.
BAY VIEW, Skagit County — Outside, under the ubiquitous gray cloud bank we’ve all been living under for the past two months, Glen Alexander details a kind-of dramatis personae of the critters of Puget Sound.
The whales and the salmon, they’re the “charismatic megafauna,” the ones that capture the public’s imagination. But the oft-overlooked (no, always overlooked) lesser-known plants and animals deserve their props, too. Your copepods. Your nudibranchs (which, as you know, are sea slugs). Your Pacific spiny lumpsuckers. Your crabs. Your snails. Your anemones. Your etcetera and et al. Support players all, but each with its own vital role — mainly, being a snack for something bigger. Without them, there’d be no stars — the charismatic megafauna. Especially your eelgrass.
“Eelgrass is the most valuable nearshore habitat there is,” said Alexander. “It’s the keystone of this entire habitat.”
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We’re at the western edge of the Skagit Flats, at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, where they study eelgrass, among other things. Alexander is the education coordinator here.
Because it’s particularly shallow and flat — only eight feet at most during high tide; at low tide, it’s mudflat fields forever — Padilla Bay produces huge meadows of eelgrass. It’s that grassy looking stuff you see when you’re tromping about through the muck at low tide at Puget Sound mudflats. Eelgrass serves as both habitat and food for countless micro- and not-so-micro organisms. Every October (or early November), in fact, brant geese migrate all the way from Izembek Lagoon in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, flying 72 hours straight, just to chow down on Padilla Bay’s particular eelgrass blend.
“They lose a third of their body weight so they’ve got a lot of eating to do,” Alexander said.
Padilla Bay is the place to do it, too; one-third of all Puget Sound’s eelgrass, about 8,000 acres of the stuff, grows here.
“There are so few places anymore where children can go and just be free and learn about things.”
— Edna Breazeale
Along with research facilities, the Padilla Bay reserve also features the Breazeale Interpretive Center, which offers hands-on exhibits, education programs for schoolkids and adults, as well as walking paths and beach access. It’s named for the Breazeale family, who donated much of the land — it used to be the family’s 64-acre dairy farm — in the early 1970s. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, plans were afoot to drain and dike the three-mile-by-eight-mile bay and turn it into a major industrial area. Edna Breazeale, a former schoolteacher at Roosevelt High School, and her brothers Fred and Marcellus, organized a grassroots resistance, lobbied politicians, gathered signatures and educated the public, and, eventually, development plans were scrapped.
“They were ahead of their time because they had a strong conservation ethic when not a whole lot of people did,” Alexander said.
The interpretive center opened in 1982 and last year was expanded to include a laboratory, meeting rooms and a bunkhouse for visiting researchers. Along with exhibits detailing what makes an estuary — it’s where freshwater meets saltwater in a low-turbulent environment that allows detritus to accumulate and provide habitat — kids of all ages can press buttons on a wall and listen to the call of the great blue heron. Or kingfisher. Or bald eagle.
At the center’s saltwater aquaria, one can get up close look-sees at what’s out there in the bay without getting wet. Crabs, sea stars and urchins, anemones and lots more invite for oohs and ahhs from the kids. In another room are stuffed specimens of some of the winged creatures who frequent the bay and its upland fields: snowy owls, merlins, brant geese, hawks, harriers and more.
Autumn classes offered
The center also offers free classes such as “Songs of Autumn: Birding by Ear” for adults, and, for kids, “Cider Pressing for Junior Ecologists.”
“We make cider using trees that the Breazeales themselves planted, and here’s the key — after we’re done we plant a new tree so that future generations will have apples,” Alexander says.
From the center, a 0.8-mile partially paved trail leads through field and forest. It’s a nice relaxing jaunt and allows one’s mind to digest all the estuarine knowledge gained inside. Another paved path leads a few hundred yards to an observation deck overlooking Padilla Bay itself. A cool spiral staircase drops down to the beach.
Down in the muck, dunlin, ducks and long-legged great blue herons poke around for something to eat. (Perhaps one of them spiny lumpsuckers or nudibranchs might hit the spot.) In the distance, Lummi and Orcas islands poke their peaks into that perpetual cloud bank and just across the bay, the oil refineries of March Point belch smoky billows that stream sideways in the wind.
Migratory-bird hot spot
About a quarter-mile south of the Padilla Bay reserve, the day-use beach area at Bay View State Park offers a similar view, as well as picnic tables and even a sandy volleyball pit for those who’d like to pretend it’s still summer. A camping park, Bay View has 83 sites including four cozy, 12-foot-by-12-foot cabins that sleep four.
Given that fall and winter are key birding seasons here on Padilla Bay and throughout the Skagit Flats — it’s one of the state’s true hot spots for all kinds of migratory raptors and waterfowl — the campground, particularly the cabins, make a great home base for birding day trips. And since much of the Skagit Flats are, well … flat, a bicycle is a great way to get around. Especially on something like the Padilla Bay Shore Trail, a flat dike-top trail located about a half-mile south of the park, just off Bay View-Edison Road. (Though the signed trailhead parking lot is a block north of Bay View-Edison on Second Street.)
The gravel trail follows the shoreline of Padilla Bay with extensive views reaching far south to the Olympics as well as not-so-far south to Highway 20 and the Swinomish Channel Bridge. Interpretive signs detail the area’s natural history and picnic tables and benches offer the opportunity to slow down and get into that Padilla Bay vibe. A vibe wherein you search the sky for the source of that rat-a-tat-tat kingfisher call you just heard and in which you inevitably end up momentarily distracted by the long, lazy flaps of a great blue heron winging by.
Or by that northern harrier over there in that field, fluttering its wings while appearing stuck in mid-air, scanning the ground below for some delectable munchie. A mouse. A mole. Not sure how harriers feel about nudibranchs.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@ comcast.net.