The Wings over Water Northwest Birding Festival is April 17 in and around Blaine in Whatcom County. Here's a guide to area attractions.
BLAINE, Whatcom County — Since last summer, when my sister Kate moved to Bellingham from New Jersey, one of the duties I’ve been happily charged with is playing tour guide. Showing her around and pointing out the vast outdoor riches we’re blessed with here in the upper-left-hand corner of the nation. Recently, we zoomed in on the upper-left corner of our state, specifically the Drayton Harbor-Semiahmoo Spit-Birch Bay troika in northwest Whatcom County, focusing on the area’s bountiful beaches and birds.
“It’s Heron Town!” Kate said, amazed, as we rounded a bend on Drayton Harbor Road and counted 22 great blue herons perched on 22 separate rocks in the muddy flats just offshore. Their shoulders hunched, they looked like zoot-suit-wearing gangsters from some ’40s movie. Just a typical day in Heron Town.
Drayton Harbor and Birch Bay, as well as Semiahmoo Spit — a 1.25-mile-long land finger that pokes almost all the way across Drayton Harbor to the border town of Blaine — are key ports of call along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south route for migratory birds. They’re stops on the Great Washington State Birding Trail, places determined by the Audubon Society as being among the best places for birding in Washington State.
Thus, it’s not surprising that these crescent-shaped bays separated by little more than a mile of landmass appear to be a roosting-perching-posing-flyover area for every great blue heron and his cousin in the Northwest. Not to mention home (albeit, temporary in some cases) to countless bald eagles, shorebirds and waterfowl, too.
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They’re all spots, too, that will be featured April 17 in the Wings Over Water birding festival in Blaine. Along with guided walks, bird-viewing stations, live raptor exhibits, and geology and wildlife tours, the free annual event offers an art show, whale-watching trips, kids activities and more.
My sister and I covered much of the same ground (and water) on our recent birding/beach-walking tour. Starting in Blaine and heading south, here are details of our route:
Blaine Marine Park
To begin, head north on Interstate 5 to Exit 276, Blaine, the last exit before the U.S.-Canada border crossing. Turn left on Peace Portal Drive and in 0.1 mile, turn right onto Marine Drive and into Blaine Marine Park.
This park on the Blaine Harbor Peninsula dazzles with surprises. Along with terrific birding opportunities throughout the year — waterfowl and shorebirds such as loons, grebes, dunlins, sandpipers, sanderlings, mergansers and godwits, not to mention eagles and herons — the park’s pleasant walking path with interpretive signage offers views across Boundary Bay to White Rock, B.C., which seems close enough to swim to. (But I wouldn’t want to try it.) A pod of sculpted orcas rises from the sidewalk, including one spy-hopping whale that appears to be checking out the lineup of cars at the Peace Arch border crossing, just a few hundred yards to the north across the harbor. Visit the public pier at the end of the half-mile-long peninsula for even more spectacular water-island-Semiahmoo views.
A true oddity is Point Roberts, that headland visible to the west, 12 air miles away. Though it’s beyond White Rock, it’s actually part of the United States. An anomaly of cartography, Point Roberts is a five-square-mile nubbin of land that extends south of the 49th Parallel and is actually a part of Whatcom County, even though one has to drive 20-plus miles into Canada to get there by car.
On weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the MV Plover (www.mvplover.org) passenger ferry leaves from Marine Park for the 11-minute voyage across scenic Drayton Harbor to Semiahmoo Spit. (Make the “OK” sign with your thumb and index finger. Then separate the two by a quarter-inch. Semiahmoo Spit would be your thumb; the Blaine Harbor Peninsula and Marine Park is your index finger; and the encircled space in the middle is Drayton Harbor. The Plover’s route bridges that gap between your index finger and your thumb.)
Originally built to ferry cannery workers from Blaine to Semiahmoo, the 17-passenger Plover is the oldest foot ferry in Washington. Wildlife cruises of Drayton Harbor and Semiahmoo Bay aboard the Plover will be offered during the Wings Over Water festival.
Drayton Harbor pullout
Exiting Marine Park, turn right onto Peace Portal Drive, Blaine’s pleasant waterfront main drag, and follow it south for two miles. Turn right onto Bell Road (which eventually becomes Blaine Road) and in another mile, right onto Drayton Harbor Road. Soon the harbor opens up to your right with views of Semiahmoo Spit at the far corner. In just under a mile, just past the Y-intersection with Harborview Road (bear right), a roadside pullout on the right offers a terrific viewing spot.
Here’s the spot my sister called Heron Town, and on a personal note it’s one of my favorite stretches of road when I bicycle from Bellingham to Birch Bay and back. Sometimes the pilings along this stretch are topped by so many eagles it’s almost hard to keep one’s eyes on the road. Note: Drayton Harbor is often closed to recreational shellfish gathering because of high toxin levels.
Continue on Drayton Harbor Road (with the harbor on your right) for 2.5 miles to Semiahmoo Parkway. Turn right and immediately begin dropping down and onto the spit. The 1.25-mile peninsula separates Drayton Harbor to the east and Semiahmoo Bay, itself an inlet of much more open Boundary Bay, to the west. Thus, Semiahmoo Bay is choppier than usually placid Drayton Harbor.
Walkers, cyclists and in-line skaters love the paved path that runs the length of the spit, offering not only excellent bird and marine-life watching but stunning views of Mount Baker to the east, especially toward sunset. During the April 17 festival, the North Cascades Audubon Society will set up bird-viewing stations at either end of the spit, keeping an eye out for everything from short-eared owls to black oystercatchers to marbled godwits, lesser scaups and more.
Also during the festival, the Drayton Harbor Maritime Museum (www.draytonharbormaritime.org) will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (The museum is generally open from noon to 4 p.m., weekends only, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.) The museum’s photos and artifacts detail much of the area’s past. Semiahmoo Spit was long occupied by the Coast Salish tribe as well as one of the largest salmon canneries on the West Coast.
The spit is now home to the high-end Semiahmoo Resort (www.semiahmoo.com) and its two restaurants, Stars and Packers.
Leaving the spit, head south on Semiahmoo Parkway, and this time turn left onto Drayton Harbor Road (the harbor is now on your left) and follow to Harborview Road. Turn right (just past Heron Town) onto Harborview Road and follow for 1.6 miles to Birch Bay Drive; the expansive 2.5-mile-wide half-moon bay is directly ahead. Turn left and follow the shoreline-hugging road south toward Birch Bay State Park.
Though Birch Bay is not an incorporated town, it sure feels like one, with eateries, shops, places to stay, etc. (I love Birch Bay, though it always has the feel of a place that’s waiting — hoping? — to boom one day.) Plenty of places also to stop and head down to the water. When the tide is out, hundreds of yards of firm, sandy beach open up, much of which you’ll share with those of the feathered and winged persuasion. (Be sure to obey signs designating where and where not to park.)
To get to Birch Bay State Park (www.parks.wa.gov), continue south along the bay for a couple of miles, turning right at the intersection with Birch Bay Road. (Through April or so, construction work at the park requires a slight detour to enter the park; signs point the way.) Along with 1.5 miles of saltwater shoreline, this camping park offers nearly 170 tent and RV spaces. The day-use area makes Birch Bay a popular clamming and crabbing spot, too. And of course, there’re always the birds: the eagles, the herons, the kingfishers, the harlequin ducks, the northern pintails, the grebes, the loons, the dunlin …
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Insiders’ Guide Bellingham and Mount Baker” (Globe Pequot).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.