Just north of the Skagit Valley, the lakes, estuaries and mountains surrounding Whatcom County, WA are a secret widely held by feathered travelers on the Pacific Flyway. Although lesser known to human observers, tens of thousands of birds, representing hundreds of species are enticed to a rest stop each winter and spring on the sheltered waters and sparsely populated landscape of the Bellingham Mt. Baker region, which boasts six key locations on the Audubon Society’s Great Washington State Birding Trail, Cascade Loop.
Patient bird-watchers, looking to fill in their checklists, find a rich variety of viewing sites at Drayton Harbor/Semiahmoo Spit, Birch Bay State Park, Tennant Lake Wildlife Area, Deming Homestead Eagle Park, Whatcom Falls Park and Larrabee State Park – all within an easy, 30-mile span. In addition, the North Cascades Audubon Society lists 15 popular birding sites within Whatcom County.
Drayton Harbor/Semiahmoo Spit is officially recognized as the most northerly “Important Bird Area of Washington.” This pristine, shallow marine habitat with extensive intertidal mudflats is adjacent to the U.S.-Canadian border in Blaine, WA. Loons, Brant, Dunlin, Great Blue Herons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead, mallards, ducks, grebes and many other migrating aquatic birds are common here in great numbers, carefully eluding Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons who nest high in the surrounding evergreens.
Semiahmoo Bay is noted by Audubon Washington for supporting “large flocks of all three scoter species; Greater Scaup, four grebe species, many duck species, including Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks; and small numbers of alcids. Up to 650 loons have been counted here in a single day. Five surveys conducted throughout one winter in Drayton Harbor showed a total of more than 15,000 loons. The highest recorded counts of Red-necked Grebes and Horned Grebes on the Washington Coast occurred in this census.”
In celebration of this avian wealth, the bayside City of Blaine hosts its “Wings Over Water: Northwest Birding Festival” each spring. It is scheduled for March 13-15, 2015. The event features wildlife cruises aboard the historic passenger ferry “Plover” and the 50-foot “Salish Sea”, as well as shoreline bird viewing stations at Semiahmoo Spit, Blaine’s Marine Park and nearby Birch Bay State Park. A birding expo throughout the day includes a live raptor presentation, guest speakers, kids activities, food and craft vendors.
Birch Bay State Park features walking trails on 1.5 miles of saltwater shoreline and 3 miles of freshwater shoreline on Terrell Creek. Acrobatic Dunlin flocks can number in the thousands each winter, alongside Black-bellied Plovers. Brant migrating from Mexico to their arctic breeding grounds also stop here to refuel on the plentiful herring that spawn in the shallow seawater. www.washingtonbrant.org Birch Bay was named for its black birch trees by Archibald Menzies, a member of the 1792 Vancouver expedition. The park’s sweeping views look north to the Canadian Gulf Islands. For more details about Birch Bay State Park click here.
Tennant Lake Wildlife Area in Ferndale, WA offers visitors their own “birds-eye view” from a 50-foot tower over looking a shallow lake surrounded by extensive wetlands, open fields, forest and riparian zone. The 150 species frequently observed here include honking Canada Geese, stately Great Blue Herons and majestic Bald Eagles, as well as multiple species of owls, hawks and woodpeckers. Trails at Tennant Lake include a one-mile long, wood-plank boardwalk loop over the water, meandering under a canopy of Alder and five species of water-loving Willow trees. Listen carefully for Chickadees, Red-winged Blackbirds and Virginia Rail. In the tall water grasses, Marsh Wren use cattail fluff to build their nests. Washington’s state bird, the American Goldfinch, is a common visitor in summer months. For more details about Tennant Lake click here.
In the winter months, snowy-white Trumpeter Swans are also common at Tennant Lake. In fact, Whatcom County joins the Skagit Valley as home to the largest concentration of wintering Trumpeter Swans in the lower 48 states, taking advantage of the open, agricultural landscape www.swansociety.org.
Located along the Nooksack River on the Mt. Baker Highway, Deming Homestead Eagle Park is a 100-acre preserve owned by the Whatcom Land Trust and known locally for its spectacular access to wintering Bald Eagles, as five species of salmon use the river for spawning. The cedar-lined river banks are also home to Evening Grosbeaks, Steller’s Jays, American Dippers, Harlequin Ducks and Yellow-rumped Warblers.
Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham features five miles of wide trails through 209 acres of conifer forest and freshwater wetlands, including Scudder Pond — an urban wildlife preserve owned by the North Cascades Audubon Society and located inside the park. The pond is surrounded by tall grasses and cattails, sheltering Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Green and Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Virginia Rails, and Soras. Look carefully for ducklings, which are a common spring delight.
Rounding out Whatcom County’s best birding locations is Larrabee State Park, spanning 2,683 acres, including 8,100 feet of saltwater shoreline on Samish Bay, tidelands, coves and two freshwater lakes. Established in 1915 as Washington’s first state park, Larrabee occupies most of the west side of Chuckanut Mountain and is connected to Bellingham city limits via the well-maintained Interurban Trail. The park’s topographic diversity from sea level to 1,940 feet elevation supports a variety of bird habitat. Great Horned, Western Screech, Northern Pygmy and Barred Owls are year-round residents. This is common territory for Pileated Woodpecker and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, as well as wintering Bald Eagles. Marine birds include Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Great Blue Herons and colorful Harlequin Ducks. For more information about Larrabee State Park click here.