Friday, March 28, 2008


I’d planned on making the trip to the Skagit valley in January. A book packager I was working with told me to wait, pointing out I could combine the trip with research I’d be doing in British Columbia. By the end of January the book was in doubt. I plugged away at a technical assignment, reading hundreds of pages of laws. By the last week in February, I’d finished. Though it would be the end of a steady paycheck for a little while, I felt like celebrating, even if gas was $3.30 a gallon, a near record so far in 2008. Before prudence could get the better of me, I put my binoculars and a change of clothes in the car and headed north. It was early March and I knew it was now or never for this year, anyway. Before much longer, wintering swans and snow geese would leave the Skagit valley to nest in the tundra.

From Portland, it’s not a bad drive on I-5. I crossed the Columbia River at 10:10 a.m. and arrived at the LaConner exit at 2 p.m. There were about 200 swans in a field along the west side the interstate before I reached the exit. On a clear day, the Cascades are a majestic backdrop to the east. This day, though, they were shrouded by clouds, making it easier to focus on birds. My first stop was a parking lot on Fir Island, a fan-shaped estuary where alternating fingers of land and water from the Skagit River meet Puget Sound. The lot was half full as people came to watch snow geese descend in a field adjacent to the Sound. There were close to 8000 of the geese, with more arriving each minute. I walked up to a fence, joining other birders. The geese, white with black wing tips, seemed to greet each other, so much honking. The juveniles were present in almost equal numbers, easily distinguishable by their gray feathers.

After so much anticipation, I stood there, present, taking in the sight and sound of snow geese. I turned, and there, in a large, deciduous tree, were two adult bald eagles and what looked to be a fairly new nest. Turning back to the Sound, I walked out, seeing a few ducks in the distance before returning to the geese. By now, another section of the field had turned from green to white and black and gray.

I got back in the car and went in search of swans. They’re found in fields, and the best place to observe them is from the side of the road. This can be tricky in the Skagit area where shoulders have been replaced by ditches to catch water. Here and there are tractor roads, little graveled places where one can park and watch swans.

The year before I’d spent two days driving up and down nearly every road in the area, carefully looking at each swan in search of a whooper swan usually found wintering the Aleutians. This year I could relax and simple drink in the beauty of these birds. There were a couple of hundred here, a hundred there. In fact, there are hundreds of wintering swans near my home west of Portland. But not in the numbers seen in the Skagit flats. And here, the swans are closer, easier to see. Perhaps they’re used to reverent tourists like me. Trumpeters are bigger and lack the little bit of yellow between the black beak and eye found often, but not always, in the tundra swan. Watching them at rest in a lush, green field, I was reminded swans represent transcendence to some native tribes.
A male Northern harrier, or marsh hawk, swooped in and hopped along the edge of the field, looking for rodents. 

I could spend the remaining hours of daylight here but a friend offering a place to stay east of Blaine was waiting for me. I took the Mt. Baker Highway at the southern end of Bellingham and drove east /northeast to my friend’s country place. I love the drive, and knew I’d see bald eagles and their nests regularly in the intervening 40 miles or so. I stopped at a couple of flooded fields and saw American wigeons and green winged teal. There were a few swans still wandering about, but most had already flown north. Within a mile of my friend’s house, I saw eagles on the ground in a nearby field. I pulled the car over to the shoulder and grabbed my binoculars. There were 2 adult and 3 immature bald eagles. One adult and two immatures were about 20 feet from 2 Labrador retrievers. The other birds were further away. One dog trotted toward them. As the dog neared, the birds took off, landing close to the other birds. The other dog, so close now to 5 eagles, seemed totally uninterested.

On a clear day, you can see Mt. Baker out my friend’s kitchen window. The next morning, however, it and the surrounding mountains were hidden by clouds. There was a steady, light rain. I didn’t care. I gobbled oatmeal, threw on my slicker and offered to drive. We headed to Birch Bay first, stopping along the way to check out eagles and nests.

The rain was a fine mist when we got to the bay. We got our scopes out. Mine is old and inexpensive, perfect really: powerful enough to see birds in the distance, and old enough that I don’t mind if it gets a little wet. There were loons, scoters, and my favorite duck…well, one of my favorites…harlequin. Its blue, white and rust colors remind me of Northwest Native art. These ducks winter along the coast, going inland in late spring to nest inland on rivers and streams.

Next we went to Semiahmoo, a resort across from the Blaine. In past years, we’ve seen long-tailed ducks here, along with yellow-billed loons. On this day, there were rafts of pacific and common loons floating north toward Canada, a stone’s throw away. We walked down an old pier and saw a red-throated merganser.

The next morning the sun was shining on all the mountains, now revealed, sparkling against the blue sky. I moved out here almost 9 years ago, yet the mountains are still riveting. I could take the diagonal route to I-5, but instead, I drove due west to Blaine. The early morning sun glistened on evergreens and field after field of raspberry canes.

Once on I-5, it was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. To east are the Cascades, to the west, the Olympic Mountains. Even the Seattle skyline was beautiful. I drove a little over a hundred and fifty miles to Gig Harbor and had lunch with my friend Wendy. I’ve spent a lot of time hiking on the Olympic Peninsula, and I was tempted to stay a little longer. But the call toward home and family was stronger. The night before, my grandson had called me. “Where are you, Nonna?” he’d asked. “I’m in northern Washington, watching birds,” I replied.
“But Nonna, it’s dark outside. How can you see any birds?”
We’ll have to go owling some night.

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