In an earlier post I mentioned that Laura and I had travelled up river for the Skagit Eagle Festival, only to find that most of the eagles were right here around our little island. This past week while Laura was working on her sabbatical material she sent me catch some “action shots” of our local eagles. Later she joined me for a couple of other excursions out with binoculars and long lenses.
Bald eagles are the show stoppers. They are huge, dramatic, and very distinctive, whether sitting in a tree, on top of a pole, or just out in the field. However, they aren’t the only attraction. Migratory patterns and optimum conditions attract a wide variety of birds, including other raptors and waterfowl.
The king tide hits the area in early January about the same time as seasonal heavy rains. Water levels everywhere rise and semi-permanent ponds form in fields that once grew potatoes and corn. The flooded fields mean worms, grubs, and other creepy crawlies come to the surface attracting all kinds of winged diners. Ducks, geese, and swan take advantage of the small ponds, which are even deep enough for them to swim.
Wednesday was one of those classic Pacific Northwest days with “widely scattered sun breaks.” I set out in the morning with patches of sunlight to the west and heavy clouds to the north and east. I took a circle route through the farmlands looking specifically for eagles this time. There are several large nests in the valley farmlands and huge numbers of eagles gather in the trees over the fields, in much the same way vultures do back home. The adult eagles have the iconic white and black pattern, but the juveniles are all black. Even the young can be huge.
While they might prefer a nice mouse or fish, eagles are not above joining the hoi polloi of water fowl digging for grubs and creepy crawlies in the muddy fields. Protein is protein.
Laura didn’t want to miss out on the action, so after she got her work done she joined me for an afternoon outing. We saw more eagles, but we also saw trumpeter swans and lots of ducks. Laura brought her bird book so that she could identify some of the other ducks out in the fields. Harrier hawks and other birds of prey also caught our attention.
A narrow isthmus connects Samish Island to the mainland. Technically it’s now a peninsula rather than an island, but at one time a small waterway cut across this isthmus, connecting Samish Bay to Padilla Bay. This little bit of land is the perfect habitat for waterfowl. Use of the public lands in the area is shared between duck hunters and bird watchers. Early morning we can hear gunshots. Mid-day is for birders.
On this particular Wednesday Laura and I stopped by the birding area to find a group of men armed not with shotguns, but with more expensive camera gear than I’ll ever own. They were part of a wildlife photography workshop out of Seattle. Off in the distance they had spotted a short-earred owl. I’ve got a nice 500mm lens, but this was too far for even my long lens. These guys were getting amazing resolution on their cameras, though.
Later in the week as we would run errands into town we would take a long way home looking for birds. All along the roads in the valley birders would pull off to the side and you would see a long lens or pair of binoculars poke out of a window. Many are looking at the eagles and swans, but the hardcore birders are after something more unusual, such as a rare owl, falcon, or one-off. I’m always amazed at how they can spot them out in the fields. I tend to get distracted just by the overall volume of birds.
While we saw more birds in between errands, the weekend weather was much better for birding. Saturday was overcast and cool, but it wasn’t raining. We decided to do a bit of walking to exercise my long-bound foot. We did a bit of the Tommy Thompson Rail Trail in Anacortes, but I could still only manage a bit of it. There we saw several other ducks, including goldeneyes and buffleheads. We took a quick spin through Washington Park on the west end of Anacortes, but for whatever reason I didn’t get many photos of birders. I just looked through binoculars.
Sunday the skies cleared and we had a truly sunny day – none of this “sun break” stuff. We set off on our eagle/swan route, heading first down toward Conway and Fir Island to find swans.
The Skagit Wildlife Viewing Area was closed for some reason, so we continued on past La Conner and around toward Bayview. Along the way we spotted a huge flock of geese. This was the first large group we had seen in awhile. Lots of cars were trying to turn onto tiny side roads for a better view. We paused, but it didn’t like like there was a way to get closer without trespassing.
On the other side of Bayview we decided to pause at Bayview State Park. No birds caught our eye, but the scenery was still spectacular.
We continued on along the fields and turned toward Edison. The birders were out in force, with dozens of cars pulling off willy-nilly onto the sides of the roads. We would watch these to see which direction they were pointing their lenses. Usually it wasn’t toward the eagles. We would try to spot what had caught their attention, in case we might also catch a glimpse of something unusual. Mostly we saw hawks and swans.
Once again we stopped at our local birding area and by some miracle found a parking place. Also, once again there were birders out with expensive equipment. Some had wandered on down into a muddy field. One birder said that they had spotted a shrike off in the distance, but we never saw it. I decided to take photos of the birders themselves.
I’m sure we’ll make more excursions as the weather improves. It’s nice that we don’t have to drive a huge distance, but can find all of this bounty within just a couple of miles of our house. I just wish I were more knowledgeable about the different types of birds and how to spot them. I’m sure that will come with time and study.