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Day of Raptors

Cascade foothills offers premier hawk watching

By Sue Madsen
Photos by Joe Meche

I get out of the truck in the slanting light of the late winter sun, and pull my collar up against the breeze.

Alpenglow lights up Mt. Baker at my back, but this evening my attention is focused to the west, over the field of green-gold stubble that was a cornfield back in July. I set up the spotting scope and scan the horizon, lingering on the tall shapes topping the line of pilings along the distant edge of Samish Bay. Cormorants, eagles and red tail hawks soak up the last rays of the wintry sunset, feathers fluffed against the cold. Then I hear it – a whispery “chjew, chjew, chjew” off to my left. I swing around to catch the fluttery wing beats of a short-eared owl winging in circles around the low-flying northern harrier that has intruded into its airspace.

Many locals don’t realize that the low, flat, deltas laid down by rivers as they exit the Cascade foothills and spill into Puget Sound represent one of the premier hawk watching venues in the nation. Skagit Flats west of Conway, Samish Flats at the south end of Chuckanut Drive, Lummi Flats west of Ferndale and Boundary Bay along the south edge of the Fraser delta just north of the border all offer prime viewing sites. These estuary areas, with their open agricultural fields and relatively mild climate (relative to many of the hawks summer homes in the subarctic that is), provide ideal conditions for overwintering birds of prey.

As a beginning birder, my introduction to the area came by taking a course on raptors taught by Bud Anderson, lead researcher for the Falcon Research Group (FRG). Anderson offers month-long classes in raptor identification and ecology each winter at the Padilla Bay Reserve or through the Whatcom Museum. The highlight of the class is a field trip to the flats. One memorable year I got to help Bud briefly trap a red tail to check it for long bill syndrome.
The FRG has been conducting an annual winter hawk census on the Skagit Flats since 1985. While the flats support a resident population of red tails, a handful of harriers (sometimes known as marsh hawks) and kestrels, birds begin concentrating there in late November as winter closes in at their summer breeding grounds. Short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks and the occasional gyrfalcon and snowy owl migrate down from the arctic and sub-arctic tundra areas they call home in warmer months.

Snowy owls are generally not common, although at least one or two are sighted each year just north of the border in Boundary Bay. However, about every 10 years or so an “irruption” of snowy owls occurs, sending dozens of the majestic birds south to our area. Last year was such an irruption year, and delighted birders regularly spotted almost two dozen birds at Boundary Bay, and several more at Sandy Point in Whatcom County and near Stanwood in Snohomish County.

The winter raptor population reaches its peak in mid-February when bald eagles who have been gorging on salmon along the rivers that feed each delta move downstream to the open fields. Results posted on the FRG website (frg.org) indicate that Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier and Rough-legged Hawk comprise about 85 to 95 percent of the winter raptors on the Skagit Flats. Other species seen include Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk, American Kestrel, Short-eared Owl, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Snowy Owl, Common Barn Owl, Gyrfalcon, Prairie Falcon, Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle, Great Grey Owl, and Barred owl.

Winter hawk watching is not for sissies. My pal Jody and I once watched in fascinated horror as a peregrine falcon stooped on a snow goose, only to be chased off of the feathery feast by a hungry bald eagle who took possession of the kill.

And it gets cold. Because hawk watching is a game of patience that requires staying still, one needs to dress warmly. My winter birding outfit consists of fleece-lined pants, an Eddie Bauer polar parka, fur-lined hat and two sets of wool gloves. Binoculars are also obligatory, and a spotting scope is useful. However, if you don’t have a scope but encounter others who do, don’t hesitate to stop and ask what they have their eyes on; birders love to share their finds and often reward curious on-lookers a glimpse through their high powered optics.

Every birder has their favorite viewing area – mine is the “West 90,” or Samish Wildlife unit according to its official WDFW designation, a gravel parking lot situated at a 90-degree bend in Samish Island Road. I like to visit in the late afternoon an hour or so before sunset to check out the aerial combat between the short-eared owls and harriers.

Great sites north of the border include the Boundary Bay Dike, where snowy owls can be found most winters near the end of 72nd and 64th streets, and the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The 850-acre Reifel refuge includes several miles of walking trails, restrooms and a gift shop. It also hosts a handful of rare overwintering Sandhill Cranes and seldom seen night herons. X

Sue Madsen is a fluid geomorphologist who likes to climb, ski, backpack, sea kayak and scuba dive.

George C. Reifel Migaratory Bird Sanctuary
5191 Robinson Road, Delta, B.C. • reifelbirdsanctuary.com
Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day including holidays.

Falcon Research Group
Bow, WA • frg.org
FRG hosts annual winter raptor count in mid-February.

Boundary Bay Dike
From Vancouver, take Highway 99 and follow signs to Highway 17 and Tsawwassen. Exit from Highway 17 on to Ladner Trunk Road, or Highway 10, by turning left at the first light. From the south take Highway 99 and exit on to Highway 10 heading east. Access Boundary Bay by driving south on 64th or 72nd streets from Highway 10 or by taking 104th Street from Hornby Drive, which runs east as a “frontage road” from the junction of Highway 10 and 99. The Boundary Bay Dyke can be walked from 64th Street east to Mud Bay Park in Surrey,
beyond 120th.

West 90 – Samish Wildlife Unit (WDFW)
From Interstate 5, go west on Highway 20 to the Bayview-Edison Road. Turn right (north) and follow Bayview-Edison Road through Bayview, past the state park and down onto the Samish Flats until the road ends at a “T” intersection. Turn right onto Samish Island Road and proceed until the 90-degree turn to the north. The parking area is straight ahead at the corner. Discover Pass required.