Winter wildlife watching: best sites, times to see birds, elk and whales
Winter and wildlife viewing in the Northwest go together like binoculars and a pair of eyes. Birds and whales are passing through on their...
Special to The Seattle Times
Northwest travel guides
Winter and wildlife viewing in the Northwest go together like binoculars and a pair of eyes.
Birds and whales are passing through on their way somewhere else or making this their destination because the food can't be beat, while elk and sheep are descending from the mountains where their food sources are now blanketed by snow. Here are some fun wildlife-viewing opportunities:
Elk and bighorn sheep
Oak Creek Wildlife Area, Yakima County — Each year when the snow falls in the mountains, hundreds of Rocky Mountain elk and bighorn sheep descend to the lower elevations of this 42,000-acre wilderness area near Naches, about 20 miles northwest of Yakima. Through the winter-feeding program, visitors can get close to the elk and even take a tour to learn about their stomping grounds. Feeding areas are located near the intersection of Highway 410 and Highway 12. For more information, call the Oak Creek Wildlife Area at 509-698-5106 or see http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/r3oakcrk.htm.
To learn more about wildlife watching year-round: See the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wildlife Viewing Guide: http://wdfw.wa.gov/viewing/wildview.htm.
Hurns Field, Skagit County — For great elk viewing, head east toward Concrete on Highway 20. For now, the viewing spot is just a roadside pullout on the south side of the road at Milepost 85.6. "Especially in the mornings and early evenings, it's a pretty reliable place for seeing 50 to 60 elk," says Brenda Cunningham, stewardship director for the Skagit Land Trust, which helps manage the spot. By spring, the land trust and Department of Fish and Wildlife hope to have completed work on a 12-space paved parking area with interpretive signs.
Upper Skagit River — Each year, more bald eagles converge on the Upper Skagit River than anywhere in the Lower 48. Drawn by spawned-out salmon, some 500 eagles take up winter residence from now through mid-March in the river valley near Rockport (with eagle numbers peaking from Christmas through the second week of January). Great places for viewing are along Highway 20 starting at about Milepost 90. There are several roadside pullout areas including a large parking lot with portable toilets at Milepost 100. Consider a visit to the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays Dec. 8 through Feb. 18. It's located in Rockport, across from Howard Miller Steelhead County Park. Call 360-853-7626 or see www.skagiteagle.org.
Swans and geese
Skagit Wildlife Area — What makes this place special? Volume! Volume! Volume! Each winter some 27,000 snow geese, 300 tundra swans, and more than 125,000 ducks converge on this 13,000-acre waterfowl wonderland near Conway, at the delta formed by the north and south forks of the Skagit River pouring into Puget Sound. For information, call 360-445-4441. To get to there, take Interstate 5 to Exit 221, just south of Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Go west from the freeway to Fir Island Road, following the sign for Conway/La Conner. In 1.8 miles, turn left onto Wylie Road and follow for 1 mile to a T-intersection and a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. Turn left, following the sign for the boat launch; the parking lot is a few hundred yards ahead. Caution: The area is open to hunters during fall waterfowl season, which continues into January.
Samish Flats — About 15 miles north of the Skagit Wildlife Area is Samish Flats, a great place for spotting raptors. "People come from all over because you can sometimes see five different kinds of falcons in one afternoon," says Cunningham, of the Skagit Land Trust. (Those would be gyrfalcon, peregrine falcon, prairie falcon, merlin and American kestrel.) On a personal note, about 10 years ago, I saw eight snowy owls here. The flats are kind of an amorphous area, west of Edison. To get there, get off I-5 at Exit 236 (Bow) and head west on Bow Hill Road for about six miles — past Chuckanut Drive and the small town of Edison. Just south of Edison, turn right on Bayview-Edison Road and follow to Samish Island Road. A pullout area where the road bends sharply north toward Samish Island is a great place to look.
Each spring, some 18,000 gray whales cruise by the Pacific Northwest coast on their way back to the Bering Sea after spending a few months breeding and calving in the warmer waters off Baja California. But how about their southern migration? They have to get down there somehow and, as they do in spring, their winter migration includes offshore swim-bys on the Washington and Oregon coasts.
In winter, the whales pass with greater frequency than in spring (sometimes 30 per hour) but they're farther offshore. For a memorable holiday vacation, consider Oregon State Parks' volunteer-assisted watching program, Whale Watching Spoken Here. Volunteers count and help visitors spot whales during peak migration periods. The winter program runs Dec. 26-Jan. 1 at Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment (formerly Fort Canby) State Park in Ilwaco, and at 27 sites along the Oregon coast. For information, call 541-765-3407 or see www.whalespoken.org.