A Western Washington birder would be hard-pressed to find a more rewarding mid-February destination than the Skagit Flats west of Interstate 5, about two hours north of Olympia.
This vast flat expanse of farm fields, sloughs and bays is home to some of the largest wintering populations of once-nearly extinct trumpeter swans and peregrine falcons.
Before the Skagit Valley gives way to a showy, springtime burst of tulips and daffodils, it plays host to a dizzying array of bird populations, including tundra swans, snow geese, shorebirds, ducks, bald eagles, harriers, red-tailed hawks and several other raptors.
You don’t have to be an experienced birder to enjoy the show. But it helped to have as tour guides two passionate biologists and bird researchers – Martha Jordan of the Trumpeter Swan Society and Bud Anderson, founder and director of the Bow, Wash.-based Falcon Research Group.
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A dozen of us were so blessed, thanks to the weekend birding getaway organized by Ralph and Karen Munro.
We met up with Jordan on Saturday morning at the Padilla Bay Wildlife Preserve for a primer in swan ecology and biology.
We learned how to distinguish the trumpeter swans from the tundra swans and snow geese: The trumpeter adults average about 25 pounds to the tundra’s 15 pounds and the snow goose’s approximately 5 pounds. Trumpeters pull their necks into an S-shape at takeoff, while the tundras hold their necks out straight.
We learned that trumpeter swans – yes, their voice sounds like a bugle call – were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century, their feathers prized for pen quills.
“By the 1920s, there were less than 100 birds left,” Jordan said. “This year in the Skagit we have 9,000 birds, our highest number since we started counting.”
We learned that crashing into power lines has passed lead-shot poisoning as the No. 1 cause of swan deaths in the Skagit Valley.
“Two years ago we had nine swans killed at one site in 48 hours,” Jordan said, adding that Puget Sound Energy crews are quick to respond to death scenes to install flashers on the lines that help keep the swans away.
The swans and snow geese are hard on the winter cover crops, pastures, and potato and carrot fields in the valley. Thousands of snow geese grazing on a field can quickly turn it from green to muddy brown. Luckily, they don’t eat tulip and daffodil bulbs.
“If they did, they’d all be dead,” Jordan quipped.
We received some firsthand reminders on the do’s and don’ts of swan and goose watching along county roads. When we pulled over to watch several hundred swans in a field, we were told to move along by a Skagit County sheriff’s deputy who pointed out that the road shoulder wasn’t wide enough for us to pull completely off the road.
Soon we found a road shoulder wide enough to stop to train our binoculars and spotting scopes on thousands of snow geese blanketing a field on Fir Island.
But they spooked and lifted into flight with cries and a whooshing beat of wings after a driver parked his car on the near side of the field, then slammed his car door when he got out.
As dusk settled over the valley, we headed southwest of Sedro-Woolley to a side channel of the Skagit River where trumpeter swans roost for the night, their white, graceful bodies resting on the water as day slowly gave way to darkness. The trumpeter swans prefer freshwater roost sites, while the tundras head for the bays, Jordan said.
“That way the predators can’t get them,” she said of the swans’ water roosting habits.
That night at dinner at a La Conner restaurant, the table was graced with a tundra swan carved out of white Italian marble by Olympia sculptor and raptor enthusiast Ross Matteson. For $13,500, it could be yours.
While we were driving around Saturday looking at swans and geese, Matteson participated in the mid-winter raptor count organized by Anderson and his band of trained volunteers. They spotted about 900 hawks, eagles and falcons.
Shortly after dawn Sunday morning, we met up with Anderson at a setting that had this 40-year veteran of raptor research brimming with excitement. Across the road in a flooded pasture sat thousands of dunlin, which are stocky, long-billed shorebirds. As the shorebirds waited for the high tide to recede in nearby Padilla and Samish bays, a peregrine falcon pair perched on telephone poles and wire, peering down at potential prey.
Suddenly, it was showtime, as the speedy falcons dove into the flock, sending the shorebirds into a swooping aerial ballet. The falcons came away empty-taloned, but not before one of the falcons dove on a bald eagle standing in the field, sending the eagle sprawling in the mud.
“Here we are, watching this ancient dance between the dunlin and the peregrines,” Anderson said. “Amazing.”
Anderson said he has seen more falcon strikes on dunlins at this one site in two days than during some entire winters. What a privilege it was to be there last weekend.
The peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest bird, was all but wiped out by DDT pesticide poisoning 40 years ago. But with the ban of the potent chemical, the peregrines have rebounded to more than 100 nest sites in the state, including 20 nesting pair in the Skagit Valley.
Thanks to dedicated bird researchers such as Anderson and Jordan, we know so much more about the movements, numbers and threats to species such as swans and peregrine falcons. To learn more about their work, go to www.trumpeterswansociety.org and www.frg.org. These two nonprofit groups deserve support.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444