By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Many factors come together to make Washington a great birding state, and in particular its diversity of habitats and environments. A lengthy coastline includes sheltering bays, exposed ocean vistas, and a variety of wetlands. The central Cascade Range hosts coniferous forests that rise to 14,417-foot Mount Rainier. Eastern Washington, in the mountains’ rain shadow, is largely composed of dry, shrubby areas and grasslands sprinkled with lakes that attract waterfowl.
Washington boasts one of the top sites to see shorebirds in North America: Grays Harbor on the southwestern coast. The Samish and Skagit Flats, north of Seattle, are famed for winter raptors, as well as swans and other waterfowl. In the high Cascades, birders look for species such as the White-tailed Ptarmigan, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. The temperate rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula is home to the Sooty Grouse, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Varied Thrush.
An excellent system of birding trails, featuring seven different loops, covers the state. However, visitors to Seattle don’t have to go far to enjoy good birding. Several locations around the city have cumulative bird lists of more than 200, including Discovery Park, just four miles from the Space Needle. The site with the largest species list in the state, in fact, is the Point No Point Lighthouse, on a peninsula in Puget Sound.
Washington Birding Hotspots
Skagit Wildlife Area features open water, island shoreline, tidal mudflats and marshes, forested uplands, and managed agricultural land. It’s divided into many units scattered across northwestern Washington; to navigate them, go to the website for maps and a guide.
Birders head to the Samish Unit, located about four miles north of Bayview State Park, to see raptors in winter. The star of the show is Gyrfalcon (rare but seen regularly). Also found here are Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. Short-eared Owl also hunts in these fields in winter. Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, and other waterfowl are present, along with shorebirds, gulls, and possibly Northern Shrike.
Southeast of the town of Conway are the Headquarters and Fir Island units, famous for very large flocks of geese and swans in winter. These are also good places to see Bald Eagle and other raptors. Use caution in hunting season, and note the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife requires visitors to its areas to have a Discover Pass or Vehicle Access Pass.
Visitors to Seattle don’t have to go far to enjoy excellent birding. Discovery Park sits on a point of land extending into Puget Sound, and so it provides the opportunity to see wintering Harlequin Duck, scoters, Barrow’s Goldeneye, mergansers, loons, grebes, cormorants, Bald Eagle, gulls, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and other seabirds.
Varied Thrush and Golden-crowned Sparrow winter in Discovery Park too. In summer, look for Osprey, Bald Eagle, Caspian Tern, Band-tailed Pigeon, Barred Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Swainson’s Thrush, Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Western Tanager.
Ten miles southeast, Seward Park has an area of old-growth forest where birders might find Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Bushtit, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Swainson’s Thrush. While there, stop by the Seward Park Audubon Center, which has a bookstore and community conservation and education programs.
The road to the Hurricane Ridge area of Olympic National Park offers an easy way to get to high-elevation birds in the subalpine forest. It also rewards visitors with spectacular views of the mountains. The road is open from mid-May into October, and weekends in winter if weather permits. There’s a visitor center at the top open on the same schedule.
Walking the trails along the road and at the top can bring sightings of Sooty Grouse, Band-tailed Pigeon, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Vaux’s Swift, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Solitaire, Townsend’s Warbler, and Red Crossbill.
On the west side of Olympic National Park, the Hoh Rainforest area is a lushly beautiful place to look for Ruffed Grouse, Sooty Grouse, Band-tailed Pigeon, Barred Owl, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Pacific Wren, American Dipper, Varied Thrush, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler.
To scan the Pacific Ocean for seabirds and mammals, drive to Cape Flattery—not in the park, but on land of the Makah Tribal Council on the peninsula’s tip. You’ll need a permit, available at several locations in Neah Bay. From the parking area, a 0.75-mile trail leads to the northwesternmost point of the lower 48 states. There are observation platforms here from which to look for birds.
A very brief list of possible species here includes Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Loon, Sooty Shearwater, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, plus assorted other grebes, shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, murrelets, and gulls.
From Seattle, Mount Rainier floats in the distance, beckoning would-be explorers. Each year thousands of people climb the 14,410-foot active volcano with hopes of summiting. Birders go to the national park on another quest: To see high-elevation species in spectacular surroundings.
To find the most species, visit recreation areas or trails at different elevations. The popular Paradise area may not open until late April, while the upper-elevation Sunrise area may be closed until July. During the summer, stick to weekdays, if possible, to avoid what can be dismayingly large crowds.
On the way up to, and in, the Paradise area, look for Sooty Grouse, Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Pine Grosbeak, and Red Crossbill. Keep an eye out for American Dipper along streams and American Pipit in open areas.
At 6,400 feet, the Sunrise area is the highest point in the park reached by a paved road. It’s known as a place to look for Boreal Owl and, above treeline, for White-tailed Ptarmigan and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.
Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is a narrow, five-mile-long sand spit extending into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula. Its shore, mudflats, beds of eelgrass, and enclosed bay make it a feeding and resting place for a long list of waterbirds.
Enter the refuge from the parking area in Dungeness County Park. A half-mile trail leads to an observation area. Another trail leads five miles to the lighthouse at the end of the spit, and visitors can walk as much of it as they want. Some areas are closed at times to protect wildlife.
Brant are present in winter, along with ducks, including Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Red-breasted Merganser. Three species of loons and four species of grebes also winter here.
Black Oystercatcher and Caspian Tern nest, and shorebirds such as Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Sanderling, and Western Sandpiper can be common in migration. Pigeon Guillemot and Marbled Murrelet are among the auks that might be seen.
The county park may have Northern Harrier, Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Spotted Towhee. It also provides another viewpoint for seabirds.
Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge is renowned for spring shorebird migration, when tens of thousands of Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Red Knots, Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, and other species rest on their northward journey. Migration peaks in late April and early May, and birding is best within two hours of high tide. Each May, there’s a very popular shorebird festival with programs and field trips.
You can reach the refuge trail at the western end of Airport Way in Hoquiam. Across the bay, areas in the southern part of Ocean Shores have long been favorite birding sites too. They include Oyhut Wildlife Area (turn south off Marine View Drive on Tonquin Avenue) and Damon Point (less than a mile east, turn off Marine View Drive on Protection Island Road). Both are productive for waterfowl, loons, grebes, shorebirds, and gulls. All these areas see Peregrine Falcon appearing regularly to prey on shorebirds.
At the southwestern corner of Ocean Shores, the Point Brown jetty area is a good place from which to scan the Pacific. Scoters, loons, Sooty Shearwater (in fall), cormorants, Brown Pelican, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and gulls—including Black-legged Kittiwake—are some of the highlights. “Rocky shorebirds” can be seen on the jetty: Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper.
This 5,300-acre refuge in southwestern Washington is especially popular from late fall through spring, when it hosts large flocks of geese and other waterfowl. Habitats of wetlands, grasslands, and forest also make it a nice all-around birding site.
Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Tundra Swan, and Sandhill Crane are among the most conspicuous winter birds, along with Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Trumpeter Swan, and abundant ducks of a dozen or more species. Birders regularly find the rare Eurasian Wigeon here.
The refuge has two entrances in the town of Ridgefield. Off South Hillhurst Road, a side road leads to a four-mile auto tour route, offering viewing of waterfowl and Sandhill Crane flocks, as well as Northern Harrier and Bald Eagle. Visitors are required to stay in their cars in winter to avoid disturbing the birds. For birders on foot, the 1.5-mile Kiwa Trail is open May 1 to September 30 and loops through wetlands and ash woodland.
About two miles north, off North Main Street, an entrance road leads to the refuge’s Carty Unit. Walk its Oaks to Wetlands Trail—which, true to its name, passes through open areas and stands of white oak—to see swans. Nesting species along the refuge trails include Virginia Rail, Sora, Rufous Hummingbird, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
The 18,217 acres of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge encompass a glacial landscape called the Channeled Scablands. This combines outcrops of basalt rock, prairie, ponderosa pine forest, and more than 130 marshes and lakes totaling more than 3,000 acres of wetlands. Located less than 20 miles southwest of Spokane, Turnbull is home to nesting waterfowl, marsh birds, shorebirds, and an array of songbirds.
Seventeen species of waterfowl nest here, most notably Trumpeter Swan. (Tundra Swan appears in migration.) Nesting ducks include Gadwall, Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, Hooded Merganser, and Ruddy Duck. Others breeding in wetlands include Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, American Bittern, Osprey, Virginia Rail, Sora, Wilson’s Snipe, Black Tern, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. American White Pelican is seen on refuge lakes in summer.
Explore grasslands and forest along walking trails or the 5.5-mile auto-tour route for summer sightings of California Quail, Northern Harrier, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Say’s Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, or Black-headed Grosbeak.
This refuge located at the southern end of Puget Sound offers wonderful birding year round. Here, the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the saltwater of the sound in an estuary of mudflats, shallow water, marsh grass, and open water. Nisqually’s habitats include deciduous and coniferous forest as well.
The refuge’s birding rewards include waterfowl from fall through spring, shorebirds in spring and fall, and year-round gulls. It’s also home to a wide range of nesting species. They include American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Great Horned Owl, Rufous Hummingbird, Willow Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Western Tanager. Northern Harrier and Bald Eagle can be seen year round, and Osprey from spring to fall. Peregrine Falcon can also be seen year round, searching for prey.
The refuge has a nice trail system that passes through woodland and open areas and accesses boardwalks and viewing platforms out in the estuary. When looking for birds in the tidal estuary, it’s often best to be here within two hours of high tide, which concentrates the birds in higher areas.
Though a little remote, the Wenas area has become popular with local birders—not least for its several notable bird species. In fact, it’s the site of a campout each Memorial Day weekend that’s become a tradition among Washington Audubon members.
From Highway 823 in Selah, just north of Yakima, take North Wenas Road about 20.5 miles to an intersection, then continue on Audubon Road for 2.7 miles to a road on the left. The primitive campground here can serve as a hub for exploring the surrounding area. Check the slopes to the west of the campground. Also head back down Audubon Road a mile or so to areas along the creek. Don’t forget that a Discover Pass is required to use Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife areas.
Birds in the vicinity typically include California Quail, Ruffed Grouse, Sooty Grouse, Flammulated Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Common Poorwill, Calliope Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-naped Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Cassin’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Veery, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.
That’s a long list, but it reinforces why the Wenas area has developed a reputation for nesting birds, and why a visit here can be so rewarding.
The great state of Washington is too diverse to be encompassed by one birding trail, which explains why Audubon Washington has established a series of seven looping trails and mapped them independently. The outer coast of Washington hosts a wide array of migrating shorebirds, including huge flocks of western sandpipers and lesser numbers of Pacific Coast exclusives like surfbirds and black turnstones. Fogshrouded forests that cover the coastal slope and the Olympic Peninsula echo with the ethereal whistles of varied thrushes, while richly colored birds like red-breasted sapsuckers, Townsend’s warblers, and chestnut-backed chickadees hide in the shadows. Ascending toward the high peaks of the Cascades, you’ll find black-backed woodpeckers, gray jays, and many other birds of northern affinities lurking in the forest. East of the mountains, the landscape changes abruptly to drier settings, with different birds. Rock wrens bounce and chatter along the edges of craggy arroyos, while long-billed curlews stalk over the open grasslands. Sage thrashers and Brewer’s sparrows, plain but tuneful birds, sing surprising melodies from the sagebrush flats, and golden eagles wheel overhead. —Kenn Kaufman