If you enjoy seeing wildlife in the wild, midwinter offers some special treats around the state of Washington. Here are five of my favorite wildlife viewing spots for the colder months, most within a day’s drive of Seattle. And with migratory bird-hunting season just concluded, February is a good time to take your binoculars and camera and go:
- SEE TRUMPETER SWANS at Johnson-DeBay Swan Reserve, near Mount Vernon. February is prime time, when you might see hundreds of trumpeter swans here, along with a few tundra swans, Canada geese and thousands of ducks of several species. Around a slough and ponds edging the Skagit River, fields are planted with alfalfa, and sometimes other crops are left in the field to attract the birds. Swans tend to use the area as a night roost, so morning or sunset visits might find the most. If you’ve never seen trumpeter swans flying in formation, with long necks outstretched and 7-foot wingspans beating the air, it’s a sight to remember. And when you get hundreds of them together, the honking rivals a New Jersey traffic jam. Discover Pass required. Click here for directions and more information.
- SEE MIGRATORY WATERFOWL at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, near Olympia. With hunting season over, the estuary boardwalk has reopened. Lots of sea ducks and other waterfowl are fattening up before migrating back north, and Pacific tree frogs start chorusing this month. The refuge celebrates its 40th anniversary in February. You can also get a look at how the estuary has restored itself since dikes were removed in 2009, reconnecting 762 acres with the tides of Puget Sound in the largest estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest. Daily fee is $3 per four adults; no fee for kids 16 and younger. Click here for directions and more information.
- SEE BLACK BRANTS AND GREAT BLUE HERONS at Padilla Bay Reserve, near Anacortes. This 24-square-mile intertidal zone, which becomes a giant mud flat at low tide, includes 8,000 acres of eel grass, making it a vital nursery for everything from salmon, crab and perch to worms, shrimp, clams and other invertebrates that are food for great blue herons, eagles, otters and seals. Eel grass is also the main diet of black brant geese, which migrate here from Arctic climes and make Padilla Bay a major stopover. Hike the flat and easy 2.25-mile Padilla Bay Shore Trail and bring your bird book. Click here for directions and more information.
- SEE ELK at Oak Creek Wildlife Area, in Yakima County. As of Feb. 10, recent snow had finally brought Rocky Mountain elk down from higher elevations, and state wildlife agents feed them here at 1:30 p.m. daily. In
typical winters, hundreds often show up to munch hay. It’s part of a program to help keep the elk on state wildlife lands and off private property. It’s a great opportunity to see the majestic animals up close, including antler-carrying bulls that weigh up to 900 pounds. Call 509-653-2390 for updates. Discover Pass required. Click here for directions and more information.
- ANALYZE ANIMAL TRACKS AND LEARN ABOUT WINTER ECOLOGY on a snowshoe outing in the Methow Valley. You might or might not see live animals, but learning the story their tracks tell of snowshoe hares and other creatures can be fascinating in itself — and keep an eye peeled for mule deer along the way. The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) “Nature of Winter” family snowshoe tours continue every Saturday through March 8. Tours begin at 11 a.m. and run 90 minutes to two hours, depending on conditions. MVSTA trail passes or a MVSTA snowshoe trail pass ($5) are required for each person. Tour size is limited to 10, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Call 509-996-3287 or click here for more information, including where to rent snowshoes in the Winthrop area.
Want more ideas? A good source is the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Wildlife Viewing web page.