Friday, January 29, 2010

Skagit River Flats

After days of visiting family and painting a playroom to look like a ferny forest inhabited by dinosaurs, I step onto the night ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island, Washington. The lights of town recede, and the dark waters and crisp night air of Puget Sound envelop the ferry.

My friend Jim Shiflett is waiting at the dock for the ferry's arrival.

Next day finds us in the flats of the Skagit River Valley and on Fir Island, which lies between the north and south forks of the river, bordering the estuary. Clouds hide, then reveal the sun. There's hardly a breath of wind. Western Washington is enjoying its warmest January on record.

Dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk (Photo by Narca)

We're in prime raptor habitat, although today the hawks and falcons are little in evidence. A rare dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk regards us. I'm struck again by how small its bill is, when compared to a Red-tailed Hawk's. A couple of Merlins dash past. Bald Eagles abound, numbering perhaps 40 or 50. Pairs perch near their huge stick nests, ready for the next nesting effort.

Thousands of Dunlin sleep in a field. (Photo by Narca)

We find a big concentration of Snow Geese. Those that winter here in the Skagit Valley return each spring to breed on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. (Wrangel also has the world's highest density of Polar Bear dens, and Woolly Mammoths survived the longest on Wrangel, until about 1700 years ago!)

A storm of Snow Geese from Wrangel Island (Photo by Narca)

The Snow Geese share the Skagit Valley with literally thousands of wintering Trumpeter Swans. Many of the local farmers are paid to raise forage for the swans. However, we see two fields where swans and geese are discouraged in a novel way: the farmer has put out a Bald Eagle decoy in the center of each field, and the ruse appears effective. Neither of the fields holds a single other bird!

Tideland habitat of Short-eared Owls (Photo by Narca)

In the tidelands, masses of driftwood pile up, interspersed with swathes of grass. Short-eared Owls roost in these twisted roots and logs, emerging in late afternoon to hunt. One perches atop a small conifer growing amid the wrack––how beautiful these owls are!

Short-eared Owl (Watercolor by Narca)

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