The Pacific Northwest is often characterized by its expansive temperate rainforests. The region certainly hosts impressive coniferous and mixed woodlands, but the habitat diversity goes well beyond these wet forests. Broad fertile valleys, expansive tidal mudflats, and the inland waterways of northwest Washington and southwest British Columbia support an amazing variety of birds, especially in winter. The winter weather here is moderated by the region’s maritime influence, and birds from the arctic find it quite acceptable compared to winter on their breeding grounds. In addition, the lushness of the onshore habitats and the richness of the open waters offer bountiful winter feeding grounds. From the Skagit Valley and Puget Sound to the Fraser River Delta, excellent birding awaits. Combine an outstanding birding experience with the warm northwestern hospitality and some of North America’s finest wines and seafood, and you will remember this week-long adventure for years to come.
- Your host and guide, Stephen Shunk
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From the Cascade Mountains and Coast Ranges to the broad deltas of some of the continent’s largest rivers, the Pacific Northwest offers one of North America’s most outstanding winter birding spectacles. Countless Bald Eagles line the shores and fields of the region, and raptor numbers in general reach epic proportions, with Snowy Owl and Gyrfalcon reported annually in the region. Large flocks of Trumpeter and Tundra swans join up to 20,000 Snow Geese in the area’s productive agricultural lands. Open waters host still more waterfowl, including thousands of “Gray-bellied” Brant, hundreds of Harlequin and Long-tailed ducks, and all three scoter species.
Up to five different loons and three cormorant species can be observed, as well as up to six different Alcids. Shorelines display abundant Glaucous-winged and Mew gulls, with Herring, Thayer’s, and Glaucous gulls scattered about. And though raptors and waterbirds may appear dominant, we will also enjoy a number of special resident and wintering passerines.
Winter songbirds in the Pacific Northwest include an abundance of Pacific Wrens and “Sooty” Fox Sparrows, with Varied Thrush possible throughout the region. Golden-crowned Kinglet, Spotted Towhee, Steller’s Jay, and both Chestnut-backed and Black-capped chickadees can be quite common, and we usually run across Northern Shrike and Hutton’s Vireo. Our tour route also defines the southern limit of the Northwestern Crow, which we will see easily on the northern shorelines. The region typically hosts its share of winter rarities, with Bohemian Waxwing, American Tree Sparrow, Common Redpoll, and Brambling among our past discoveries. Combine the songbirds with the abundant raptors and waterbirds, and you have a true winter birding spectacle.
Fraser River Delta and Boundary Bay, British Columbia
Our tour begins south of Vancouver, among the fertile agricultural lands, expansive mudflats, and endless shorelines of the Fraser River Delta. Between Delta and Ladner, B.C., the immense Fraser River flows into the Pacific Ocean, creating habitat for some of the most impressive winter bird concentrations anywhere. The Ladner Christmas Bird Count boasts mind-boggling tallies of a few key species, including 20-year averages of: 35,000 Dunlin, 30,000 American Wigeon; 25,000 Glaucous-winged Gull; and 20,000 Northern Pintail; plus 250 Bald Eagles and a dozen Snowy Owls—and these are annual averages for only a 15-mile-diameter circle! We can easily see over 100 Bald Eagles on the mudflats of Boundary Bay, and the shoreline will be crawling with Dunlin that will repeatedly flush in pulsating masses to the slightest threat of danger (with good reason, as multiple Peregrine Falcons overwinter on the bay and are quite adept at subduing the tiny Dunlin).
In some years, we can watch dozens of Snowy Owls loafing among the driftwood, and we will check all the local hot-spots for wintering Gyrfalcon.
Three nights in British Columbia will afford us ample opportunity to hit the regional highlights. One full day in the Ladner area will include a tour of Reifel Bird Sanctuary, near the mouth of the Fraser River. Reifel often hosts wintering Barred Owl or Northern Saw-whet Owl, along with thousands of Snow Geese and many raptors, including Bald Eagle, Merlin, and abundant Northern Harriers. We may get up-close-and-personal with Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane that winter among the practically tame flocks of Mallards and American Wigeon at the preserve. Our second full day will include a thorough scouring of the Boundary Bay shoreline, where we may find Long-eared Owl or American Tree Sparrow at our various stops along the 10-mile dyke trail. Short-eared Owls can be abundant over the mudflats, and this is our best chance for Snowy Owls. We will also head to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in search of loons, grebes, alcids, and more raptors, and we may go north toward Vancouver, depending on local bird reports.
Northwestern Washington and Skagit Valley
After brief stops at Blackie Spit (for shorebirds and possible Snow Bunting) and the White Rock pier (for scoters and espresso), we will head south into northwestern Washington. We may
stop at Semiahmoo Spit and Drayton Harbor for more water birds, and we can always hope for a
Yellow-billed Loon. Farther south is Birch Bay, where we will search for rafts of Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, plus all three scoters and up to three loon species. After lunch in scenic Bellingham, we will cross the Samish River flats in search of raptors galore, including Gyrfalcon, Rough-legged Hawk, Bald Eagle, and possible “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk. We often encounter amazingly high concentrations of Eurasian Wigeon in the flooded fields of the Samish region.
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We will spend our next 3 nights in the Skagit River Valley, where we will stay in the quaint port-town of La Conner. From here, we will explore the Skagit and Samish flats; Samish, Padilla, and Skagit bays; Fidalgo Island; and the delta of the Stillaguamish River near Stanwood.
During a Snowy Owl “flight year”, we may find Snowies right here in “the Skagit”. Glaucous Gull often feeds among the flocks of Glacous-winged and Mew gulls, and songbirds may include Northern Shrike, Hutton’s Vireo, and Varied Thrush. Open waters off Fidalgo Island may provide us with excellent looks at Rhinoceros Auklet and Pacific Loon (sometimes feeding alongside pods of harbor porpoise!), while flocks of “Sitka” Red Crossbills call from the coastal forests, along with the chatty little Pacific Wren in the brambles.
Puget Sound, Admiralty Inlet, & the Strait of Juan de Fuca
As we leave the Skagit Valley, we will skirt the southern edge of Fidalgo Island, crossing Deception Pass onto Whidbey Island. Here, we will board the Keystone ferry, bound for scenic Port Townsend. The ferry ride offers stunning views of the Olympic Mountains (weather permitting!) along with many alcids and other waterbirds riding the tides back and forth in the rich waters of Admiralty Inlet. We should get excellent looks at Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and Rhinoceros Auklet, with good chances for Ancient Murrelet, Cassin’s Auklet,
and possible Black-legged Kittiwake.
Our first full day on the Olympic Peninsula will begin with a scenic drive to Port Angeles, where we will scour the waters off Ediz Hook for seabirds, with nearly annual Thick-billed Murre and excellent looks at loons and Marbled Murrelet. We will continue eastward to the Sequim Peninsula, where we will cover the Dungeness River delta and Dungeness Bay. Yellow-billed Loons are often counted in high numbers on the local Christmas Bird Count, and the fringes of the peninsula can attract rare songbirds such as Tropical Kingbird and Harris’s Sparrow. We may have time for various stops along Sequim Bay before heading back to historic Port Townsend.
Our second day in the region will cover any parts west that we were not able to visit the prior day, as well as thorough coverage of the narrow Quimper Peninsula and Fort Worden.
The afternoon will take us to Oak Bay and Marrowstone Island in search of still more loons and Alcids and rafts of sea ducks, with impressive concentrations of Long-tailed Duck near the mouth
of Port Townsend Bay. Goose flocks could easily include a rare wintering Emperor Goose.
On our final morning, we will enjoy a light early breakfast in Port Townsend before heading south and east across the Hood Canal on the world’s longest saltwater floating bridge. A turn to the north will take us to the northern limits of the Kitsap Peninsula, with birding stops at Foulweather Bluff and Point No Point. This will be our final chance to see wintering seabirds, such as Alcids, loons, Red-necked Grebe, and Red-breasted Merganser. After a classic northwestern brunch in scenic Port Gamble, we will hop the Kingston ferry to Edmonds, followed by the quick drive
to the Seattle/Tacoma airport.
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This Pacific Northwest tour has great birding and unforgettable landscapes! We saw massive flocks of birds as well as small, unusual species. Steve books very nice places to stay and we enjoyed unique dining experiences as well. The local guides he used were an extra bonus to the trip. Overall, it was a fun trip with the flexibility of a small group and an interesting mixture of great birding and visits to historical and geographical sites. We were also glad that Steve’s partner Christine could join us for the trip.
-Eva Armi and Blair Francis, San Diego CA
Steve’s obvious passion for the experience is a very
important part of what he brings to these trips.
-John Kailey, Tumalo, OR