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Originally published February 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 13, 2009 at 2:51 PM

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February is prime viewing time for Skagit Valley swans, snow geese and raptors

February is a good month to view swans, snow geese and raptors in the Skagit Valley.

Special to The Seattle Times

Every bird counts

Event this weekend

The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Friday through Monday pretty much anywhere there are birds. To participate, visit www.birdsource.org/gbbc/howto.html to download a tally sheet and, after counting birds for 15 minutes, download your results.

If you go

Skagit Valley birding

Key sites

The Skagit Valley is a bird-watcher's paradise in February, when hunting season is over and snow geese, swans and eagles lead a long menu of overwintering birds easily seen from valley roads and recreation sites. Here are some popular birding spots:

• The Pilchuck Audubon group visited Skagit Wildlife Area, Wiley Slough. To get there, take Interstate 5 to Exit 221, just south of Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Go west from the freeway and turn right on Fir Island Road, following the sign for Conway/La Conner. In 1.8 miles, turn left onto Wylie Road and follow for 1 mile to a four-way intersection; go straight following the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. Turn left, following the sign for the boat launch; the parking lot is a few hundred yards ahead.

To follow the route described in the story, just after crossing the Skagit River on Fir Island Road, go left onto Mann Road and follow as it curves along the river, eventually intersecting with Wylie Road just north of Wiley Slough. In fact, just about all of the roads in this area are prime viewing spots depending on the swans, geese, and raptors' moods and feeding habits.

• The nearby Fir Island Farms/Hayton Snow Goose Reserve, which is planted in winter wheat for snow-goose consumption, is also a prime viewing spot and offers a parking area and restroom facilities. To get there, follow the above directions but instead of turning left onto Wylie Road, continue straight for another 1.5 miles. Turn left at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign; the parking area is a half-mile ahead.

• Samish Flats and Edison area: The northern Skagit Valley is a prime area for spotting raptors such as eagles, hawks and the occasional falcon.

• Bay View State Park picnic area: Look for waterfowl at this shorefront park.

• Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve: The Breazeale Interpretive Center at this reserve north of Bay View, on Bay View-Edison Road, has bird maps and exhibits interpreting the area's natural history. Look for eagles and waterfowl from a shorefront viewing tower, or meadow and woodland birds from an upland trail. Free. Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 360-428-1558 or www.padillabay.gov.

Safety and etiquette

• When viewing birds from your vehicle, remember to pull completely off the road and don't block traffic. Note that stretches of Fir Island Road are posted as no-stopping zones.

• Respect private property.

• Don't harass birds. Migratory flocks depend on winter feeding to gain weight for the long flight home. Purposely disturbing birds in order to get a photo of them taking flight is not only bad birder etiquette, it can earn you a citation from a wildlife agent.

Worthwhile stops

• Pick up a loaf of whole-grain goodness from Breadfarm bakery in Edison. www.breadfarm.com.

• Lunch, a snack or a gourmet goody to take home can be had at the historic Rexville Grocery, on Best Road a quarter-mile northwest of the North Fork Skagit River bridge. www.rexvillegrocery.com.

Birder field trips

A field trip with a local Audubon group can be the best way to see and learn. Dress for the weather and bring field guides, binoculars or spotting scopes A few upcoming outings:

Feb. 21, Samish Flats, Skagit Audubon Society. Meet at 8:30 a.m. at Breazeale Interpretive Center, near Bay View. Beginners and nonmembers welcome. Leader: Joel Brady-Power, 360-460-0078. www.fidalgo.net/~audubon.

Feb. 21, Samish and Skagit Flats, Seattle Audubon Society. Members get priority; see www.seattleaudubon.org to register.

• Upcoming Pilchuck Audubon Society outings include Feb. 17 to the Snoqualmie Valley (Monroe to Carnation), and Feb. 24 to Smith and Spencer Islands, Everett. 360-435-3750 or www.pilchuckaudubon.org.

Permit needed

To visit any of the state Fish and Wildlife Department's sites in the Skagit Wildlife Area (or other wildlife areas around the state), you need a Vehicle Use Permit, $10.95 per year. They are available at many outdoor-equipment stores or can be ordered online: https://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.

More information

See the Skagit Wildlife Area Web page, http://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/skagit.

For a complete list of Washington state chapters of the Audubon Society, see the Audubon Washington Web site: www.wa.audubon.org/chapters.html.

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CONWAY, Skagit County — On a chilly winter morning, hearty members of the Pilchuck Audubon Society have flocked to the Skagit Wildlife Area. Specifically, the Wiley Slough area and its two-mile dike-top trail that meanders throughout the Skagit River estuary. As usual, they've got birds on the brain. The birds, however, are playing hard to spot.

It's bitter cold, and a biting wind has club members bundled up under layers of Gore-Tex, fleece, wool, flannel, that brownish Carhartt material and the like. As for the birds, they might have bird brains but they're not stupid. Most of them, it seems, have puffed out their feathers and bundled themselves deep under the tall grasses, reeds and scrubby alders out of the wind, and largely out of sight.

Still, we see a steady stream of pine siskins and towhees; ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned sparrows; green-winged teals, buffleheads and the like. And overhead, eagles, red-tailed hawks and Northern harriers veer erratically in the wind, like they're being batted back and forth by invisible tennis rackets.

Seems like plenty to the tagalong reporter in the group's midst, but so far, sightings aren't in the numbers that the Pilchuck group had hoped.

"It must be the cold," says Arlington's Virginia Clark, the group's trip leader, affectionately referred to by other members as "General Clark."

There's talk of an owl's nest, however, and talk of owls never fails to prick up this reporter's ears. I'm not sure how many unsuccessful owl outings my dad took us on during my New Jersey youth, but I bet a hundred would be an underestimate. During my 20-plus years in Washington state, my success rate has been much better. Probably 50 percent, which includes the six snowy owls I once saw on a barn roof not far from Wiley Slough.

Who's up there?

Nearing the end of our loop, someone points out the owl's nest, high in a leafless tree decked out in its wintry lack of finery. Unoccupied. Oh, well. Fifty percent means that half the time I won't see them. We don't walk more than 10 steps, however, before we spot one of the nest's tenants, a great-horned owl, practically right above our heads, wedged against the trunk of a cedar tree.

Though it's only 15 feet above us, there are so many overhanging branches and limbs that we can barely see it. The owl has picked the perfect spot, impenetrable to any sparrows or crows that might have divebomb sorties on their minds.

The owl is so obscured, in fact, that at first we don't realize that there's actually two of them up there. But almost as soon as someone whispers "There're two," the second one darts away into the brush toward their nest.

"Did you notice how quiet it was when it flew away — it barely made a sound," comments Audubon member Bill Davey of Lynnwood. "They have fluted edges on their wing feathers so they can fly quietly. It's better for hunting."

No more shotguns

Speaking of hunting: With duck- and goose-hunting season over for the winter — it ended Jan. 25 — places such as Wiley Slough are once again safer and quieter for bird-watching outings. And because the trail at Wiley leads to within view of Skagit Bay, it's a haven for those eager to check off ducks and shorebirds from their life lists. Look for grebes, loons, dunlins, sandpipers, mergansers, sanderlings, scoters, godwits, plovers, scaups and more.

And of course, this being winter in the Skagit Valley, a person would have to be blindfolded with their eyes shut and a sweater pulled over their head not to see snow geese by the thousands, swans by the hundreds, and eagles by the dozen. (Truth be told, we probably saw more birds on the 2-mile drive from the Skagit River bridge onto Fir Island to Wiley Slough than at Wiley itself.)

"Oh, what do you know, we've got a tundra," says Clark, peering into a spotting scope mounted on a tripod by the side of Mann Road. After meeting up at a church parking lot just across the Skagit River bridge, our caravan has driven all of a quarter-mile before we've come across a field of feeding swans. They're about 200 yards away, a couple of hundred white pillows with long curved necks and black beaks.

"These are all trumpeters but we've found one tundra swan," Clark says, inviting me to take a look into the scope. "Bill (Davey) found it; he always finds good stuff."

Through the scope there it is: The lone tundra swan looks like the rest of them — regal carriage, swooping neck, the only difference being that it looks like it's not yet wiped off a blotch of yellow paint that spilled on its beak. Tundras are also a little smaller than trumpeters, which are four-plus feet long with wingspans that can be twice that.

(The following day, my son and I returned to the exact spot and found ourselves in the midst of a 10,000-strong gaggle of snow geese. Every once in a while they'd shift position, rising up almost as one — like they were playing musical chairs — and the sky became a tornado of geese. A buzzing, flapping, honking tornado. It was awe-inspiring.)

Every which way, birds

Continuing on our drive to Wiley Slough, we slow down several times. For a flock of teals. For a woodpecker that flew away before anyone could make a positive ID. For a kingfisher. When we come to an open stretch with expansive fields on either side, it's time to get out and set up the scopes: There seem to be raptors in every direction. A possible peregrine falcon eating something on the ground. A rough-legged hawk in the far trees at the edge of the field. A northern harrier flapping wildly but seemingly stuck in midair. Eagles this way, that way, and way, way down there.

"That's one of the great things about going out with these guys," says longtime Pilchuck member Rick Brauer, of Edmonds. "They know where to stop. It looks like some little nondescript place on the side of the road but you end up seeing all these great things."

The potential peregrine, which we observe through the scope tucking into a fresh starling, causes a good-natured split in the group. Half the group is sure it's a prairie falcon — rare in these parts — while the other half say it's an immature peregrine.

"We end up having these discussions a lot," says Art Wait, of Snohomish.

In the end, they agree to disagree, reload the caravan and head for Wiley Slough. An appointment with some great-horned owls awaits.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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