Observing wildlife in its natural habitat

Published on Wed, Nov 16, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Snow geese gather together in Skagit County last fall. Photo by Gene Davis.

All manner of creatures inhabit the forests and fields of northwest Washington, and late fall/early winter is a good time to catch a glimpse of the state’s wildlife.

About 30 wildlife-viewing areas have been established near the I-5 corridor down to the border with Oregon, and three of those are not too far south of Blaine and Birch Bay. These areas offer the opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat without having to hike too far.

Tennant Lake Interpretive Center and Fragrance Garden, Ferndale

Tennant Lake is located in Ferndale just east of Hovander Homestead Park. The lake rests in the flood plain of the Nooksack River and is mostly covered in thick vegetation that obscures views of the water but provides a home to beavers and river otters.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), more than 150 species of birds can also be found there, including multiple types of waterfowl and birds of prey. The interpretive center and its surrounds are peppered with plaques and signs full of information on the local wildlife.

Though the half-mile boardwalk trail extending out onto the lake is closed in fall due to hunting, wildlife watchers can still climb the 50-foot observation tower to get a bird’s eye view of the lake and surrounding farmlands. Clear days reveal towering Mt. Baker to the east and the Cascades range stretching its stony spine into Canada to the north.

The original observation tower was built in 1978 but had to be demolished in 1990 due to rot found in the tower’s support beams. The new tower attempts to reach into the 21st century with a remote-controlled camera installed at the top of the tower that can be controlled from the ground via palm-sized buttons and a video screen.

Visit www.co.whatcom.wa.us/parks/tennantlake/ for more information.

Johnson-Debay’s Swan Reserve, Mount Vernon

The swan reserve is located just northeast of Mount Vernon on WDFW lands. Tundra and trumpeter swans come to the fields there in late fall and winter to feed. The waterfowl and songbirds that frequent the reserve also attract eagles and other airborne predators. Mammals such as beaver, river otters and deer also call the reserve their home. The reserve itself consists of a wide-spanning field with a wooden fence defining the field’s borders. Benches and informational signs on trumpeter and tundra swans await the visitor after a tree-covered walk from the reserve’s parking lot.

With a wingspan that can reach 9 feet, trumpeter swans are the world’s largest waterfowl. Trumpeters can be seen communicating with resonating, horn-like calls and quick bobs of their heads. This unique method of communicating is one of the ways to differentiate them from tundra swans, which do not bob their heads. Tundra swans are also smaller than trumpeters and more common.

The best times for viewing are fall, winter and spring. For more information, search for Debay and Johnson Slough Unit at www.wdfw.wa.gov.

Hurn Field, Concrete

Hurn Field is land owned by the Skagit Land Trust that sits about three miles east of Concrete near the Skagit River. The 50-acre field is home to a number of species of waterfowl and songbirds, but is most famous for the rocky mountain elk that frequent the field between the late fall and early spring. More than 60 elk can often be seen grazing in the field in the fall and winter months. Bull elk can grow to 5.5 feet at the shoulder and weigh upwards of 1,000 pounds.

The field itself consists of 13.5 acres of open field lying next to a small stream that feeds into the Skagit River. The entire area lies in the shadows of the surrounding foothills, which are dotted with large stands of trees and private homes.

The Skagit Land Trust bought Hurn Field in 1999 with donations from members and private organizations. For more information, visit www.skagitlandtrust.org/properties/hurn-field.aspx.
Top, right: This bald eagle was spotted in Blaine, but eagle enthusiasts can track down the raptors at many sites throughout Northwest Washington and the lower mainland. Photo by David Riffle.