We could name-drop all day about renowned bird photographers who have successfully stalked local wildlife in search of gallery worthy images.
Just visit the websites of Art Wolfe and the late Lee Mann to see stunning photographs of winged subjects ranging from Great Blue Herons to Trumpeter Swans. We have great news, however, for the amateur bird photographers excited at the prospect of combining his or her own photo skills with wildlife adventure of the Northwest variety: Anacortes on Fidalgo Island makes a tremendous “base camp” for bird photography regardless of your equipment inventory and level of expertise.
From Fidalgo Island beaches and forests to day-trip destinations including the Skagit River and Skagit Valley farmlands, an Anacortes-based photography outing is guaranteed to yield memorable results year-round.
As far back as the early Eighties, when I commuted between Anacortes and Oak Harbor, then Anacortes and the Skagit Valley, I have carried my camera for those marvelous “just in case” situations. I have been rewarded with a personal album featuring shots such as a shimmering “cloud” of shorebirds sweeping across bay waters , a Bald Eagle perched on an offshore rock, and a Red Tailed Hawk scouring fields for her next meal.
Then there is the incredible Osprey, otherwise known as the “Seahawk,” a nickname picked up decades ago as the mascot for local high school athletes. This predator, known for its deadly diving attacks on fish in area waters, can be seen at local sites including Heart Lake and Ship Harbor, home of the state ferry terminal on the west side of the city.
If it is Snow Geese or Trumpeter Swans you seek, take Highway 20 east from Anacortes and head for roadside viewing sites including Fir-Conway and the Bow-Edison “flats.” The Padilla Bay Estuarine Reserve off Bayview-Edison Road is always a rewarding experience.
If wintering Bald Eagles are on your photography bucket list, consider the beautiful drive “upriver” to public access areas including Skagit County’s Howard Miller Steelhead Park. Hawks, often a favorite among bird photographers, can be found on many fenceposts and power poles including those backroads on the way into and out of the historic Town of La Conner.
Back on Fidalgo Island, opportunities for bird photographers are plentiful.
Although one might not be naturally attracted to a neighborhood that features the tanks and columns of two refineries, March’s Point is home to many Northwest birds including Eagles, Hawks, Herons, Kingfishers, Ducks and miscellaneous other shorebirds. Be aware that although March’s Point Road is a public road, much of the property on the Point is privately owned. Long story short: take care to respect private property if you pull over, and be prepared for occasional traffic including tanker trucks. Just off Highway 20 as you approach the casino from the city is a Blue Heron rookery. Take a left at the casino exit and wind back a mile or two toward Whitmarsh and East March’s Point Road.
In town, you will want to consider a handful of public vantage points: Ship Harbor beach and wetlands, with nearby Osprey and Eagle nests (served by stretches of boardwalk, adjacent to the terminal); Cannery Lake, beyond the treeline to the north and west of the ferry terminal; a cattail-rich pond just behind the city waste-water treatment plant on 4th Street (approach from the Anacortes Depot on “R” Avenue); Cap Sante, the community’s No. 1 viewpoint (take 4th Street to the top); Heart Lake, just south of the city (“H” Avenue turns into Heart Lake Road); Mt. Erie, where resident owls have been known to dive-bomb hikers; and finally Deception Pass, a spectacular state park with a myriad of photo options.
At Deception Pass I have had the good fortune to shoot Bald Eagles soaring over the twin span Deception and Canoe Pass bridges. On rare occasion you will find an Eagle stationed on a snag above Canoe Pass. Park either on the Pass Island or south Fidalgo pullouts for access to this setting, and always remember to scan waters below for birds including the orange-footed guillemot.
As noted, many bird photographers are drawn to this area during the famous winter season featuring Bald Eagles on the Skagit River and Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese dining en masse in local agricultural areas. If these are your “targets,” check websites such as that hosted by the Skagit Audubon Society. Experience the Skagit Eagle Festival if you are ready for an upriver adventure.
Enjoy multiple opportunities to experience it all with the Birds of Winter. The farmlands and wetlands, estuaries and marine waters, prairies and forests of this valley provide the wintertime habitat needs for hundreds of bird species. Explore the variety of habitats and view the diversity of bird life that makes the Skagit Valley such a treasured birding destination. You will also have the opportunity to taste and savor many of the products which originated on family farms across this fertile valley.
Regardless, you will find that Anacortes – the accessible island – is a perfect place to base your Northwest photography adventure.
Originally written January 21st, 2014 by Steve Berentson – updated January 2018