Shorebirds & The Magic of Padilla Bay

To witness thousands of shorebirds performing a perfectly synchronized aerial ballet will snatch your breath away. Such is the magic that awaits on the shores of Padilla Bay. A stone’s skip east of Anacortes is one of the Northwest’s—maybe the nation’s—best and most accessible winter birding areas, boasting swans, geese, raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds. “The Greater Skagit Delta is considered a world-class birding area,” says naturalist Libby Mills, who leads birding explorations for the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Eagle on a Tree Top

It’s here—particularly at high tide—that the lucky observer can witness huge flocks of Dunlins rising en mass from the water to swoop through the air in waves, their dark backs and white bellies flickering like an old TV. Watch on YouTube. The acrobatic behavior of the almost-robin-sized birds is their defense against predators like the Peregrine Falcon. You might even see a Peregrine streak through the air, wings crooked, trying to separate and pick off a Dunlin from the flock.

Set apart for, among other purposes, estuarine research and monitoring, Padilla Bay Reserve is one of only 28 such protected estuaries. The broad, shallow bay includes over 11,000 acres of tidal mudflats, laid down by the mighty Skagit River that once merged here with ocean waters—before being diked by enterprising early 20th-century farmers. During high tide, the bay is flooded about eight feet deep; low tide exposes miles of mudflats.

Burrowed in the bay’s mud are millions of worms, shrimp, clams, and other invertebrates that attract the appetites of Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, otters, and seals, among others.

This intertidal area (flooded at high tide, sea floor exposed at low tide) also supports one of the country’s largest continuous beds of eelgrass. Valuable eelgrass meadows serve as nursery, shelter, and grocery store for marine species such as salmon, crab, perch, and herring, as well as year-round and migrating birds and mammals. Kayaking is a great way to view the beds, but know your tide schedule!

At the Breazeale Interpretive Center, a wheelchair-accessible path leads to an observation deck and stairway access to the beach. Good beach access also is available from Bay View State Park , a quarter mile south of the center. For the best viewing of resident and transient bird populations, Mills recommends a walk along the level, graveled, 2.25-mile Shore Trail, about a mile south of the center.

Heron in the Reeds

A walk at high tide may reward you with a Dunlin show; also watch for grebes, Buffleheads, eagles, and hawks.

At low tide (Mills’s fave tide app is Tidegraph), the shallow bay is one huge mudflat as far as the eye can see—a great opportunity to catch Great Blue Herons and other shorebirds feeding on the flat’s bounty. Beware of walking on the mud, however, it can act like quicksand, trapping you or your shoes. Alternately, walk the interpretive center’s Upland Trail to watch for songbirds, hawks, and eagles; it begins at the interpretive center parking lot and winds through old hay fields and a wood lot of the former Breazeale dairy farm.

One fortuitous day, naturalist Mills counted 50 bird species on a three-hour walk around the reserve shoreline and uplands.  And, on any trip to Padilla Bay, don’t forget your binoculars and camera! Wildlife and shorebirds aside, the views of the ocean, islands, and mountains are spectacular.

Breazeale Interpretive Center brings to life the natural history and ecology of the estuary and bay with hands-on exhibits, an aquarium, library, video theater, gift shop, and even a “heron cam” showing live images from one of the nation’s largest colonies of Great Blue Herons on adjacent Fidalgo Bay. The center’s trails and parking are open 24/7, free of charge. Center hours are 10a–5p, Wed.–Sun., except public holidays. The center is open to the public and holds classes throughout the year for all ages and levels of interest. Libby Mills leads two birding walks on Sat. and Sun., February 22 and 23.  Click here for a full listing of offered classes.

Padilla Bay Bird in Flight

Padilla Bay Shoreline Trail: A level, 2.25-mile, finely graveled trail winds past sloughs, mudflats, and salt marshes of Padilla Bay’s eastern shore. Benches, picnic tables, and trash cans make for a civilized walk, bike, or jog, no matter what the weather. Limited parking is available at the trail’s southern end. For additional parking at the trail’s northern terminus, go east off Bayview–Edison Road onto Second St. for about 200 yards to the Skagit County Historical Society’s large parking lot. Port-a-potties available at both parking locations. Washington Discover Pass required.

Getting there: About 6 miles east of Anacortes (7 miles west of I-5, exit 230), go north on Bayview–Edison Road for approximately 3 miles to the southern terminus of the Padilla Bay Shore Trail. Continue another 3 miles to the Brazeale Interpretive Center, with its wheelchair accessible path to a dramatic bay overlook, beach access, and indoor exhibits; the 8/10-mile circular Upland Trail winds behind the center. Click here for directions and hours of operation.

originally written January 23rd, 2014 by Jan Hersey, updated January 2016

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