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A Return to the Skagit Flats to See the Northern Harrier

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A trip to the Skagit Flats in winter is a must though the Skagit Valley is beautiful year round. But winter is a great time to see the Short-eared Owls, Bald Eagles, and Northern Harriers. The weather report suggested there maybe sun on the weekend, after weeks of clouds and rain. As we drove up from Edmonds we were engulfed in fog, you could not see more than 30 yards ahead and we were worried that we’d not get any blue skies if the fog did not burn off. As we exited in Mt. Vernon we still had not escaped the dense fog, in fact it seemed to be worse near the Skagit River. But then our luck changed, after turning onto Farm to Market Rd. the road rose up a little out of the valley and suddenly there was sunlight, being a skeptic I assumed as we descended back into the Skagit flats, we’d drop back into the fog, but the fog was gone! As we entered the Edison/Bow area near Padilla Bay it was completely clear with blue skies, a sunny winter day in the PNW!

Our goal was to photograph a Northern Harrier today as we’d previously had good luck with the Short-eared Owls, but were never able to get close enough for a good shot of the Harriers. From a distance both look similar as they are most easily spotted flying low over the fields looking for field mice and other tasty critters. They are similar in size but the Owls have a larger head and are generally more white on their undersides. The Harriers have more squared-off tails and a white stripe at the top of their tale that normally gives them away. If you can spot them on a post or branch it is a little easier to identify them by their head shape and eyes.

At the first area we stopped we spotted some Harriers in the distance but as usual they were not in an easy spot to be photographed, and with their great eye sight they will see you and keep their distance. However we were in luck as in the taller grass near the parking area was a flock of Savannah Sparrows, another bird we’d never photographed! These sparrows are fairly common throughout North America but we rarely run into them. They prefer open fields like the Skagit Flats and look a lot like the more common Song Sparrow but we got a clear audio ID from the Merlin Bird app. They have a slightly shorter tail, smaller bill, and are lighter in color including a little yellow stripe above the eye which you can just make out in the photo gallery below.

After stopping in three different areas we still were unable to get close enough to the Northern Harriers for a good shot, hoping to maybe get one in flight as it flew by but they did not come our way. The clouds started rolling in and it was getting late so we started to head back towards Bow on our way to the freeway to head home. We were quite surprised as we drove across the Bayview Edison Rd. bridge over the Samish River to spot a Ring-necked Pheasant attempting to cross the road! Pheasants like the high grassy areas as well but often do a great job of staying hidden in the grass. They are very colorful and photogenic birds, we were excited to see this one on our way home.

With one last stop to make we decided to pull down a side road to get a good view of the Trumpeter Swans as well as Tundra Swans, while in spring time the Skagit Flats are known for impressively large flocks of Snow Geese, winter is the Trumpeter Swans time to visit and they are quite majestic birds. You can’t see these many places in the United States but in winter both Trumpeter and Tundra Swans visit our coastal and wetland areas. I took a short video here of the Trumpeters flying so you can hear their trumpeting! When they fly they stick our their massive long necks like an arrow, it is quite impressive. The photo on the video is actually a Tundra Swan, you’ll not the yellow near the eye that differentiates the two.

As we left the Trumpeter Swans, thinking we were done for the day we rounded a corner and there on a post was what we searching for, a large male Northern Harrier. He seemed less concerned with the car than if we got out to view him so we were able to simply take photos out the window as he continued along the road. The males are gray and white where as the females our brown and white which we are more used to seeing so we weren’t even sure it was a Harrier on first glance. Northern Harriers are hawks but they have very short beaks which almost make them look like owls when you look at them head on. Check out the bright yellow eyes and legs – enjoy!

Things to Note:

  • This is also a great area for Bald Eagles, while we did not photograph many today we saw trees that had up to 9 or 10 Bald Eagles in a single tree watching the fields, as well as massive Eagle nests.
  • Be aware there is hunting all around here, don’t be surprised to hear gun shots in the distance as they share a lot of the same spaces that people use for birding.
  • Bring some boots – it is wet and muddy!

Useful Links:

  • Read our last post about Nehalem Bay State Park.
  • Check out all our other birding and nature adventures here.
  • Please check out the Kingsyard banner above and give it click. They make some really cool bird feeders and bird houses that you’ll want to check out!
  • Most of these shots were taken with the Sony a7 along with the Sony FE 200-600mm lens.


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