map northwest

Belying its size (the smallest of the nine regions in the book), Washington’s Northwest enjoys an exceptional richness of birdlife in an exceptional geographic setting. Here the inland marine waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia meet and mix. Here, too, are the deltas and estuaries of several rivers—the Skagit, the Samish, and the Nooksack/Lummi. Adding to the bounty, the state’s best cross-mountain birding route ascends the Skagit Valley from floodplain through forested foothills to alpine meadows amidst the jagged, glacier-clad peaks of the North Cascades.

Tidal exchange between the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca makes the San Juan Islands a choice seabird location. The coastal mainland and Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands offer numerous land- and waterbirding sites, from Drayton Harbor and Rosario Strait south to Puget Sound.

This region has the most important estuaries of the Puget Trough/Georgia Depression. The discharge of the Skagit is far greater than that of any other stream flowing into the basin south of Canada. The deltas of the Skagit, Samish, and Lummi Rivers are famous for wintering raptors and waterfowl. Gyrfalcon is dependable. So, usually, is Snowy Owl. Discrete subpopulations of Snow Goose and Brant winter here in their entirety. More Trumpeter Swans winter on the Skagit and Samish Flats than anywhere else in the conterminous United States. The estuaries attract shorebirds as well.

Vast, contiguous portions of the North Cascades are publicly owned and protected within North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker and Ross Lake National Recreation Areas, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and three designated wilderness areas. The North Cascades and Mount Baker Highways traverse several forest zones—Puget Sound Douglas-fir, Western Hemlock, Silver Fir, Mountain Hemlock, Interior Douglas-fir, and Subalpine Fir—on their way to trailheads for the Alpine/Parkland zone above treeline. High-elevation trails provide some of the best access in the state for alpine specialties such as White-tailed Ptarmigan and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

Temperatures average two or three degrees cooler than farther south on Puget Sound (Bellingham mean temperature 37 degrees in January, 62 degrees in July). On the mainland coast, precipitation is about the same as in Seattle or Everett. Whidbey Island and the San Juans receive less precipitation due to the rainshadow effect of the Olympic Mountains. Eastward up the Cascade slopes annual precipitation increases approximately one inch per mile, reaching 92 inches at Newhalem.

Roads may be icy in the winter months; snow is infrequent. Of the two mountain highways, SR-542 is kept open all winter to the Mount Baker ski area, but SR-20 is closed most years above Newhalem from December into April.

The main line of communication is Interstate 5. Traffic is usually free-flowing, though ferry queues can be a serious bottleneck. Be sure to allow plenty of time for these in your travel planning.

Restaurants, lodging, gas, and other services are available in the larger communities and along the I-5 corridor. Campgrounds are fairly numerous in both lowlands and mountains, but demand for campsites often exceeds supply on weekends and in the summer season. Many campgrounds close for the winter. Whidbey Island and the San Juans are popular get-away destinations for mainlanders. Consequently, birders will find a wide selection of accommodations there, from basic motels to charming B&Bs and upmarket resorts, but these are often booked far in advance. Lodging reservations on the islands are highly recommended, especially during summer months.