by Bob Kuntz

revised by Bob Kuntz

The Samish Flats are one of the best locations in the state for winter raptor viewing. A dozen or more diurnal raptor species are recorded annually, the most common being Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk (including Harlan’s), Rough-legged Hawk (dark and light morphs), and Northern Harrier. Five falcon species occur here almost every winter (American Kestrel, Merlin, Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon, and Prairie Falcon)—but just try finding all five on a single outing! Ten species of owls have been observed on the flats or in the adjacent forested foothills, including Barn, Great Horned, Barred, Great Gray (winter; rare), Long-eared (rare), Short-eared, and Northern Saw-whet. Snowy Owls can be common in a good flight year. Abundant winter rains form ephemeral pools in fallow fields, attracting shorebirds, Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, and 25 other species of waterfowl. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “Barley for Birds” program provides food for thousands of ducks. Corn, potatoes, and carrots left from fall harvest also provide resources for waterfowl.

The area is intensively covered by birders, so it is no surprise that many unusual records have occurred here, including Falcated and Tufted Ducks, Iceland Gull, Tropical Kingbird, Clay-colored Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Orchard Oriole, and a Brambling in Sedro-Woolley. More records of Cattle Egret (fall–early winter) come from the Samish Flats than from any other Western Washington locality. In fall 1999 a Eurasian Kestrel hung out for a time near Blanchard, and a few ecstatic birders scored a six-falcon day.

The best way to bird the Samish Flats is to drive all the roads, looking for shallow pools with flocks of foraging or roosting birds, and checking fenceposts, power poles, the ground, and other perches for raptors. Several locations that seem to draw the birds more consistently, and that are on public property or provide adequate parking, are singled out below. Please make sure to pull your vehicle completely off the road when stopping, and observe private-property signs. Local residents are generally well-disposed toward birders. Good manners will further this rapport.




The Samish Flats can be accessed directly from I-5 Exits 231 (Chuckanut Drive) or 232 (Cook Road), north of Burlington. However, if you are also visiting the Skagit Flats, as most birders do, a convenient connection is from SR-20 at the Farmhouse Inn corner (see page 108). At the traffic light there, go north across SR-20 and a railroad track and jog right, then left, onto Bay View-Edison Road. The south end of the Padilla Bay Shore Trail is on the left (west) in 0.9 mile (limited parking). The trail follows a dike northwestward along Little Indian Slough and the southeast shore of Padilla Bay to the north trailhead. (To park here, turn north from Bay View-Edison Road onto Second Street and go 0.1 mile north and park on left.) The 2.1-mile walk (one way) can be productive for waterfowl and shorebirds in migration and winter. The road distance between trailheads is also 2.1 miles.

Continue north on Bay View-Edison Road, respecting the speed limit through the town of Bay View, to the entrance to Bay View State Park (0.6 mile). Turn off right, then go immediately left and under the road to a beach and picnic area along the east shore of Padilla Bay. In winter, this is an excellent place to study Gray-bellied Brant, a form that nests on Melville Island in the Canadian High Arctic. The near-totality of the world population, estimated at perhaps 8,000 birds, winters on the rich eelgrass beds of Padilla and Samish Bays and the Fraser River delta; many come near shore here to preen and forage. Go back through the underpass and check the camping loop for lowland forest birds such as Band-tailed Pigeon, Barred Owl, Hutton’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bewick’s Wren, Spotted Towhee, and Red Crossbill.

Travel north another half-mile on Bay View-Edison Road and turn right into the visitor entrance of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (360-428-1558). The 64-acre site provides a hiking trail through upland and forested habitats and a viewing platform overlooking Padilla Bay. Birds are similar to those found at Bay View State Park. The Breazeale Visitor Center, open 10AM to 5PM Wednesday through Sunday, has excellent interactive exhibits describing the estuary and its aquatic and terrestrial wildlife resources.



The Samish Flats begin about two miles farther north, where Bay View-Edison Road meets D’Arcy Road. Continue north past D’Arcy Road for 2.0 miles to the spot known to birders as the Samish T, where Bay View-Edison Road turns right. Go left (west) here onto Samish Island Road, which provides excellent birding. Scan the power poles in winter for falcons (Gyr, Peregrine, Prairie). At dusk, look for Short-eared Owls. At 0.7 mile, where the road makes a right-angle turn to the right, is the Samish Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area, long known to birders as the Samish West 90 (Discover Pass required). In the fields southwest of this corner, state wildlife managers have created a series of shallow ponds that often attract shorebirds (spring and fall) and waterfowl (November–April). Walk west along the field edge, then south along a dike that provides views of some of the ponds and of Padilla Bay. From the West 90, continue north on Samish Island Road. For the next 1.5 miles, to an intersection with Scott Road, check the power lines and fenceposts for American Kestrel. Eurasian Wigeons reach their highest density in the contiguous United States in the fields to the west, between Alice Bay and Padilla Bay, where some American Wigeon flocks contain five percent or more of this species.

Turn right onto Scott Road and park in the church lot, on the left. You are now on Samish Island. The field to the west of the church has been productive for sparrows and other songbirds. Great Blue Herons fly back and forth between the bay and a rookery on the hill to the north. Check the treetops for a Merlin, particularly across the street from the church. You can also look into Alice Bay, one of the last corners of Samish Bay to fill at high tide. The hour before and after high tide is the best time to visit. At high slack tide, most birds roost or forage in the nearby farm fields. Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin are abundant in winter; Baird’s (rare), Least, Pectoral (rare), and Western Sandpipers have all been seen during fall migration. Look for Semipalmated Plover in Alice Bay.

Go back to Samish Island Road, turn right, travel 1.6 miles, and turn left onto Halloran Road, which becomes Samish Point Road. In another 0.6 mile, turn right onto Wharf Road. Samish Island Public Beach is 0.2 mile ahead. This small park overlooking Samish Bay is excellent for viewing Brant, Harle- quin Duck, all three scoters (Black is rare), Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Pigeon Guillemot, Red-throated, Pacific (rare), and Common Loons, and Horned, Red-necked, Eared (occasional), and Western Grebes.



Return to the Samish T and go east (straight ahead) on Bay View-Edison Road. A right-angle turn to the left in 0.3 mile, followed by another to the right in 0.3 mile, have been dubbed the Samish East 90s by birders. This is another good place to look for Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon, and Prairie Falcon. A further 0.6 mile brings you to the Samish River bridge. Cross, park on the left, and check the slough and adjacent fields on both sides of the road. In irruption years, this is a good location for Snowy Owl. Greater White-fronted Geese can sometimes be seen to the south in April.

The intersection with Farm to Market Road is 0.5 mile farther east along Bay View-Edison Road. Turn right (south) here. The next three miles offer unobstructed views of the flats on both sides. Be extra cautious when you stop; this is a busy road. Also drive the first two side roads to the east—Sunset Road (0.7 mile) and Field Road (0.7 mile)—over to Thomas Road, about a mile and a half east. In recent winters, this rectangle has been the most dependable place on the flats to find a Gyrfalcon, sitting on one of the posts in the middle of the fields or on a large dirt clod along a field edge. A good vantage point is the spot where Field Road makes a right-angle jog to the south. Chuckanut Drive (SR-11), though heavily traveled, goes through fields where swans can usually be seen. You will reach this road in a mile or less by continuing east across Thomas on either Sunset or Field. Turn south on Chuckanut (2.9 miles from Sunset or 1.8 miles from Thomas). Check the fencelines and treetops for raptors.



The Butler Flat area, isolated from the rest of the flats by the unnatural barrier of I-5, is too often neglected by birders. Many raptors winter here in fields along both sides of Cook Road, and side roads, from the freeway east to Sedro-Woolley. This is also an excellent place to look for Trumpeter and Tundra Swans from late November through early January when they are foraging in the cut corn fields. At the corner of Chuckanut Drive and Cook Road, turn left (east). Cross over I-5 at Exit 232 (1.3 miles). Then turn left from Cook onto Green Road, 0.1 mile after the interchange. Drive north 1.2 miles on Green Road. A wetland east of Green Road, managed by the Skagit Land Trust, offers fine viewing of marshland birds. In spring, all three teal species can be found here, as can American Bittern (rare), Virginia Rail, and Sora. The field west of the road may have a winter wigeon flock with several Eurasian Wigeons.

At the T-intersection a short distance ahead, turn right onto Kelleher Road. Go 0.4 mile to the entrance to Avalon Golf Course. Park on the north side of Kelleher where you can pull completely off. From here you can walk a short distance up the golf course entrance road for a closer look at the marsh, or east on Kelleher to bird the hillside and slough edge. About 250 yards east, a lane crosses the ditch to a good vantage point on a dike. The dike is now off-limits, but you can park at a wide spot in the road to scan the surroundings. Black and Vaux’s Swifts have been seen here in early May. Alders on the hillside host a good assortment of spring migrants and summer residents, among them Rufous Hummingbird, Warbling Vireo, Bushtit, Swainson’s Thrush, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting.

Drive east on Kelleher Road to an intersection in 1.9 miles where District Line Road comes in from the right. In late April and early May, migrating Whimbrels stop on Butler Flat to forage for insects in the freshly mowed winter wheat and hay fields. You can find a loose flock with as many as 300 Whimbrels anywhere inside the 0.5-by-1.5-mile rectangle bordered by District Line, Cook, Collins, and Kelleher Roads.