by Bob Kuntz

revised by Bob Kuntz

The Skagit Flats and the adjacent Samish Flats (page 112) form a floodplain where fertile soil and ample rainfall provide for a thriving farming industry. Potatoes, carrots, corn, winter wheat, barley, and a variety of other vegetables and grains grow bountifully. These farms are one of the world’s largest producers of vegetable seeds and flower bulbs. A wide variety of habitats, mild temperatures, and a profusion of food make this area home to nearly 300 resident and migrant bird species. Although birding is interesting all year, the best seasons are during spring (mid-March through May) and fall (mid-July through September) migrations and particularly winter (November through mid-March) when hundreds of thousands of swans, geese, ducks, and shorebirds can be found. The abundant waterfowl, small mammals, and salmon (spawning in the Skagit and Samish Rivers and their tributaries) attract raptors. Fifteen species of eagles, hawks, and falcons, and 13 species of owls, have been documented in the area—most of them annually.



Bounded by the North and South Forks of the Skagit River and ringed by dikes, low-lying Fir Island is the heart of the Skagit delta. From I-5 Exit 221 (Conway/La Conner), go west about 0.1 mile to the intersection of Pioneer Highway and Fir Island Road in Conway, and turn right onto Fir Island Road. A bridge in 0.5 mile crosses the South Fork onto the island. In winter, several hundred Trumpeter and Tundra Swans can usually be seen somewhere along the five-mile length of Fir Island Road between the South and North Fork bridges. This is a busy road, and the swans are a popular attraction, so be sure to pull completely off the roadway. Birders have been ticketed for blocking traffic and causing a road hazard. If you do not find the swans, try driving some of the other roads on Fir Island, particularly Dry Slough, Maupin, Moore, Polson, and Skagit City Roads. Fir Island and neighboring areas are also the winter home of 60,000 or more Snow Geese. The near-totality of a distinct nesting population of this species, from Wrangel Island in the northeastern Russian Arctic, winters on the Fraser and Skagit–Stillaguamish River deltas. On Fir Island, they may be seen foraging in the farm fields from late fall through April. The best viewing areas are along Fir Island Road, particularly at the Fir Island Farm/Hayton Reserve, at the Snow Goose Produce Market, and along Maupin Road. Fir Island is not a bad place to find Harlan’s Hawk or even Gyrfalcon. Wetlands, brushy edges, and woodlots attract many other birds, including rarities, with one record each for Jack Snipe and Magnolia Warbler (September), and Yellow Rail and Vermilion Flycatcher (November). While still rare, Rusty Blackbird has been occasionally reported (late fall and winter).



The Skagit Wildlife Area, a 12,000-acre marsh, tideland, and estuarine preserve, offers several access points for viewing Skagit specialties. After crossing the South Fork from Conway, continue 1.3 miles along Fir Island Road and turn left (south) onto Wylie Road. In late fall and winter check for gulls, espe-cially when farm fields have recently been plowed. Among the common Mew, Ring-billed, and Glaucous-winged Gulls you may find the occasional Western or California, and Glaucous Gull has been sighted here. In about a mile from Fir Island Road you come to the wildlife area’s Headquarters Unit, locally known as the Skagit Game Range (Discover Pass required to park). From a fork just inside the boundary (check the treetops for a Merlin), the right branch leads to the office (no visitor center), a parking area, and usually very unclean toilets; the left branch goes to a boat launch and a second parking area with a new clean toilet.

The Game Range consists of a series of dikes and marshes intensively managed for salmon-rearing habitat and waterfowl. A trail follows the dikes from both parking areas, weaving though hedgerows and fresh- and saltwater marshes. Take the dike trail from the entrance to the headquarters parking area south for 0.4 mile to a fork. A new dike trail goes west (right) for approximately 0.5 mile or you can continue straight for up to one mile. Both sections are worth birding, as are the sloughs along the roads to the two parking areas.

In March, when the Red-flowering Currant and Salmonberry blossom, Rufous Hummingbirds return and set up territories over the densest patches of bloom. In April, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Dunlins, Least and Western Sandpipers, and both dowitchers are common in the wet fields. Solitary, Baird’s (fall), and Semipalmated Sandpipers are seen annually. Yellow-rumped Warblers return in late March; Myrtle may be as common as Audubon’s through April.

May is a good month for migrants and residents. Look for Wood Duck, Cinnamon Teal, American Bittern, Green Heron, Virginia Rail, Sora, Solitary Sandpiper, Band-tailed Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Bushtit, Swainson’s Thrush, and several species of warblers and sparrows. The Game Range is good for migrant Empidonax flycatchers—mostly Willow and Pacific-slope, but Least, Hammond’s, and Dusky are also possible. Fall passerine migration (mid-August to mid-September) is as good as anywhere in Western Washington. A dozen species of sparrows can be seen in winter—Spotted Towhee, American Tree (rare), Savannah, Sooty Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, Swamp (uncommon to rare), White-throated (rare), Harris’s (very rare), White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Oregon Dark-eyed Junco. The best places to look for them are near the two parking areas and along the dike from the headquarters parking area to where the dike forks (first half-mile). Northern Waterthrush has been seen in fall and winter almost annually either along the slough to the north of the boat launch parking area or adjacent to the dike where it forks.



Return to Fir Island Road, turn left (west), and go 1.5 miles to a public access road on the left. Turn onto the access road and drive south down the gravel road less than a half-mile to a parking area for the Fir Island Farm/ Hayton Reserve, a unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area (Discover Pass required to park). This is an excellent place to view the wintering Snow Geese. A dike separates farm fields from salt marsh. Check the fields for Black-bellied Plover, American and Pacific Golden-Plovers (both rare), and the same assortment of sandpipers as can be seen at the Skagit Game Range.

Return to Fir Island Road and go left (west) for another 0.5 mile to where it makes a 90-degree right turn. Jog left here onto Maupin Road. Continue west 0.5 mile and turn left onto a gravel road leading to the Jensen Access of the Skagit Wildlife Area. Fields at this intersection, and along the access road, are excellent for shorebirds and American Pipits in spring (April–May) and fall (mid-July through September). Park by the dike at the end of the road (Discover Pass required), from which one can access the dike and salt marsh to the south. Among other species of shorebirds, Sharp-tailed (rare), Stilt (un-common to rare), and Pectoral Sandpipers have been seen in the marsh. Optimal viewing is on an incoming or receding high tide. Otherwise, the exposed mudflats are extensive and birds can be a long way from the dike. Check the large driftwood for perched raptors (Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon). Exercise caution if venturing into the marsh: the mud is deep and hazardous in places.

Back on Maupin Road, turn left and continue west and north for 1.3 miles to Rawlins Road. Turn left again and drive one mile to a dead end at a dike. Park along the edge of the road, making sure not to block other cars from leaving. You are now at the North Fork Access. This is an excellent place to look for Short-eared Owl (at dusk). Turn back, go 1.7 miles east to Fir Island Road, and turn right. Park at a pullout on the left in 0.1 mile, across from the Snow Goose Produce Market. Fields to the east often hold thousands of foraging Snow Geese and several hundred Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.



Swans, Snow Geese, and other waterfowl also winter in agricultural fields on the Skagit Flats north of Fir Island, as do many raptors, including Snowy Owls during flight years. From the produce market, turn back north and go 0.4 mile on Fir Island Road to the intersection with Best Road, on the left. Turn here and continue over the North Fork bridge for 4.5 miles to a roundabout at McLean Road. Bird the flats from a grid of roads east to Mount Vernon, north to SR-20, and west to La Conner and the Swinomish Channel. In April, enjoy the tulip fields with Mount Baker and the Cascades Range in the background. Turning left (west) from Best Road onto McLean Road, then right onto La Conner-Whitney Road (1.3 miles), brings you to the Farmhouse Inn and a Texaco station at the SR-20 intersection (1.8 miles). It is about six miles east on SR-20 to I-5 at Exit 230. Or you can turn west on SR-20 toward Fidalgo Island and Anacortes (page 92). Crossing over SR-20 and continuing north will bring you to the Samish Flats.