by Bill Shelmerdine and Thais Bock

revised by Bruce LaBar and Art Wang

The logging, shipping, and manufacturing center of Tacoma lies at the southeast corner of the main basin of Puget Sound. Here the Puyallup River (pronounced pew-AHL-up), with its tributaries the Carbon and the White, delivers Mount Rainier’s glacial meltwaters to Commencement Bay. Like Seattle, the city is built where ancient forests once stood, and the tideflats and estuary have been dredged, channeled, and filled to create the deepwater port and rail yards. In this intensively urbanized setting, a necklace of viewpoints strung along the shoreline on both sides of Commencement Bay offers fine saltwater birding in fall, winter, and spring. Christmas Bird Count data show that White-winged Scoter, Pacific Loon, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Bonaparte’s and Thayer’s Gulls are all many times more abundant in Tacoma than in Seattle (but Seattle is far stronger in Brant, Harlequin Duck, and Black Scoter). Point Defiance Park, at the west end of this chain of viewpoints, is the birding gem of the metropolitan area. Here the waters of the South Sound and those of the Main Basin mix at The Narrows, creating optimal seabird foraging conditions. A splendid swatch of the original forest subsists in the uplands of the park. American Lake, in the nearby suburbs, is worth checking for wintering waterfowl and for gulls in fall and winter when large flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls are sometimes present.



A tour of saltwater parks begins at the Des Moines Marina. Go west from I-5 Exit 149 (Exit 149B, if northbound), following SR-516 (aka Kent Des Moines Road) to its end in 1.9 miles. Curve right (north) onto SR-509 (aka Marine View Drive) and drive 0.3 mile to S 223rd Street. Turn left for five blocks to a right curve where S 223rd becomes Cliff Avenue

  1. A left at the stop sign takes you to the marina’s long fishing pier and breakwater; go straight ahead to reach adjacent Beach Park where Des Moines Creek empties into Puget Sound. Gulls line the pier’s railings; wintering wigeons, Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, both goldeneyes, and grebes provide close-up viewing. Return to Marine View Drive and continue south 1.7 miles. Turn right onto South 251st Street, then immediately left onto 8th Place S to the entrance of Saltwater State Park (Discover Pass required), just ahead. Look for Black Scoter in winter, Brant in spring, and a variety of landbirds on forested bluffs.

Return to Marine View Drive and continue south to its end (1.0 mile), then double back to the left with the arterial, which becomes Woodmont Drive S. At the traffic light (0.6 mile), turn right (south) onto 16th Avenue S to the next traffic light at S 272nd Street (0.7 mile). Go right here, winding your way downhill (street names change several times) to Redondo Beach Drive S (0.9mile). Turn left to a fishing pier, boat launch, and boardwalk on Poverty Bay (0.1 mile). Pigeon Guillemots and Rhinoceros Auklets favor this area.

From Salty’s Restaurant, take Redondo Way S uphill (southeast) 1.0 mile to the intersection with S Dash Point Road (SR-509). Turn right and stay on SR-509 and SW Dash Point Road for 5.0 miles, with many sharp turns, including a right at a traffic light at mile 3.1 and a left at mile 4.0, past a sewage treatment plant and Dumas Bay Centre to 44th Avenue SW. Turn right (north) and go 0.2 mile to a parking lot on the right for Dumas Bay Park. (Turn back to page 184 to follow route on map.) Walk downhill through the woods for five minutes, looking for Pileated Woodpeckers and wintering Varied Thrushes, to the beach and the large, shallow bay fed by three streams. Loons, rafts of wigeons, and shorebirds are among the seasonal features. Virginia Rail and Sora are summer residents in the freshwater marsh. A few Great Blue Heron nests may be glimpsed through trees lining the road.

Return to SR-509, continue west 0.9 mile, and turn right into Dash Point State Park (Discover Pass required). Trails and campgrounds are good for woodland birds such as Hutton’s Vireo and Townsend’s Warbler. Along the saltwater shore and wide beach look for loons and alcids.

Return to SR-509 (now called East Side Drive NE), continue west, and after crossing into Pierce County turn right at Markham Avenue NE (0.6 mile). The short road winds down into Dash Point County Park. The fishing pier can be productive for alcids. Ancient Murrelets (November–December) are difficult to find nowadays, although Pigeon Guillemots are usual. Parasitic Jaegers appear in September when Common Terns are in migration.

Go back to SR-509/East Side Drive NE and continue west, then south, 1.5 miles to Brown’s Point Shopping Center on the right. Angle right (west) here onto Le Lou Wa Place NE (becomes Tok A Lou Avenue NE) and go 0.6 mile to Browns Point Lighthouse Park. Marbled Murrelets have become rare in South Puget Sound, but are still fairly reliable here; in May and June they can be seen in breeding plumage. Titlow Beach at the south end of the Narrows, Point Defiance, and the ferry to Vashon Island may be better spots to search.

Return to SR-509 and continue downhill (southeast) to Commencement Bay (1.2 miles), at the eastern margin of what used to be the tideflats at the mouth of the Puyallup River. Stop at the first large turnout past the Marina at Browns Point (at sea level) and also a little bit farther along at the well-signed Dick Gilmur Memorial Shoreline Public Access pullout to scan log booms for dozens of herons and large flocks of gulls at high tide. Rarities such as Black-tailed, Slaty-backed, and Franklin’s Gulls have been found in this area. Any of the numerous pullouts can be productive, especially the one just past the Chinook Landing Marina, as SR-509 continues southeastward along Hylebos Waterway. Look for Least and Western Sandpipers (migration), Black Turnstones on log booms (winter), and rafts of ducks during migration. Beginning at 0.2 mile past the Chinook Landing pullout, you can begin to see Purple Martin nest boxes on pilings to your right. To get a good view, however, turn right at E 11th Street and park at a small weedy, graveled area on the right less than 0.1 mile from SR-509.

Return to SR-509 and turn right. SR-509 bends south and west around the end of Hylebos Waterway. Exit SR-509 at Port of Tacoma Road (offramp 5.1 miles from Dick Gilmur Access) and turn left (south) to Pacific Highway East (SR-99) (0.3 mile). Turn right on Pacific Highway East, cross the Puyallup River, then turn right on E Portland Avenue (1.2 miles), drive 0.5 mile, and turn right at the light on Lincoln Avenue. Recross the Puyallup River and turn right in 0.3 mile to the Gog-Le-Hi-Te Mitigated Wetland (aka Lincoln Avenue Marsh). (For a direct route from I-5 to Gog-Le-Hi-Te, take Exit 135 to Portland Avenue and go north 0.7 mile on E Portland Avenue toward the Port of Tacoma, then turn right at the light on Lincoln Avenue.) This rehabilitated garbage dump in the vast wasteland of industrial Tacoma has hosted a number of surprising species since 1990 (a Bar-tailed Godwit visited the new marsh upon its completion). More than 120 species have been photographed here since 2009. Green Herons nest here. Two openings to the river allow daily tidal action on the mudflats, which feature two ponds, one close to Lincoln Avenue and the other farther east up river. Both are good for shorebirds during spring and fall. More recently this area has proven to be a hotspot for large gulls in winter. Thayer’s occurs in nearly pure flocks, Glaucous is regular, Slaty-backed has appeared almost annually, a Lesser Black-backed Gull was a one-day bird in January 2014, and a Kumlien’s Iceland Gull stayed for over two weeks in January 2000. When searching for gulls, check also the roof of the meat-rendering plant just to the east and other roofs in the vicinity.

On leaving the wetland, turn left on Lincoln Avenue, then right onto Stewart Street (0.1 mile). Drive down Stewart through the industrial area along the Puyallup River, stopping to check for gulls bathing in the river, then staying to the left of a guard gate and going under the bridge. Park where the road ends (0.8 mile). A trail next to a chain-link fence leads to the mouth of the river and Commencement Bay. At certain tide stages you may find many more gulls along the river here than at Gog-Le-Hi-Te.

Return to Lincoln Avenue and drive southwest across the Puyallup River bridge, turning right (northwest) onto East Portland Avenue right after the bridge. Travel 0.8 mile on Portland to E 11th Street and park at the closed bridge on the right. Walk up to the top for a different view of the bathing gulls in the river. This has been a great spot for Slaty-backed Gull and other uncommon gulls. Be sure to check the nearby roof tops for resting gulls.

Turn left (southwest) on 11th Street and cross over the Thea Foss Waterway on the Murray Morgan Bridge into the heart of Tacoma. Turn right on Pacific Avenue and continue west 0.3 mile to the Schuster Parkway. Follow the parkway as it curves northwestward along the shoreline. Move into the left lane, and in 1.4 miles take the overpass across the railroad tracks onto Ruston Way, lined by a two-mile scenic waterfront park. Several turnouts with parking provide good access. Look for gulls and other waterbirds, and sometimes Black Turnstone. Barrow’s Goldeneyes are often present in winter; check around pilings and dilapidated piers, such as at Dickman Mill Park. The Les Davis Fishing Pier (1.4 mile) provides sheltered viewing and restrooms. Purple Martins and Pigeon Guillemots are present at several spots along the waterfront in summer. Waterfront access by vehicle ends at the new Point Ruston development, but there is a paved trail behind this development that connects with the beginning of Point Defiance Park. This is another great area to view Commencement Bay for waterbirds. Continue on Ruston Way as it bends westward and, at the second roundabout, becomes N 51st Street. Turn right in 0.3 mile onto Pearl Street (SR-163) to the east entrance to Point Defiance Park (0.2 mile).



A thumb of land projecting into Puget Sound at a mile-wide constriction called The Narrows, Point Defiance is Tacoma’s destination birding site. Large volumes of water flow though the passage from the South Sound to the main basin of Puget Sound and back again, across a shallow sill, creating strong currents and tidal rips. Mixing of deep and surface waters here brings an upwelling of nutrients, and consequently ideal feeding conditions for marine birds as well as seals, sea lions, and salmon. The seasonal seabird occurrence at Point Defiance ranks as one of the best in the state. From fall through spring large numbers of Bonaparte’s, Mew, and other gulls, and alcids and other diving birds, feed in The Narrows and surrounding saltwater areas.

All of the birding sites and viewpoints are contained within 765-acre Point Defiance Park. Around the end of the point are high bluffs from which you can look down upon the water. Beach trails—especially at the northeast base of the point—allow water-level viewing. Several walking trails in the upland portion lead through beautiful remnants of the Puget Sound Douglas-fir forest. The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Rhododendron Garden, and Fort Nisqually Living History Museum provide additional attractions for birders and non-birders alike.

The information kiosk (free maps) just inside the Pearl Street entrance is a good place to start. The wintering wigeon flock on the nearby lawns and pond almost always includes Eurasian Wigeon. Drive the Five-Mile Scenic Drive loop road counterclockwise. Turnoffs near the beginning take you to the boathouse and public marina and (farther ahead) to Owen Beach, providing views of the calm waters of outer Commencement Bay. Scan here for a variety of waterbirds. You can also backtrack along the waterfront to the Point Defiance ferry terminal for additional views. From Owen Beach, walk the beach path northwestward. The strata exposed in the bluffs tell the story of the last great advance and retreat of the Puget Lobe of the continental ice sheets (17,000–13,000 years BP).

Return to Five Mile Scenic Drive and continue the loop. Walk the trails to explore old-growth conifer forest with the typical suite of tree species of the Puget Lowlands. Many of the massive trees and snags show signs of active woodpecker work. The common bird species include Steller’s Jay, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Hutton’s Vireo (year round) and Townsend’s Warbler (winter) are frequently present as are Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers and many other species. Listen for flocks of Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins overhead. In summer, add Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush. In winter, a few Hermit and Varied Thrushes are present.

Scope the water from each of several bluff viewpoints, all the way around the point to Fort Nisqually. The outer portion of the loop road is sometimes gated and requires a walk that is well worth the effort. Try to check at least Vashon Island, Dalco Passage, and Gig Harbor Viewpoints. Take the secondary beach trail about a quarter-mile past the Vashon Island Viewpoint for water-level viewing. A few Pigeon Guillemots nest in the north bluff. From fall through spring, Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Murres, and Rhinoceros Auklets are common in The Narrows; search also for the occasional Parasitic Jaeger in September (when Common Terns or Bonaparte’s Gulls are here in numbers). This is a great place to search for Little Gull among the Bonaparte’s and other rare species, as well.

SR-163 (N Pearl Street) southbound from the park entrance brings you to the northbound onramp to SR-16, on the right, in 3.0 miles. Turn right here for the Narrows Bridge and Kitsap County (page 178). The southbound SR-16 onramp—on the left in 0.3 mile, after the underpass—will take you to the I-5 interchange at Exit 132 (3.5 miles).



A large lake southwest of Tacoma at the north edge of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, American Lake gained attention from birders primarily because of a Little Gull present among Bonaparte’s Gulls every winter during the 1990s. But the Little Gull has not been seen in many years. Even though gulls are not always there (presumably they spend a fair amount of time on Puget Sound), potential for a variety of waterfowl and easy access from I-5 make this a popular stop.

Take Exit 123 (Thorne Lane) from I-5. At the traffic light, follow the signs to Tillicum/American Lake and turn northwestward onto North Thorne Lane SW. Follow the signs to Harry Todd Park in Lakewood, the traditional Little Gull spot. (Turn right to stay on Thorne in 0.3 mile, then left onto Woodlawn Street SW in 150 yards, and right into the parking lot 0.2 mile ahead.) Bring a scope; the gull flock can be quite far out.

Another vantage point is from the WDFW boat ramp (Discover Pass required) a bit farther west. Turn right out of the parking lot, then immediately left onto Maple Street for one block and right again onto Portland Avenue SW. Go straight 0.5 mile to a roundabout at the entrance to the National Guard’s Camp Murray, turn right onto Boundary Street for one block, and then left onto Military Avenue SW (a gravel road through a gate), which is the entrance to the boat ramp area (0.3 mile ahead; Discover Pass required). This is a wonderful spot for wintering waterfowl such as Canvasback (uncommon in Pierce County), possible Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaups, Bufflehead, and Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes.