While Washington state might be best known for its lush forests and rugged coastline, this northwestern state is far more complex than just ocean and pine. From volcanic peaks and remote lakes to vast marshes, arid valleys and glacier-carved potholes, Washington enjoys the sort of topographical diversity that draws in a good selection of bird species.
A number of notable bird watching spots across the state have been made national wildlife refuges, like Conboy Lake, a nesting site for Greater Sandhill Cranes, and Turnbull, which shelters a Great Blue Heron rookery and many migrating waterfowl. Close to big city, reclaimed land now offers the chance to enjoy surprisingly good urban bird watching, try Union Bay Natural Area for one. And of course, in a state sporting such a royal flush of national parks there is ample opportunity to couple spectacular scenery with birding, whether tackling high elevation meadows on Mount Rainier or wandering through temperate rainforest in Olympic National Park.
Olympic National Park:
Ranging from Old Growth Forest to rugged Pacific Coast via mountain meadows and temperate rainforest, Olympic National Park offers a unique opportunity to enjoy a sampling of the Northwest’s best along with roughly 300 bird species. Watch for the showy male Blue Grouse, spot a Rhinoceros Auklet bobbing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and keep an eye out for the likes of the Northern Pygmy Owl in Sol Duc Valley as you take in the height and breadth of this outstanding national park.
Mount Rainier National Park:
From mature forests which shelter threatened birds like the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet to subalpine meadows where one might see a Dark-eyed Junco, Hairy Woodpecker or Red Crossbill, the dramatic elevation changes throughout Mount Rainier National Park support a variety of bird life. Bird watching conditions vary widely by season, so take this into account when planning your trip.
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge:
Not far from Spokane, this national wildlife refuge takes in an expanse of “The Channeled Scablands”, an area pocked with ponds and sloughs but also in places capable of supporting Ponderosa pine forest and steppe habitat. Look for a good range of bird species here, including migrating Tundra Swans, woodpeckers, warblers, Western Meadowlarks, nuthatches and 17 species of waterfowl, even a Great Blue Heron rookery.
Union Bay Natural Area (Seattle):
Despite the congestion that often clogs Seattle’s roadways, it’s relatively easy to track down a bit of wilderness in which to birdwatch at places like Union Bay Natural Area (provided there’s not a UW football game on), which shelters close to 200 recorded species. A former landfill now gone to grassland, marsh and pond, this is a good spot to watch for migrating shorebirds, the Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and other species; come early morning for the best viewing conditions.
Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge:
Set in a transition zone between the arid part of the state and its wetter western half, this marshy national wildlife refuge was founded primarily for migrating waterfowl including swans and Pintail, but there are also a number of shorebirds like Spotted Sandpipers and Kildeer that pass through the area. Also watch for Greater Sandhill Cranes, which nest on the refuge.
For a glimpse of mountain birds without the effort of a long hike, drive to the highest point on the North Cascade Highway, Washington Pass. From the parking area access alpine meadow where Mountain Bluebirds and American Pipit nest, or watch for Clark’s Nutcrackers and Red Crossbills hiding in trees along the site’s easy loop trail.