Early Spring! The weather is telling me to go for a walk but the mountains haven’t received the spring memo and all my favorite trails are still buried in snow. So where to go? One of my favorite places is the Skagit River Delta at the north end of the Puget Sound.
An important agricultural area, the Skagit Valley is probably most renowned for its tulip and daffodil fields. Definitely well worth a visit in Spring but be prepared for crowds and traffic when the fields are transformed to a rainbow of yellows, reds, oranges, blues and purples.
The somewhat quieter months of winter and early spring, with the sun slanting low over the delta connecting glacier tipped mountains to salt water ocean, is my favorite time to visit.
Rocky outcroppings, sculpted from ancient bedrock, rise up from the flats like so many giant sleeping turtles. Some of these islands are accessible on foot (sensible rubber boot clad foot) across a bridge of salt water marsh.
Craft Island is one such island! The trail can be accessed off Rawlins Road, tucked behind another of my favorite stopping points, the Snow Goose Farm Stand, www.snowgooseproducemarket.com home to farm fresh produce and immodest scoops of ice cream in fresh, homemade waffle cones. Perfect after a hike out to Craft Island!
The fertile tidal flats and shallow waters support an abundance of wildlife, and winter time provides a great birdwatching opportunity, since many birds overwinter in this rich, protected area: bald eagles, hawks, falcons, tundra and trumpeter swans, snow geese and even the occasional snowy owl, driven south in exceptionally harsh winters further north.
On the short hike out to Craft Island we watch a Northern Harrier cruise low over the marsh. With a sudden fold of his broad wings he drops swiftly into the rushes – his hunt for a mouse or vole must have been successful since he stays on the ground for a while. Perched on top of Craft Island, we gaze out on the expanse of tidal mud flats and water beyond.
Herons stand motionless in the shallow water, their spear like beak poised to scoop up fish and shrimp in the shallows. We count five bald eagles perched on the huge drift wood logs marooned in the mud by the outgoing tide.
An immature bald eagle is surveying the same scene as ourselves from the vantage point of a tree behind us. With chestnut brown mottled feathers and dark bill, he won’t get the distinctive white head and tail and yellow bill of an adult until he is five years old.
We watch undulating flocks of shorebirds, sunlight reflected in flickering waves off their wings, as they rise up then drift down to settle on the mudflats. One time we were fortunate to witness a hunting peregrine falcon arc a flight path, so fast we could barely track its movements, through a flock of shorebirds. Gone was their beautifully choreographed flight, as hundreds of birds scattered into desperate, fragmented groups. Unsure who to root for, peregrine or shorebirds, we watched as the falcon zig zagged through the flock, panicked birds flying every which way. Within minutes it was over, the peregrine flying off over the water, empty talons this time.
On our way home we wind slowly past beautiful old farmhouses, scanning the fields and trees for birds as we drive. Utility poles and the cables they support provide perches for kestrels, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks, eying the fields and ditches for mice, voles and rabbits.
The eyes of birds of prey are adapted to seeing up to eight times more clearly than the sharpest human eye. I try to imagine what it would be like to have the ability of a red-tailed hawk to spot a mouse half a mile away. I fail miserably!
We turn a corner to see a sight that even my relatively puny human eyesight can’t fail to be impressed by: hundreds of snow geese feeding on the grain and seeds in the fields. We cautiously climb out of the car so as not to disturb them and listen to their clamorous calls sounding like so much raucous cocktail party chatter. By early May, the geese will have left the area for their summer breeding grounds on Wrangel Island in Russia.
A small group flies in to join them, their webbed toes stretching down to act as landing gear for a safe approach. I feel a puppy dog urge to run into the field just to see what would happen.
A handful of stragglers remain in the field, a reminder that what we have just seen wasn’t some figment of our imagination.
A great day for a hike!