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Birds of a Feather: Winter Birdwatching on San Juan Island

birding in the san juan islands Written by Toni Shiurba Published on November 22, 2017.

Well, you know, … flock together. Don your down jackets and warm winter boots to explore the San Juan Islands Marine State Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. They are home to a vast number of land and sea birds. You can hit the hiking trails, kayaking routes, private boat excursions, beaches and shorelines to take in natures’ winged wonders. Why even the ferry trip over to the Islands affords you an opportunity to spot a broad variety of birds.

Habitat in the San Juan Islands

Forests, farmlands, prairies, salt marshes, muddy lagoons, sandy and rocky shorelines can all be found in the San Juan’s. These are some of the nesting and foraging grounds that support an amazing number of raptors, songbirds, hummingbirds, ducks, geese and waterfowl.

You may already have heard that the Islands are part of Washington State’s Scenic Byway. But I’ll bet you didn’t know that we are also smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Flyway.

Pacific Flyway

That’s right! We are located on a migration route. Because of the waterways that pass by the San Juan Islands, the Salish Seas provide fish, crustaceans, shellfish, kelp beds, aquatic plants and farmers’ fields for birds to dine on. So, not only do we have feathered creatures year round, we also get the “need-a-little-tropical-toe-warming” varieties on their way south.

Birding Hot Spots on San Juan Island

Ferry Ride

With your bird identification book in hand, start your discoveries on the ferry ride over. Black Cormorants decorate the ferry dock pilings. Their fully black feathers are interrupted only by a splash of yellowish-orange on the face and neck.  Deep diving for fish is their pastime.

Chasing the ferry boats as they cruise through the islands are Glaucous-winged Gulls. You’ll hear their loud squawks as they skim close enough to pick French fries from brave fingertips.

Take a Birding Tour

Why we even have a famous bird identification author who has written, “Birding in the San Juan Islands” by Mark Lewis. Use this resource on your own self-guided jaunt through a true birders paradise. Or take a tour with Mark and his team. They lead bird-watching trips year round in the islands. Find one that suits your needs with one of our local outfitters.

Deadman’s Bay

Bald eagles nest high in the branches of our fir trees. Take your binoculars to the west side of San Juan Island. Check out Dead Man’s Bay near Limekiln Lighthouse for eagle sightings. There is a known nest in a fir tree uphill from that shore.

American Camp and South Beach

Find another large nest at American Camp Ranger station near South beach. Look through the provided telescope to see activity high in the fir branches. Last year, two chicks hatched in full view of lucky onlookers.

Try your luck near the cliffs of South Beach to spot Peregrine Falcons. Nearby Jakle’s Lagoon has mudflats with mussels, clams and oysters. Black oystercatchers, surf scooters, loons and Harlequin Ducks feast here.

The small sea duck called a Harlequin Duck dips and dives along our rocky shores. Dusky blue background sports reddish-brown sides and is crisscrossed with white lines, circles and dots. Black streaks play into this colorful males’ plumage. There are moments of amber surprising part of the feathered canvas. Listen for the non-duck-like squeak “ek-ek-ek”.

Mount Finlayson

In the forests around these beaches are hiking trails. Mount Finlayson gives you a “birds eye view” of South  Beach, its cliffs and prairies.  The prairie skies are host to Great Horned Owls, Northern Harriers, Peregrine Falcons and other raptors.

Take a turn into the forest and find to Chickadees, Goldfinches Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds. 

Lowland Ponds

Inland ponds and wetlands are home to Trumpeter Swans. They are the “Grand Dames” of Swans. Elegant, pure white wonders held up with stone black legs and finished with fine black bills.. These Goldilocks of Geese forage for aquatic plants, field crops and grains. Find them on lakes, ponds and wetlands along any of the 3 main island roads. Visit the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park. With its lake and marshy areas, it is not only the perfect location for birding but viewing art as well.

Bird Web

An online source that helps you look for birds grouped by families is  Click on groups such as Waterfowl, Pheasants, Loons, Grebes, Herons, Hawks, Gulls and so on, show you pictures of individual species and lots of information including when and where to find them. A fantastic resource!

Don’t let grey skies keep you indoors this winter. Take a trip to the San Juan Islands, stay at Harrison House Bed and Breakfast and give your curiosity a workout!

hot cocoa at the tucker house


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