The days are short, the weather’s cold and its raining in the Pacific Northwest. It’s easy to hole up indoors or head to the mountains and ride the ski lifts. But there are underrated outdoor spectacles awaiting those willing to venture off the beaten track.
Birds of Low Moral Character: Bald Eagles
Benjamin Franklin didn’t want the Bald Eagle as our national bird because of its’ “low moral character” being too willing to steal a meal from someone else or eat whatever they find lying around. (He preferred the Wild Turkey, which in 1869 became the only bird you can both eat and drink.) In the winter, bald eagles gather in the Pacific Northwest lowlands, wetlands, and coastal estuaries. The eagles are at the southern end of their migration, having just left a summer of feeding on salmon in Alaska. They gather to feed on their other main food source: waterfowl that gather in massive numbers.
Hot Spots: Skagit River Delta WA, Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge on the Columbia River east of Astoria, Sauvie Island, OR. But by far the best viewing is in the six wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin on the Oregon-California border.
Your Goose is Not Cooked
Waterfowl, of course, are in the Northwest for a similar reason. The season’s ended on their northerly breeding grounds, and millions of ducks and geese return south where the water’s not frozen and there’s food to be found. They gather in giant flocks: ducks and geese in many wetlands throughout the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough and sea ducks coastal estuaries. But by far the greatest show is in the Klamath Basin, where countless Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese make the ground look white as snow.
Hot Spots: The Klamath Basin for Snow and Ross’s geese, coastal estuaries, and urban wetlands in the Willamette Valley and Puget Sound.
Different Kind of Tracks in the Snow
Instead of following the hordes to the ski lifts, grab a pair of cross-county skis or snowshoes, and venture off the main track—you’re bound to find the prints of squirrels, snowshoe hare, coyotes, bobcats, and deer. Tracks patterns show up easily in the snow, far easier than they do in most unfrozen landscapes.
Hot Spots: Off trail, anywhere there’s snow.
Join The Elks Club
Elk—the mammal, not the fusty old social club—can be seen easiest in the winter. Leafless brush offers better views, and Roosevelt Elk gather to coastal lowlands to feed. For photographers, the late sunrises and early sunsest make for softer light and better images.
Hot Spots: Dean Creek Wildlife Refuge near Reesport on the South Oregon Coast, The coastal areas of Redwood National Park, and Jewell Meadows near Astoria.
Something Fishy’s Going On
Winter Steelhead are impressive fish. Like salmon, their spawning runs create a wild spectacle for fishermen and anyone interested in wildlife that’s part of the Pacific Northwest’s culture and identity. Unlike salmon, Steelhead are actually a seagoing species of rainbow trout that return to rivers to spawn. Also unlike Pacific Salmon, they don’t die after spawning, and return to the sea and make the journey several times. Prized for sportfishing, steelhead are best found in the coast range rivers in winter.
Hot spots: rivers flowing into coastal bays.
The Greatest Citizen Science Effort Ever Known
On Christmas Day 1900, Frank Chapman, an officer in the early days of the Audubon Society, proposed a volunteer-led bird count in place of an annual hunt. So began a longstanding volunteer effort to collect data about nature: the Christmas Bird Count. Now in it’s 115th year, the Christmas Bird Count deploys volunteer to do bird surveys that can be compared with previous records. As the only data going back to the beginnings of the century (and often surveying the same sites) the Bird Count provides critical trend data on bird populations around the US. For birders, it’s a chance to turn knowledge into both fun and a useful purpose. For newbies, it’s a welcoming group and a chance to learn bird identification from experts, with some winter cheer thrown in.