Six Off-Season Wildlife Spectacles in the Northwest

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.