A bald eagle keeps watch from a tree in the Fir Island Farm Reserve Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area in Skagit County. (Dave Wenning)
A bald eagle keeps watch from a tree in the Fir Island Farm Reserve Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area in Skagit County. (Dave Wenning)

Catch sight of the spectacle:

Bevy of birds to behold this month and beyond


December and January are among the highpoints of the year for bird activity, with bald eagles feeding along the Skagit River, waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway gathering in Washington, and the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count taking place.

Read on for more on what’s flying near you and resources on getting into birding or bettering your outings, as well as trying waterfowl hunting.

Hooded mergansers engage in a courtship display on Hicks Lake in Lacey. (Larry James)
Hooded mergansers engage in a courtship display on Hicks Lake in Lacey. (Larry James)

Pacific Flyway waterfowl

When the bright-colored songbirds of spring and summer have transformed back to muted colors, birders begin to look to lakes, rivers, and estuaries for the brilliant colors of breeding waterfowl. As landscapes in Alaska and Canada begin to freeze and daylight shortens, waterfowl make their way south in search of unfrozen waters, food, and mates.

During late fall and early winter, male ducks leave behind their plain-colored camouflage and transform with headpieces of emerald green, bronze, iridescent black, and other shades. These eye-catching colors aren’t just for our enjoyment, however. Along with a song and dance, bright plumage helps male ducks attract a mate. Fancy colors and displays provide an entertaining show for winter birders; courtship behaviors in ducks range from the classic “head-throw-kick” of the common goldeneye to the “grunt-whistle” of the mallard.

Fall and winter also provide a great opportunity to see waterfowl en masse. Birds will flock together on open water and land for safety in numbers. Northwestern Washington especially is known for its trumpeter and tundra swan gatherings. This blog highlights WDFW wildlife areas where winter flocks of swans can be spotted and shares best practices for waterfowl viewing.

Swans on a still lake with ring-necked ducks in the background. (WDFW)
Swans with ring-necked ducks in the background. (WDFW)

Looking for a quick download or virtual waterfowl identification guide? Check out “Ducks at a Distance” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additionally, the Great Washington State Birding Trail provides people with the best regional places for birding within the state. For a small fee, you can also download the birding trail app which provides you with best birding spots near you and access to an online birding guide.

If you’re interested in learning more about waterfowl viewing, hunting, and conservation throughout Washington, check out our video “Waterbirds of Washington.”

For more information specifically on waterfowl hunting in Washington, take a gander at our blog post on getting started in waterfowling and read the Washington Game Bird and Small Game Hunting Regulations pamphlet.

Finally, if you’re a teacher or parent of a middle school student, check out our #WildWashington middle school lesson, “Following Habitat” where students learn about waterfowl migration and use Google Earth to track how waterfowl move throughout the West.

A bald eagle soars in the Skagit Valley. (Angie Banta)
A bald eagle soars in the Skagit Valley. (Angie Banta)

Skagit River bald eagles

Each fall, another kind of migration brings droves of bald eagles following fast behind it.

Salmon that have returned to Washington rivers to spawn die soon after, leaving behind eggs that will become their next generation and carcasses that provide nutrients to the river system and food for wildlife. Chum salmon returning to the Skagit River provide a bounty of food for hungry bald eagles.

The eagles will start arriving in the area in late October, with numbers increasing in November and peaking in mid-December to late January. The Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, located along the Skagit River in Rockport in Skagit County, has area eagle counts from previous years available on its website.

During the peak viewing season, you might be able to see as many as 100 eagles from state Highway 20, according to the center’s website. Dozens in a day can be seen from publicly accessible areas.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website has a detailed map of the 8,000-acre Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area along with valuable information about eagle viewing in the area. Other bald eagle viewing areas around Puget Sound can be found here.

A drake wood duck takes flight over the waters of Hicks Lake in Lacey. (Larry James)
A drake wood duck takes flight over the waters of Hicks Lake in Lacey. (Larry James)

Community science adds up in Christmas Bird Count

Another great way to catch the bird activity this time of year is to volunteer with the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a bird census that allows you to help be a part of conservation.

Administered by the National Audubon Society and in its 122nd year, the CBC gathers thousands of volunteers across the U.S., Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere to go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds, according to the Audubon Society website.

All Christmas Bird Counts are held between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 each year. Local counts will take place on one day in that date range, and participants can help with multiple counts.

The CBC is open to all and those interested can view a map of the local counts this season on the Audubon Society website in order to find a count happening nearby. Participants are asked to sign up ahead of time by contacting the compilers in charge of counts via the email addresses in the map’s pop-ups.

Each count occurs in a 15-mile-wide circle and is organized by a count compiler. Volunteers follow specific routes through the circle counting every bird they see or hear all day. All birds — not just species — are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

According to the Audubon Society, the data gathered by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies, and others to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed over the past hundred years.

Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this census to assess the health of bird populations and help guide conservation measures.

For more information on the CBC, visit the Audubon Society website.

A bald eagle peers from a tree near Rockport in Skagit County. (Sandee Waddoups)
A bald eagle peers from a tree near Rockport in Skagit County. (Sandee Waddoups)

More birding resources

· There have been more than 500 different species of birds reported in Washington. Print your Washington State Bird Checklist from the Washington Ornithological Society and start your bird list today.

· Explore the different birds of Washington with Bird Web from Seattle Audubon Society.

· Listen to bird songs and sounds online with All About Birds.

· Find information and resources about birds on WDFW’s Birding and Community Science webpage. Community scientists — like you — can help provide important information about wildlife populations and trends. With easy-to-use apps like eBird and iNaturalist, it’s more fun than ever to contribute to community science. Watch this 3-minute video from eBird to learn about community science and how you can get involved.

· Download For the Birds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and learn everything you need to know about creating an inviting and safe space for birds in your yard including feeding, housing, and landscaping for birds. Visit our Habitat at Home webpage to learn more about fostering habitat right at home.

Share your outdoor adventures for a chance to win outdoor gear!

Send us your best photos of how you spend time outdoors! Your photos may be featured on WDFW’s Facebook and Instagram to celebrate the variety of ways people enjoy outdoor lifestyles and to inspire others to spend time in nature.

Enter our monthly photo contest for a chance to win a Cabela’s gift card! Each month has a new theme and a new winner.

Participating is simple:

1. Visit WDFW’s Life Outdoors webpage to find out the outdoor recreation theme for the current month: https://wdfw.wa.gov/life-outdoors

2. Submit pictures of you, your friends, or family participating in the month’s featured outdoor recreation theme on WDFW’s website: https://wdfw.wa.gov/share

3. When submitting your photo, select #LifeOutdoorsWA in the category section. In the description area, tell us a little about your experience.

4. On the last Friday of the month, a winner will be selected and featured on WDFW’s Facebook and Instagram. Winners will also be contacted via email to receive their prize.

When sharing your photos on social media, be sure to use #LifeOutdoorsWA!

December’s photo theme:

Avian activity amps up in December



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.