The National Audubon Society’s Washington state office (360/786-8020, http://wa.audubon.org) has detailed information on birds and bird-watching in the state.
Approximately 300 pairs of bald eagles make their year-round home in Washington, primarily west of the Cascades. In winter that number swells to over 1,600 birds, drawn to rivers throughout the state by the carcasses of spawned-out salmon. Several white-water rafting companies operating in the North Cascades offer midwinter Skagit float trips just for the thrill of seeing these majestic birds.
The adult bald eagle’s distinctive white head and tail make it easy to spot. But it takes four years for it to acquire distinctive markings, making the immature eagle confusing to identify, as it may show whitish markings anywhere on its body. In contrast, the somewhat similar golden eagle has distinct white patches on its tail and underwings.
Their large nests, sometimes measuring over eight feet wide and 12 feet high, are often found in old-growth spruce and fir; snags are popular for sunning, resting, and watching for their next meal.
The state’s heaviest concentration of breeding bald eagles can be seen on the San Juan Islands, enjoying the warm updrafts around Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island and Mt. Findlayson and Mt. Dallas on San Juan Island, and along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The annual “salmon festival” brings the resident and migrating birds to the inland reaches of the Skagit, Sauk, Nooksack, and Stillaguamish rivers, with some enterprising pairs seen along southern Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River.
Washington’s most famous nighttime aerial hunter is the northern spotted owl, which nests in old-growth forests along the Pacific Coast—forests that are filled with snags and broken trees that provide ideal nesting spots and smaller, sheltered trees for young owls who can’t yet fly properly and must use their feet to climb from tree to tree. These forests are full of spotted-owl food: flying squirrels, snowshoe hares, and wood rats. Spotted owls are big eaters and quite territorial; 2,200 acres of old-growth forest will support but a single pair of owls. Because suitable forest is being greatly reduced by logging, the spotted owls’ numbers are diminishing—only an estimated 2,500 pairs remain in the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests, though the population appears to have stabilized somewhat in recent years.
Other noteworthy birds in western Washington include the great blue heron, frequently seen along harbors or suburban lakes. The belted kingfisher is a common year-round resident of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Red-tailed hawks are often perched along I-5 and other highways, waiting for a meal. Noisy Steller’s jays, blue with a black head, are common in picnic areas and neighborhoods.
In the Cascades and east of the mountains, the beautiful mountain bluebird is sometimes spotted in snags in open areas, and the town of Bickleton in the Horse Heaven Hills of southern Washington maintains hundreds of bluebird houses that stand on fence posts, in trees, and in front of the church. East of the mountains, striking black-and-white magpies are frequently seen flitting over the highway.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition