Exploring The West 90

In early February, I finally got to explore "The West 90."  I had heard about it a few times, but as a birding neophyte, I didn't know where it was.  The official name of the site is the Samish Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area and it is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  I still don't know why it's called "The West 90."  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who does know.

Historically, this was the Samish River floodplain.  When Europeans arrived, the river was diked and the land drained for agriculture.  Now, about 400 acres along the Padilla Bay shoreline have been set aside for wildlife.  When I arrived, I found a big, flat open field.  It was hard to imagine it was a spot where I would see much wildlife.  In the end, I would not be disappointed.

The setting was magnificent.  Mount Baker stood watch stoically over the fields.  Despite the sunshine, the morning temperature was cold, near freezing, and some patches of fog lingered in the area.

Efforts are underway to restore the natural wetland habitats on the site.  This makes it attractive for migrating and wintering birds.  With the adjacent Padilla Bay estuary, this is also an edge habitat where shorebirds may be seen.  From the parking lot, the main trail sets off to the south.

As you begin to explore the fields and ponds, you will be glad you wore your boots.  "Wetland" is the operative word, especially during winter.  Across Padilla Bay to the west, Fidalgo Island and the refineries on March's Point are visible.  The high point on Fidalgo is Mount Erie.  With clear skies, the Olympic Mountains are also visible in the distance.

Twenty-three ponds and a number of copses are scattered over the 409 acre/166 hectare site.  Cereal grains are planted by the WDFW on some of the acreage as a food source for wintering waterfowl.  On occasion, pheasants are released here for sport hunting and there is waterfowl hunting during the winter months.

Several posts have been set in the ground along the dike which borders Padilla Bay.  During my visit, every post was occupied by a Bald Eagle or a hawk using them as hunting perches.  It was literally a field of raptors.  These posts seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to accommodate the birds.  If you build it, they will come.

A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was using this post which appeared to be a piece of driftwood stuck in the ground.

Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) stalked the grasslands adjacent to the ponds.  This was early February and they were probably looking for small rodents, especially voles.  There is a Heron rookery of around 400 nests across Padilla Bay on March's Point.

The sunshine of early February brought out the Pussy Willows.  They were growing in the marshy borders of some of the ponds.

Another post, another Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

A big flock of birds flew in and took up perches on shrubs next to the main trail.  I thought they were Starlings and didn't pay much attention or work very hard getting a photo.  In fact, I did my best to avoid them and only took a couple of quick "mob shots."

Red-winged Blackbird Females

After I got home and started looking at the photos closely, I realized these were not Starlings at all.  They were American Pipits (Anthus rubescens), a first-time sighting for me.  I apologize for the poor quality of the photo.  As I said, I didn't work very hard and this is an extreme crop and edit of the original to get a closer look.  These are fairly uncommon birds in this part of western Washington, so this was a good lesson learned.

As pointed out in comments by Dyvon, these are not American Pipits.  They are female Red-winged Blackbirds.  I hate making mistakes like this.  It does illustrate the problem when one is reduced to leafing through books trying to identify birds.  I apologize for the misidentification.  I hope no one else was led down the primrose path by this.

I spotted a Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched near one of the ponds.  This open grassland is perfect habitat for them.  This member of the Blackbird family was not singing today.

Speaking of Blackbirds, the male Red-wingeds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were out in force, guarding their individual ponds and singing their hearts out.  They were not hard to find.  Just listen for their rich, melodious calls and follow the singing.  I wrote a Blackbird haiku to post on a friend's blog:

Blackbird in the marsh
Singing lord of the cattails
The sound of sunlight

Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) found rich pickings foraging the cereal grasses planted by the WDFW.  Our Pacific Northwest morphna race is the darkest variation of this common and widespread bird.

In a place where predators and prey come together, there will be kill sites.  I spotted several of these while exploring the fields.

A trio of eagles seemed to be enjoying some aerobatics over by the bordering foothills.  It was hard to tell what they were doing.  This may have been some early courtship dancing.  Whatever it was, they appeared to be having fun.

If you are like me and wondering where this place is, just head towards Samish Island.  Enter the parking lot where Samish Island Road makes a 90° bend to the right.  (Could that be the source of the name?)  Don't forget to bring your Discover Pass.  Now that I have found it and have some orientation to the lay of the land, I plan to return many times.  It appears to be one of the richest birding sites in the area.

As an aside, there were some interesting goings-on here during my visit.  The WDFW has provided a privy adjacent to the parking lot.  It seemed to be frequented by a steady stream of truckers, deliverymen and other assorted road warriors.  Patrons included Fedex, Waste Management and the U.S. Border Patrol.  For those driving occupations some distance from civilization, I am sure this accommodation was much appreciated.