Winter in the Pacific Northwest

Great Blue Heron stands in the snow at Marymoor Park (Redmond, Washington, U.S.A.)

A Great Blue Heron stands on one leg in the snow.

The Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. is known for its long, bleak winters.  The cloudy days seem never-ending. And even though temperatures rarely drop below freezing, the rainy dampness is chilling. It’s hard to drag myself outdoors to photograph birds. But I do. And it’s well worth it.

There are plenty of birds to see. You just have to know where to find them.


Water Birds

Dunlin, Jetty Island, Everett, Washington, U.S.A.

Flock of Dunlin on Jetty Island, Everett, Washington, U.S.A.

Hunkered down in my kayak, I often find enormous flocks (or “rafts”) of dabblers and divers floating on Seattle’s Lake Washington and Union Bay: Coots, Widgeons, Teals, Mallards, Buffleheads, Gadwalls, Shovelers, Redheads, Grebes, Goldeneyes, and more—sometimes by the thousands.

Seems like a photographer’s dream. But startle a single bird and, in an instant, they’re all in the air. You hear a great whistle of wings, then they’re gone. No way can I get close enough for photos.

Lookin’ Out My Backdoor

Lots of birds visit our yard in winter—often for the suet and seed we put out for them. Their lively presence adds a spark to even the wintriest day.

Townshend's Warbler in Douglas Fir tree.

Townshend's Warbler in Douglas Fir tree.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhees are year-round yard birds.

Typical winter visitors include Varied Thrushes, Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Townsend’s Warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and several types of woodpecker. Crows and Stellar’s Jays will be there as well, doing their best to monopolize the food and chase off everyone else.



Raptor Country

For our favorite winter birding, my wife Tina and I drive an hour or so north of Seattle. In the broad flats of the Skagit and Samish rivers, we often see Snow Geese, Arctic and Tundra Swans, and many other types other waterfowl.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

But we’re most excited about the raptors that winter there. Common hawk species include Northern Harriers, Red-tails, Rough-legged, Cooper’s, and Sharp-shinned.  Falcons include American Kestrels, Peregrines, and Merlins. Short-eared Owls actively hunt in the late afternoon.

This winter, we’ve had a rare influx—known as an “irruption”— of Snowy Owls, who don’t typically winter this far south.

Add to this dozens of Bald Eagles and the occasional Northern Shrike, Prairie Falcon, or Gyrfalcon, and you have a great day’s outing, much of it from inside a warm car.

Snowy Owl in Stanwood, Washington

Snowy Owl in Stanwood, Washington

Rough-legged Hawk in the Skagit Flats

Rough-legged Hawk in the Skagit Flats


Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike: one of our smaller birds of prey.

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