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Winter Birdwatching in the Pacific Northwest

Great PNW Places to Spot Winter Birds

Birdwatching in the Pacific Northwest is a treat in the winter with a bounty of not-to-miss opportunities. Shorebirds, waterfowl and, especially raptors, return to the region and the milder weather every winter.

There are numerous good areas to see birds in our region. A quick note, however: Declaring the “best” winter birding locales is as fruitless as distinguishing the plain shades of a semipalmated sandpiper from a western sandpiper between November and April.

There are, however, especially good options to see numerous species of birds, many of which are located west of the Cascades. Read on to learn some great locations to see birds.

Snowy Owl
A snowy owl. From FotoRequest/AdobeStock

A Bounty of Birds

The Skagit Valley always delivers in winter, home to tens of thousands of snow geese that are as brilliant in their black and white plumage as spring tulips are beautiful. Like a jumbo jet, swans slowly lift off and somehow get airborne to fly in their customary pairs.

The Skagit and Samish flats are also excellent habitat for spotting raptors, including, in some years, the magical falcon quintet: peregrine, prairie, gyrfalcon, American kestrel and merlin. Always stay focused for one other famous occasional visitor, the snowy owl. Speaking of owls, check out the daily sightings of short-eared owls on Fir Island.

Although they are separated by 100 miles, Nisqually and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuges share many characteristics, including habitat for various waterfowl and other winter residents. Located within minutes of Interstate 5, their trail systems make for a much more interesting walk than at a random rest area.

Large twin barns in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge make for as sublime a pastoral landscape as any in New England. There are also resident barn owls to be seen if you’re lucky, as well as roosting great horned owls in the cottonwoods. Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge occupies 5,500 acres of the lower Columbia River floodplain, which is habitat for many of the same species as well as wintering sandhill cranes.

Acorn woodpecker
An acorn woodpecker. By John Shaw/AdobeStock

Hippie Birds

My personal favorite bird species is an acorn woodpecker. What alum from The Evergreen State College wouldn’t love a bird that lives communally, raises its young cooperatively and is dressed in clownish regalia like Wavy Gravy of the Merry Pranksters?

Acorn woodpeckers continue to move northward and can now be found in the Willamette Valley at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge. Like a jam band, these birds are guaranteed to entertain for hours with their nut caching, incessant wacka-wacka calling and unfettered interplay. The refuge also provides wetland, riparian and prairie habitat for numerous raptors, heron, duck and songbird species in winter.

There are so many places to watch birds in the Pacific Northwest, but only two destinations draw bird lovers from around the world: the Malheur and Klamath National Wildlife Refuge systems in Oregon.

Malheur is largely quiet in the winter because of the frozen lakes and harsh conditions. Klamath, however, continues to wow visitors with the largest concentration of bald eagles in the Lower 48. There are also tens upon tens of thousands of waterfowl, as well as several bird species that are more common to California than the Pacific Northwest.

A Shorebird spotted in Oregon
A shorebird spotted in Oregon. By Bob/AdobeStock

World-Famous Birding

The Winter Wings Festival held annually over Presidents Day Weekend in February has an avid following as more than 400 birders arrive to take workshops and seek out up to 130 winter resident species.

The Pacific Northwest coast also provides critical habitat to millions of shorebirds that return each year from the Alaska tundra to their southern winter habitat.

Although most of these sandpipers, plover and other families continue southward to milder climes, several species remain here, their winter plumage taunting us to go deep into our field guides for identification.

But it isn’t just beachcombing that entices birders to endure the winds off the Pacific. Sea ducks and other water birds arrive in large rafts to ride the undulating ocean and spend winter in the calmer coves, bays and estuaries.

The B.C. Bird Trail near Richmond
Birdwatching near Richmond, B.C. Courtesy of The BC Bird Trail.

Birdwatching in British Columbia

Vancouver Island’s Saanich Inlet offers ideal viewing conditions for oldsquaw and all three species of scoter. You can also have fun identifying loons, including common, pacific, red-throated and, if you’re lucky, yellow-billed loons. You’ll likely spy four grebe species, mergansers and harlequin ducks all in their drabbest feathers of winter.

Scanning the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria or Port Angeles may reveal eiders and alcids, including marbled and ancient murrelets. The marbling may be absent from the murrelet, the red neck gone from grebes, and the red throat faded from loons, but winter birding is a blast if you don’t get lost in 50 shades of gray plumage.

The British Columbia mainland deltas also provide fantastic viewing conditions, especially the new Richmond Delta Bird Trail, which is part of The BC Bird Trail, an online planning tool that was recently created to provide information on birdwatching destinations in B.C. Like morning donuts and fresh coffee, birdwatching and Asian cuisine go hand and mouth in this province.

A series of shared dishes over yet more bird talk that provides the perfect finale. The metro Vancouver area, including Richmond, has more than 600 Asian restaurants.

Long Billed Curlew By Robert AdobeStock
A long-billed curlew on the coast. By Robert/AdobeStock

Spotting Species 

Once you’ve adjusted to winter loons, grebes and ducks, it’s time to get serious. Now it is time to track the shorebirds, those swift moving beach inhabitants that will fascinate and tantalize you with equal measure.

Winter shorebird identification along the Northwest coast is like those wooden jigsaw puzzles, impossibly hard, but so satisfying when you finally link the pieces together. Much can be derived from bill shape. For example, the marbled godwit’s bill is upturned and the long-billed curlew’s bill is downturned and long.

There are feeding and flocking behaviors too numerous to mention. Sorting out scampering sanderlings from the more deliberate dunlin will take your mind off the wind chill.

Seeing these and other species in their spectacular summer colors in their subarctic nesting grounds is not the same. It is too easy, for one, and you getting eaten alive by the tundra’s mosquitoes. And where’s the fun in that?

–Written by Crai Bower, updated in September 2022.
–Top image of snow geese in the Skagit Valley is by Sanderling Pictures/AdobeStock

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