by Elizabeth Cameron
With Covid-19 restrictions and precautions, many of us have felt (safely) stuck within the walls of our homes for the last long while. For teens, everything from school, to clubs, sports, and friendships have been maintained virtually. Finally, with proper precautions taken, the Young Birders teen birding club has been able to gather in person for birding field experiences.

Seattle Audubon’s Young Birders Program

Young Birders is a youth birding program that invites youths ages 13–18 to join from the Puget Sound area (and beyond)! The program consists of a virtual monthly meeting with guest speakers, including scientists, artists, and community members, a monthly at-home activity option, as well as an in-person field experience aligning to a theme. Field experiences have included birding from the Edmonds Fishing Pier, collecting Climate Watch data in the Washington Park Arboretum, and an upcoming day trip to Whidbey Island.

This post shares a bit about the Young Birders January field experience: raptor watching in Skagit County! From Bow-Edison to Wiley Slough, here was our day.

Bald Eagles / Anthony Floyd

The start of the morning

Meeting at the Seattle Audubon office at 7:30 a.m., the Young Birders arrived in the foggy darkness with binoculars in tow, ready to (hopefully) see some raptors in Skagit. Led by volunteer Jack Stephens, we set off north in a caravan, hoping the dense fog we were driving through might lift by the time we got to the Skagit Valley. 

As we arrived at the lovely Farm to Market Bakery, scopes were set out in the parking lot toward the many eagles resting in trees. Seven eagles, of various ages, were counted before the chocolate muffins came out of the bakery ovens. While some Young Birders bought treats, we continued to marvel at the eagles chattering high in the trees, as Trumpeter Swans made their presence known loudly overhead.

In the backyard of the bakery, there were several sparrow species, more Bald Eagles, American Crows, as well as Mallards and Green-winged Teals swimming in the flooded field beyond.

Rough-legged Hawk / Elizabeth Cameron

First stop(s)

En route to The Eagle Tree (which turned out to be more of a “Red-winged Blackbird Tree”), we stopped to view a large field of swans and were pleasantly surprised by a sighting of a few Eurasian-collared Doves along a fence line.

At the Skagit Wildlife Area – Samish Unit, a Young Birder spotted a raptor in a tree to the west of the parking lot. The raptor in question turned out to be a Rough-legged Hawk, an arctic species and “lifer” for the majority of Young Birders attending the trip. How exciting!

While there were some target locations on the Young Birders itinerary, stopping along fields and flooded areas made for interesting sightings as well. In one area, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Sharp-shinned Hawk were seen. In a field of swans, one Tundra Swan stood out, its markings barely visible as the heads of the swans were muddy from looking for leftover seeds.

*Quick note: This field experience took place within hunting season. Be aware of all hunting seasons and locations while safely birding.
An Anna's Hummingbird hovers amidst falling snow.

Young Birders / Elizabeth Cameron

Continuing onward!

After stopping at (a very windy) Bay View State Park to view seabirds including Buffleheads and Glaucous-winged Gulls, the Young Birders crew pulled over to set up scopes to view a few thousand Dunlins sitting in a flooded field, wintering further north than most of its sandpiper relatives.

From there we drove to the property of an artist who allows birders to watch the species that frequent their many feeders in a yard decorated with ceramic art. A great spot for an outdoor lunch break, we watched as Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, juncos, sparrows, finches, and chickadees visited the feeders and native plants.

Red-breasted Nuthatch / Anthony Floyd

Other highlights from the day

For this Young Birders field experience, raptors were the focus. And raptors we did see! Volunteer Jack Stephens, leading the caravan, radioed for us to pull over, as he spotted an American Kestrel sitting on a wire up ahead. As we got out to set up scopes, careful not to frighten it away, a Young Birder spotted another raptor in a different direction… a Peregrine Falcon! Our raptor trip had not only been filled with eagles and hawks, but it had now become a two-falcon day! With scopes set up facing both birds, Young Birders took pictures through the lenses and added the falcons to their Skagit birding checklist.

At one point, everyone saw two mature Bald Eagles engage in courtship flight behavior, where they grasp talons and free dive before splitting apart—a spectacular sight that nobody on the trip had been lucky enough to see before! Speaking of luck, we also got to see a pair of Hooded Mergansers at one stop, albeit briefly before they flew away.

Cooper’s Hawk / Emily W.

 The end of a wonderful day

At our last stop of what had been a beautiful, sunny, bird-filled day, we were treated to viewing a Red-tailed Hawk enviously watching a Bald Eagle eat a fish in the next tree over. Wylie Slough also gave us the opportunity to see our last raptor of the day, a Cooper’s Hawk that had the Young Birders going back and forth comparing field marks to whether or not it was actually a Cooper’s Hawk, or potentially a Sharp-shinned. After settling on Cooper’s, our caravan headed back to Seattle Audubon, checklists marked and photo albums full.

Young Birders have the opportunity to join a field experience each month, some within Seattle and others further away. This provides teens with the valuable chance to go birding in person, something that many were unable to do during this period of health and safety restrictions, as well as connect with peers on the common interest they have in birds and the natural world.

So, for the young, the old, and the in-betweens, we hope you can safely get back out there, get back birding, and enjoy what nature has to offer!

Join Young Birders: The Young Birders program runs from October–June each year. For more information on joining, please visit our webpage!

Mount Baker / Elizabeth Cameron

An Anna's Hummingbird hovers amidst falling snow.

Peregrine Falcon / Elizabeth Cameron