When January arrives, many families flock north to the Skagit River to see wintering populations of bald eagles. But, while magnificent, the eagles are just the start of the opportunities to see native Washington wildlife in the winter. Here are six other adventures you can enjoy from January to May that will get your family close to everything from elk to gray whales.
Next: Elk and bighorn sheep
January and February: Elk and bighorn sheep
In the snowy eastern foothills of the Cascades near Yakima, the Oak Creek Wildlife Area is a refuge for herds of elk and bighorn sheep. Its two feeding stations — Oak Creek for the elk and Cleman Mountain for the bighorn sheep — provide them with supplemental food each winter as the animals’ native habitat shrinks.
At the Oak Creek elk feeding station, just off the highway, herds of elk average about 600 strong, and can peak at 800–900 if the winter is harsh. The majestic creatures, who are fed daily at 1:30 p.m., gather near the parking lot to munch on hay bales, raising their antlered heads to call to one another.
The views are great from the parking lot and adjacent visitor center, but the highlight of any visit is the free truck tour. “It’s a great way to get a little more up close and personal with the elk,” says manager Ross Huffman. Two military trucks bring visitors within 10–15 feet of the elk, and are staffed by volunteers, who answer questions. During peak season (January and February), the trucks go out on the hour from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a free 20- to 30-minute tour.
The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during January and February, with volunteers, mounted wildlife displays, educational posters and even a kids’ corner, where kids can touch elk antlers and fur.
You can also see bighorn sheep at the Cleman Mountain feeding station, located nearby. The sheep are fed daily in midmorning.
Costs: Entrance is free, but donations are accepted. A Discover Pass ($10 per day or $30 for a year) is required to park. Reservations are recommended for a truck tour; call 509-698-5106.
Getting there: The Oak Creek Wildlife Area is 20 miles west of Yakima on Highway 12, about a three-hour drive from Seattle. The nearby town of Naches has restaurants and delis, or head out to local favorite Whistlin’ Jack Lodge on Chinook Pass (25 miles west of Naches on State Route 410) for huckleberry chicken and mountain rainbow trout. For an overnight trip, stay at Whistlin’ Jack, or at one of the many hotels in Yakima.
March to May: The great migration
Closer to home, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia provides a safe haven for hundreds of migratory bird species in its 3,000 acres of protected tidal estuary. Over the winter, black brant, sea ducks and other waterfowl rest in preparation for their spring migration north. Blue herons and river otters can be spotted from the beautiful boardwalk trail, which allows visitors access. In January, salmon chum thrive in the Nisqually River, providing a feast for the resident bald eagles. This year, snowy owls have also been seen at the refuge, for the second year in a row.
The Nisqually Refuge is also a good place to learn about habitat restoration. Set aside in 1974 to protect the wildlife in the delta, the refuge been painstakingly restored to its native form through the removal of human-made dikes and invasive plants, and an extensive replanting effort.
Kids ages 4–11 can participate in the Junior Refuge Manager program by picking up a workbook from the visitor center (open 9 a.m.–4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday) and filling it out as they explore the refuge. Once they’ve completed the workbook, they can stop back by the visitor center to receive a badge and certificate. Kids of all ages can experience the refuge at the Nature Explore Area, where playground toys made of reclaimed wood and six activity stations (such as nature art and dirt digging) invite kids to develop their senses.
Costs: Entrance fee is $3; participation in the Junior Refuge Manager program is free.
Getting there: The refuge is just off exit 114 on Interstate 5, eight miles northeast of Olympia. Hours are from sunrise to sunset, and the visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Nearby Olympia makes a great pit stop for lunch or snacks. Check out the new Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, if you have time.
All winter: Trumpeter and tundra swans, eagles and hawks
Kids who have read E.B. White’s classic The Trumpet of the Swan will be thrilled to find the majestic trumpeter swans close to home.
North America’s biggest waterfowl, trumpeter swans are distinctive for their snow-white feathers and pitch-black beaks, as well as the resonant, bugle-like call that gives them their name. Trumpeters and their slightly smaller cousins, tundra swans, are the winter stars of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (RNWR), near Vancouver, Wash. It’s a favorite stop for many birds during their migrations along the “Pacific Flyway,” which stretches from northern breeding grounds to warmer winter climates, such as Baja California and South America.
“You’ll easily see eagles, egrets, red-tailed hawks,” says Eric Anderson, instructional systems specialist at Ridgefield, adding that “swans are really a seasonal attraction in the winter.”
Take a walk along the Oaks to Wetlands Trail, which is a system of flat, looping paths that can be customized to be a walk of about two miles. Along the way, you’ll find signs identifying the flora, as well as “adventure learning stations” that match educational guides available on the Friends of the RNWR website. You’ll also pass the Cathlapotle plank house, a full-scale re-creation of one of the traditional Chinook communal homes that once stood on that site. (It’s open during summer months.)
Alternately, the River S Unit can be explored via a four-mile driving loop that provides plenty of viewing opportunities. “The birds don’t view the car as human, so they let you get really close,” says Anderson. A downloadable podcast tour of the route coordinates with marked checkpoints, so visitors can go at their own pace. Get it and other guides and resources at the Friends of the RNWR website.
Costs: $3 entry fee per vehicle
Getting there: The town of Ridgefield is off exit 14 on I-5, just north of Vancouver. Hungry? Try the Pioneer Street Cafe (207 Pioneer St.) or Vinnie’s Pizza (206 N. Main St., Suite 110) in Ridgefield. A trip to the wildlife refuge could easily be combined with a trip to Portland.
March through May: Gray whales in Puget Sound
Every March, a pod of gray whales makes its way into Puget Sound for its annual migration pit stop as the whales travel from Baja California to Alaska. They can be seen most frequently in the Saratoga Passage between Whidbey and Camano islands, both from land and sea.
“Anywhere you can see water, you can probably see the whales,” says Orca Network cofounder Howard Garrett. He suggests that you keep an eye on Orca Network’s Facebook page, where people post sightings.
Gray whales can measure as long as 50 feet, and weigh from 15 to 40 tons. Yet with all that mass, they’re incredibly graceful, and can even seem quite playful when they roll and dive in the water. Kids will love watching for their slapping tails, “spy-hopping” noses and spouts of water, which can rise 10–13 feet in the air.
Boat tours focused on gray whales leave from Langley on Whidbey Island and Camano Island. During weekends from March through May, the Victoria Clipper does a round-trip whale-watching cruise that leaves from Seattle and lasts about eight hours.
Costs: The Victoria Clipper tour costs $44 for adults and $10 for children (advance purchase price).
Getting there: A prime time to visit Langley is on April 20 for the eighth annual Welcome the Whales Day, which features presentations and a parade. Take the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry to Whidbey Island, and keep your eyes peeled — whales can often be spotted from the decks. Don’t skip a visit to Fort Casey while you’re there, where kids can explore the bunkers and tunnels of the century-old artillery post.
All winter: Harbor seals and tide pools at Dungeness Spit
Dungeness Spit, near Sequim, is the longest natural sand spit in the United States at 5.5 miles. The harbor it forms provides a safe haven for migrating birds, seals and other marine wildlife all year round, but in the winter it becomes the overwintering grounds for over 10,000 shore birds, ducks, and black brants. Harbor seals sun themselves among the driftwood, and can be seen bobbing out in the waves, as well.
A walk out on the spit is a fun opportunity to explore the unique ecosystem; take a short stroll with young children, or try the 10-mile round trip hike out to the lighthouse at the end for a more challenging adventure. Beachcombers will be rewarded in the winter as stormy weather churns up the sea beds.
Only 35 miles to the west, get a closer look at Washington's stranger coastal critters in the tide pools at the Tongue Point Marine Life Sanctuary, in the Salt Creek Recreational area. Check the tide charts and go at low tide to see starfish, sea anemones, urchins and crabs.
Costs: $3 entry fee per vehicle.
Getting there: The Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is just north of Sequim, off of Highway 101, while Tongue Point is just past Port Angeles on Highway 112. Port Angeles offers a variety of dining options, as well as a chance to take a break at the kid-designed Dream Playground at Erickson Playfield.
Next: Backyard bird-watching
In Your Backyard, All Winter: Birdwatching
Before you load up the car, take a look out your door to see what kinds of amazing wildlife calls your yard “home.”
Many varieties of birds, such as warblers, sparrows, cardinals and even our state bird, the American goldfinch, can be seen, attracted to winter-blooming native plants and grasses that have gone to seed.
Food is scarce in the winter, so bird feeders are a great way to attract birds. Look for one that’s cat- and squirrel-proof, and be sure to keep it clean. Dripping water is another draw, as birds look for water sources for drinking and bathing. Making your own would make a fun winter craft project, as well.
One winter backyard favorite is Anna’s hummingbird, a unique hummingbird species that doesn’t migrate south for the winter. A well-stocked feeder will help bring these lovely visitors to your yard.
Want to learn more about making your backyard friendlier to wildlife?
Check out tips from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program.
Need help with identification? Try Birds of Seattle and Puget Sound by Chris C. Fisher. This guidebook features full-color illustrations of 125 of the most common species in Seattle in a kid-friendly format.
About the author: Jessie Kwak is a Seattle-based freelance writer.