Fall and winter are great times to watch waterfowl at many sites close enough to home to make for fun family holiday field trips.
Ducks, geese, swans and other waterbirds concentrate in many locations where big open water provides security and adjacent wetlands and fields provide food — both for resident birds and those making a migration stopover.
The sheer numbers of these bigger, colorful birds makes viewing relatively easy and they’re a great species group to learn identification skills. Whether on water or foraging in fields, waterfowl are relatively stationary, so you’ll have longer viewing time. Many species of ducks have exceptional markings that make identification easier, at least compared to songbirds. Just be sure to take along a good field identification book.
As with all wildlife, waterfowl watchers need to be respectful. Even from viewing platforms and boardwalks at parks and refuges, remember that you are in their home. If you get too close or make too much noise, you might disturb the birds and lose your opportunity to watch them if they flush.
To watch winter waterfowl wisely, follow these tips:
- Use binoculars or scopes to keep your distance but still watch closely
- Use telephoto lenses on cameras to get that great shot without getting too close
- Move quietly, slowly, and in plain view
- Use a viewing blind if one has been provided
- Avoid use of calls, tape recordings of calls, or other devices
- Divide large groups of people into small groups to be less disturbing
- Don’t try to feed ducks and geese and don’t leave litter that they might mistake for food
Respect the property of others by viewing waterfowl on public land whenever possible. In Washington it is your responsibility to know if you are on private property. (Private property does not need to be posted or fenced.) If it is necessary to cross private property, always ask permission of the landowners before doing so.
Washington has a wealth of spots where fall and winter waterfowl viewing is exceptional. All seven of the Great Washington State Birding Trail maps — sponsored by Audubon Washington, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and others — include fall/winter waterfowl watching locations. Seattle Audubon has a wealth of birdwatching information regarding sites and seasonality of species occurrence at their BirdWeb site .
The following are among the best fall/winter waterfowl viewing spots, based in part on accessibility and proximity to population centers. They include some of WDFW’s mid-winter waterfowl inventory survey “priority one” areas with traditional high concentrations of waterfowl at this time of year, and some of the reserves that are closed to waterfowl hunting. Check links provided for directions, possible access fees, or other rules.
North Puget Sound Region:
- Union Bay Natural Area , University of Washington (Montlake Fill) on Lake Washington, King County
- Marymoor Park (ball fields and lakeside boardwalk trails) on the shores of Lake Sammamish, King County
- Green Lake Park in Seattle, King County
- Spencer Island unit of WDFW Snoqualmie Wildlife Area and Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Department property in Everett, Snohomish County
- Crockett Lake , Whidbey Island, Island County
- Fort Flagler State Park (campground and lighthouse areas), northeast of Port Hadlock, Jefferson County
- Skagit Wildlife Area – Johnson Debay Swan Reserve, Johnson/DeBay’s Slough Game Reserve, Fir Island Farm/Fir Island Farm Game Reserve, Skagit County
- Birch Bay State Park north of Bellingham, Whatcom County
- Semiahmoo Spit , Whatcom County Park on Drayton Harbor in Blaine, Whatcom County
South Puget Sound/Coastal Region:
- Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge , northeast of Olympia, Thurston County
- Capitol Lake Park , Olympia, Thurston County
- Point Defiance Park , Tacoma, Pierce County
- American Lake , WDFW water access site, and city of Lakewood American Lake Park , Pierce County
- Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge , north of Vancouver, Clark County
- Shillapoo Wildlife Area , Columbia River lowlands, Vancouver, Clark County
- Cowlitz Wildlife Area – Swofford Pond , near Mossyrock, Lewis County
- Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge , southeast of Yakima, Yakima County
- McNary National Wildlife Refuge , on Columbia River, southeast of Tri-Cities, Walla Walla County
- Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge – Whitcomb Island, on Columbia River, southwest of Tri-Cities, Benton County
- North Potholes Reservoir Unit /Game Reserve of Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, south of Moses Lake, Grant County
- Neppel Landing Park on Moses Lake in town of Moses Lake, Grant County
- Billy Clapp Lake Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area – Stratford Reserve area, northeast of Ephrata and Soap Lake, Grant County
- Columbia River dam pools: Rock Island, Rocky Reach, Lake Chelan dams – Chelan County Public Utility District parklands ; Wells Dam – Douglas County Public Utility District parklands ; Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams – Grant County Public Utility District parklands
- Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge , southwest of Spokane, Spokane County
Sprague Lake Unit of Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, west of town of Sprague on Lincoln-Adams county line
Logo courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife