American Dipper photo: Joe Meche
Editor’s Note: Whatcom Watch thanks Joe for his years and years of superb columns! We’ll celebrate number 200 next year.
by Joe Meche
I wrote my first column for the Whatcom Watch in April of 2002. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, it seemed that the widespread effects were extending into the birding world, or at least in Whatcom County. Tightened security at the Canadian border created a bit of an obstacle to the usually easy drive to bird at some of our favorite spots in the lower mainland of British Columbia. A day trip to places like Boundary Bay, the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and even Point Roberts were given second thoughts. My column, “Rediscovering Whatcom County Birds,” pointed to an obvious solution … bird closer to home and explore our own hotspots.
This was on my mind on the first Sunday in May when I introduced a few out-of-towners to Whatcom Creek. To add a little back story, there is a Facebook (FB) group called Western Washington Birders that now numbers over 7,000 members. No matter your feelings about social media, the purpose of this particular group is to focus on our shared passion of birds, and, specifically, to avoid the often tedious FB rhetoric. The group has two administrators who maintain the focus on a daily basis. One of the main components of the site is to share information about the locations where we bird and what we see.
Needless to say, I’m a somewhat prolific poster (I don’t join if I don’t intend to participate), and many of my fellow members were curious about all the good birds that I was seeing in and around Bellingham. With the idea of sharing in mind, I decided it was time to resurrect an old favorite field trip … the May Meander! I offered this as a field trip with the North Cascades Audubon Society for a few years, and the trip involved hiking the entire three-mile length of Whatcom Creek, from its outflow at Lake Whatcom to the Bellingham waterfront.
This field trip/hike was designed to take in a variety of habitat types. There are different birds to be found from the cattail wetlands of Scudder Pond and into the forested core of Whatcom Falls Park. Following the Whatcom Creek Trail through this unique riparian corridor that eventually takes you into the core of downtown, you’ll experience urban birding at its finest. We tallied almost 50 species along the way, including nesting ospreys and bushtits. In over 42 years, my species total for Whatcom Creek is just shy of 120.
Whenever we took breaks on the six-hour trek, I spoke to the newcomers about Bellingham’s extensive variety of parks and trails that are available for any and all users, and especially focused on the bird-watching appeal. Whenever I’m in a position of oratory about the place I’ve lived for more than four decades, I find that I also remind myself about what a special place this is.
Quite simply, the parks and trails system in Bellingham is one of the finest in the country from my experience. The city’s parks department has done an incredible job to create and maintain spaces for everyone’s needs. Some parks are developed with specific interests in mind, while others are left in a more natural state, which is better suited for wildlife and the people who want to observe them. Let’s take a look at a few of the local favorites that are well within reach and accessible for all.
I can hardly imagine a better inner-city walk/hike than the Whatcom Creek Trail. The trail winds through Whatcom Falls Park, a 247-acre park that has its own maze of connecting trails. I first discovered this park 42 years ago when I was on a walk and heard the sound of falling water. Some of the first photos that I took in Bellingham were of the main falls in full roar. I’m still as delighted now as I was the first time.
American dippers are year-round residents and nest along Whatcom Creek within the park, where conditions create a facsimile of a mountain stream. I have seen dippers follow the creek all the way down to the salmon hatchery at Maritime Heritage Park. This is not an unusual sighting in the fall when the lower stream can be littered with salmon eggs. These unique birds share top billing with barred owls and a variety of wood warblers and pileated woodpeckers.
The South Bay Trail is the best place on Bellingham Bay to sample waterbirds, especially during the winter months. Large rafts of goldeneyes and scoters share the shorelines and deeper water with loons, mergansers, and long-tailed ducks. This trail has been improved over the years, and the city has plans to connect the new waterfront park spaces with another over-the-water boardwalk, similar to the popular Taylor Street Dock. The entire length of the trail is accessible to all, no matter your mode of transport.
The Bay to Baker Trail is one of the city’s newest endeavors and follows Little Squalicum Creek from the bay to Cornwall Park. From Cornwall Park the trail follows Squalicum Creek to head east toward the Dewey Valley, northeast of Bellingham. Stops along the way include Bug Lake and Sunset Pond, both of which have suitable habitat for a variety of waterfowl and passerine species. An unusual sighting on Sunset Pond last year was a small flock of trumpeter swans.
To get away from the feeling of being inside the city, consider trekking on the Interurban Trail and winding down into Arroyo Park and Chuckanut Creek. The stretch of this creek hosts sizable salmon runs in the fall, and is another good place to find American dippers and barred owls. Perhaps the most difficult part of walking or biking on the Interurban is the urge to continue to Larrabee State Park and the maze of trails on Chuckanut Mountain … such a dilemma.
Lake Padden Park has been one of Bellingham’s most popular parks for quite some time. A 2.5 mile trail encircles the lake for casual walkers and runners, while the upper trail is more suited to users who prefer to get off the beaten path. Bird life in the park runs the gamut from owls and waterfowl to eagles and ospreys and a variety of passerine species.
These are just a few of the parks and trails to experience within Bellingham. If you’d like to learn more and explore any or all of our great parks and natural areas throughout the year, go to the city’s website at www.cob.org. Under Departments, click on Parks and Recreation and follow the links to the trail guide. There’s a printable version if you’d like to keep track of where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. Every neighborhood has a park nearby and most are connected with trails that lead to other restful places. Most of all, seize the opportunity to enjoy the natural bounty that‘s as close as home!
Addendum: As a point of reference, after two months that first column evolved into “Beaks and Bills,” which is where we are now with 192 columns and counting. I’ve enjoyed my relationship with the Watch and have found a home away from home on page 3, every month.
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.