Not for the first time, I recently wondered why it is that residents in any given tourist destination often haven’t indulged in the many offerings their locale features. I’m as guilty as the next when it comes to this phenomenon … I mean, I love to travel – drop me anywhere on the planet and I will figure it out and negotiate all the discomforts that may apply. I believe it was Osa Johnson who said (after years of documenting remote tribes with her husband) “Adventure is 99% adversity…it only becomes ‘adventure’ in the retelling”. But somehow, when it comes to where I live, I’m more apt to be annoyed by the tourists who slow down traffic (I’m trying to get to work folks – we aren’t all on vacation ya know!) to gawk at the tulips and snow geese than I am to actually adjust my compass toward what they are looking at and really consider it – for its own sake.
This changed recently when I was asked to do a piece on the winter birds that the Skagit Valley is famous for. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, being very much an outdoor person, but I really had no idea just how rich this area is when it comes to bird life… the Skagit Valley has the 2nd highest number of bird species in Washington State, thanks to the variety of habitats, including estuaries and farmland.
With this in mind, I decided to look into what tours were available for birding tourists, and it turns out there are several awesome options…you can float down the Skagit River, enjoy a boat ride on the Salish Sea, go on a hike, or jump in a van. I decided to jump in a van. Time was a bit of an issue for me, and convenience (this time) was high on my list. I connected with Stephanie of Skagit Guided Adventures, and we met in front of a local bakery where she was picking up another client. I immediately liked her, and any reservations of enduring awkward moments in a confined space went out the window. It was more like grabbing a girlfriend and going on a little road adventure where you weren’t entirely sure what you’d find, but everybody is game for the search.
If you’re a gear junkie, Stephanie has got you covered – she is very knowledgeable on what the best gear is, including the best binoculars for birding, and which bird field guides are her favorites and why. (I learned how to properly adjust and view through binoculars – who knew there was a science to that?). She even does workshops on just that. She also schools you on the protocol of good manners when birding – to be considerate of both the birds and the private property that they often are found on.
One of the best things about spending the afternoon seeking Snow geese, swans, and assorted raptors (oh yeah, I know all about raptors now) is that it’s like reverting to childhood – we were suddenly in this bubble where time was suspended…all of our energy was going to simply paying attention.
It took me back to when I was little and could spend hours just searching for frogs. Why take time out of your busy schedule to stare at birds you might ask? You’ll have to trust me on this – the excitement in that van every time we spotted something was as if we had struck gold. Finding out that for years I had unknowingly thought hunter’s decoys were actual flocks of geese was a little embarrassing, but it was a reminder of how often we look at things without really seeing them. “Learning about the birds of this area opens your world to the variety of life” chimed Stephanie, and I immediately thought of all the times I had learned something new and it seemed that suddenly everyone was talking about it.
Well, of course, they had always been talking about it – I just didn’t hear it because it wasn’t on my radar. It’s a little scary to think about all of the things that holds true for in life – what is passing us by because we stay in our own little lane and never deviate. Taking the time to pay attention and open yourself to learning more deeply about your surroundings, and the other lifeforms we share the planet with forms a whole new set of connections….often to things that you would never expect.
Some exciting moments included having Trumpeter Swans fly directly overhead – low, creating a ruckus and so close we could feel their wingbeats. Majestic. Truly – that kind of proximity to something wild creates a physiological response, and we were all grinning so hard.
We found ourselves hunched over “owl pellets” that contained small perfectly preserved mole skulls – which I immediately took pictures of because I love creepy little things like that.
And finding a whole colony of heron nests in a cluster of trees that I have driven by a million times but never bothered to look up. We spotted eagles, hawks, herons, Snow geese, Trumpeter swans, Tundra swans (yes – I can tell the difference now!), a Kestrel, Wigeons, and a Northern Harrier to name a few.
Surprisingly, the time flew by, the tour was over, and I had worked up an appetite. I decided to cruise over to The Edison Inn and enjoy a scatter of pan-fried oysters (my favorite) before checking out the Padilla Bay Reserve and Interpretive Center. They have many interesting displays and information about estuarine wildlife, and the staff is friendly. Wrap it up by stretching your legs with a walk along the Padilla Bay Shore Trail where you are guaranteed to see some combination of birds – ducks, hawks, eagles, owls, herons…the list goes on and on.
My takeaway on this little day adventure was summed up by Stephanie when she said, “The longer you stay to watch, the more you’re going to see”. We live in such a fast-paced world and are slaves to our schedules. When was the last time you slowed yourself down to the point where new things emerged in your sightline not because they weren’t there all along, but because you for once paused long enough for them to appear?
A lesson in patience. And how many ways can we employ that in our lives?
writing and photography by guest blogger – Suzanne Rothmeyer