In western Washington State, the Skagit River has been pouring down from the Cascade Mountains for millennia, milky with sediment. In the lowlands by the Salish Sea, a broad flat delta has formed from this deposited sediment that extends miles out into shallow Skagit Bay. This wet fertile land draws thousands of migrating birds, as well as resident populations, and I make a point of passing through the Delta whenever I’m on the mainland to see them. It feels quiet and peaceful in this rural area but there are conflicts over land use, and the birds are caught in the middle of human decisions and alliances.
This is farmland, some of the best in the state, fertile and well-watered. The Skagit (pronounced ska-jit, short a) Indian tribes who lived here knew it as a floodplain with forest, rivers, freshwater wetlands and muddy tidal estuary. As settlers displaced the Indians in the mid-1800s, the trees were cleared and the delta was diked and drained for crops, hay and grazing.
Since then the delta has been intensively farmed. Currently agriculture is the primary industry in the county, with 90+ different crops grown, such as berries, bulbs, potatoes and vegetable seed, as well as dairy and beef products.
In winter, fields are dormant and usually muddy, attracting migratory waterfowl in huge numbers. Most flamboyant are the white-wings: the 60-100,000 Snow Geese and 10,000 Trumpeter and Tundra swans. Snow Geese numbers have been increasing over the past decade. Mike Davison at WDFW (Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife) says the warmer, longer summers in the Arctic means breeding birds raise more youngsters successfully — anthropogenic global warming is expanding the breeding season. All the Skagit Snow Geese breed on Wrangel Island, north of Siberia, and the swans migrate here from inland Alaska and northern Canada.
On one memorable occasion I was able to see this vast mixed flock of Snow Geese and Tundra swans right by the side of the road. The locals get frustrated with birders blocking roads but if you’re lucky you can find a nearby pullover on such an occasion.
The juvenile swans and geese got into tiffs with each other. You can imagine what it sounds like!
The swelling populations of white-wings are a spectacular attraction for bird watchers but farmers are less pleased. The huge flocks descend on fields digging up dairy pasture grass and depositing slimy doo-doo in vast quantities. In an attempt to help mitigate the effect on farmers, WDFW implemented a trial program that pays farmers $60/acre to allow hunters on their land to shoot Snow geese and several hundred hunters have taken advantage of these special permits. This is an example of an alliance between competing interests that attempts to benefit all.
Farms are not natural habitat but they provide many benefits over urban and residential development, which is what would happen here without ongoing efforts to preserve the farmland. Farms are getting paved over relentlessly in western Washington. 60% of the farmland in Puget Sound region has disappeared under development since 1950. Skagit County got a wakeup call about losing its rural character when a corporation came in to buy 280 acres for a theme park in 1989. That project fell through but it galvanized local farm families to create ways to protect farmland. Their efforts led to changes in the county development code and taxing structure, for which there is broad community support. Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland is the umbrella organization that works with a wide range of individuals and groups at the county, state and federal level.
At the county level, the Skagit County Farmland Legacy Program has protected over 10,000 acres of farmland in the past 20 years. Established in 1996 by Skagit County, it uses Conservation Futures funds, raised as a levy in local property taxes, and USDA grants to purchase development easements on farmland. Owners continue to own and farm their land but development restrictions are forever, and pass along with any sale. There’s such a demand for inclusion farms are on a waiting list until more funds become available. Benefits to farmers include income from the sale of PDR (Purchase of Development Rights overview) as well as a reduction in future property taxes and inheritance taxes since the land is worth less.
Even so, only 10% of the 100,000 acres of farmland has been protected this way and there’s been a net loss of farming acreage each year. Skagit county has to keep on its toes to prevent runaway development. Recently they tightened regulations on building houses on existing farmland: people were buying 40-acres parcels (the zoned minimum) to build McMansions for their “ranchettes”. New wording in the regulations requires proof of active farming on the land for three years before a building permit is issued.
SPF (Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland) is also fighting farmland loss to wildlife habitat. One nemesis is mitigation banking: companies that buy up mitigation credits from land developers (a requirement derived from the Clean Water Act and the EPA, as a way to make up for environmental damage) and then buy land elsewhere to create, or re-create, wetlands. One such farm in the Delta has been the site of a battle between a mitigation banker and SPF, each hoping to raise enough money to “buy" the property. SPF’s legal leverage is the county’s Growth Management Act provision to protect farmland. An agreement was reached recently wherein the mitigation bankers will use half the 400-acre parcel to build a mitigation wetland, put the remainder in agricultural easement, and compensate SPF who will use that money to buy development rights from other farmland.
The state is a big player in wetland preservation. WDFW (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) owns 17,000 acres scattered across Skagit county, and their multiple-use mandate includes wildlife conservation as well as hunting and recreation. One such WDFW site is Jensen Access where I stop whenever we are on the mainland. You can scramble up onto the dike and get a good view of farmland on one side and Skagit Bay on the other. The last time we went, mid-January, it was still hunting season and we shared the parking lot. Small Japanese cars bring birders, giant pickups bring hunters. Heh.
Given the increasing numbers of Snow geese, it makes good sense to allow hunters to take lots of geese: free-range food, recreation, fees to the state. Based on what I’ve seen at this site however I’m a little dubious about how serious hunters are: they swing their shotguns around, use them for walking sticks, and leave all kinds of crap behind - shotgun shell casings, candy wrappers, dogshit. They also drive the ducks far off shore. Those little dots in the photo are approximately 5000 ducks a few miles out. It’s very shallow even that far. Mostly the migrating ducks are Mallards, Pintails, Wigeons and Green-winged teals. Some I identify by sight, others by sound. It’s a real cacophony in winter!
WDFW has several projects in the works to breach dikes and flood some of their acreage, primarily to create habitat for Chinook salmon, which are on the Endangered Species list. The Fir Island Farms Reserve Unit project is nearing completion (aerial photo and video): it restores 130 acres of tidal estuary and maintains another 100 acres as non-hunting Snow Goose Reserve. Another project maintains the dikes but alters the drainage and ditch system to attempt to mimic a freshwater wetland. There’s a tremendous amount of coordination between private, county, state and federal agencies to implement projects like this.
WDFW has also formed alliances with local farmers paying them to plant overwintering crops like winter wheat, corn and ryegrass as forage for waterfowl. These “agricultural enhancements” now operate on 1000 other acres of the Delta, to help take the pressure off fields damaged by foraging waterfowl. Local nonprofits like Ecostudies Institute works with them to study how waterfowl and shorebirds use changing fresh and tidal wetlands.
The Nature Conservancy is another player that has formed alliances with farmers, buying land to improve wetland habitat. The Fisher Slough project took out a dike near the South Fork of the Skagit river to allow runoff water to flood a field providing habitat for both juvenile and adult salmon. It also lessens seasonal flooding danger by allowing high river flow out onto the wetland rather than barreling down between the dikes.
The Nature Conservancy has also created a program called Farming for Wildlife that pays farmers to include sheet flooding as part of their crop rotation. These big expanses of shallow water function as expanded shorebird habitat, and have increased nitrogen levels there, improving soil fertility. The Skagit Audubon Society reports that 60,000 shorebirds use the Delta in migration: 30,000 dunlin alone, plus sandpipers, dowitchers, yellowlegs, snipe, killdeer and plovers. In nearby Padilla Bay, a very large Great Blue Heron nesting colony hosts 800 pairs of herons who raise their youngsters in Skagit wetlands.
The Audubon Society describes the Delta as a draw for large numbers of raptors as well because of all the farmland and wetland open acreage. I see hawks commonly perched in trees and on power poles as we drive across the Delta. During the Snowy owl irruption a few years ago, folks came from all over the state to see them there. I couldn’t get there but one of my fellow Daily-Bucketeers did make the trip and saw several — check out her spectacular photos! I always see numerous raptors on the Flats, mostly Bald eagles, Redtail Hawks and Harriers but once I saw a Short-eared Owl. There are more species I haven’t caught sight of yet.
Harriers and owls hunt primarily voles, and swoop low over the ground watching for their trails. Since I was up 15 feet on the dike, we were at eye level.
My sense is the Skagit Delta is in flux, with all these interests that are often competing. But many folks are earnestly working to find compromise, and most have as a common interest preventing the development of the land. Farmland and wildlife are shuffled around but almost no one who lives in Skagit county wants to see it paved over into more strip malls, big box stores and residential housing than are already there. I do my part by paying for WDFW access, patronizing local businesses and buying food grown on the Flats. And talking it up to anyone I know who will listen!
Birds and other wildlife are getting squeezed out of habitat in western Washington, and it would be a major tragedy to see this Delta go the way so many others have. I hope to see this view for the rest of my life, and my children’s and grandchildren’s.
What birds have you been seeing recently? Please share your sightings in the comments!