Whatcom County's beaches teeming with spring wildlife

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 17, 2014 

Larabee State Park, Bellingham

Mike Butler pulls his son Peter Butler, 8, onto a rock while holding onto his son Raphael Butler, left.21 months, at Wildcat Cove at Larabee State Park south of Bellingham on July 8, 2011. In the background is another son, Andrew Butler, 13. The Butlers were visiting from Irving, Texas.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

  • WHEN IS LOW TIDE?

    A number of websites provide information about high and low tides. One called protides.com lets the user select specific places along the Washington coastline.

For outdoor educator Holly Roger, springtime is beachtime in Northwest Washington.

"In April, that's when we go to the beach," said Roger, program coordinator at Wild Whatcom Walks, a Bellingham organization that offers nature-based educational classes, camps and outings for children and families. "We're desperate to go to the beach."

But other springtime wonders catch Roger's attention, too: bald eagle chicks are hatching in mid-April, wildflowers are blooming and signs of new life are evident in every stream, pond and water-filled ditch.

Here are Roger's recommendations for spring outings, in no particular order.

MARINE PARK, FAIRHAVEN

Marine Park is a nearly 2-acre site toward the end of Harris Avenue operated by the Port of Bellingham. It features a long sloping beach with a nearby wetland - a lagoon where Padden Creek drains into Bellingham Bay. Great blue herons are plentiful, and it's perfect to explore at low tide.

"We always see something different and new," Roger said. "There's endless adventure, that whole world."

Of particular interest is a colony of live sand dollars that's exposed at low tide and clusters of live barnacles.

TENNANT LAKE


Tennant Lake, an 80-acre wetland that's really more of a shallow peat bog covered in lily pads, features a mile and a half of raised wood-plank boardwalk through a marshy area teeming with wildlife.

"That place in spring is awesome," Roger said.

Its loop trail offers a fascinating stroll through soggy scrub and small trees to a viewing site surrounded by water lilies at the edge of the lake. It's perfect for tots and families with children in strollers, although - thanks to beaver activity - an inch or two of standing water sometimes washes over the boardwalk.

There's also a short side trail to the lake, where you find a dock and benches to sit and gaze across the water, listen to birdsongs and catch tiny critters just below the surface. On clear days, there's an impressive view of Mount Baker.

Start your trek on the marsh trail, a dirt path that begins near the 50-foot observation tower east of the parking lot, past the park's Fragrance Garden. A shallow puddle sometimes covers the first few feet of the trail; bring boots in case it's muddy.

After crossing a footbridge, take the trail left toward Tennant Lake. The boardwalk trail begins as the path enters a shady swale. When this portion of the trail is flooded, the boardwalk can be slippery.

Look for signs of beaver activity, such as nibbled trees and branches. If you keep conversation to a minimum, you'll hear a chorus of songbirds calling from the scrub brush that lines the trail.

Roger suggests listening for the Swainson's thrush or a wading bird called a bittern. One bird that isn't shy is the tiny marsh wren, which clings to a cattail and sings with a voice like a bird five times its size.

"I call them the kindergarten bird because they are small and make a lot of noise," Roger said.

POINT WHITEHORN

Point Whitehorn near Birch Bay is among the county's newest parks. A broad expanse of sandy beach below steep cliffs makes this section of shoreline unlike any other in Whatcom County.

"It's mostly about the expanse of beach and the rocks there," Roger said. "We like the big cobble rock."

Michael McFarlane, director of the Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, said local residents enjoy Point Whitehorn for the stunning view and the opportunity for an extended shoreline stroll.

"It's a really beautiful beach down there, right below the bluffs, perfect for beachcombing," he said. "It's a little more wild and open."

STIMPSON FAMILY NATURE RESERVE

The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is a jewel of the Whatcom County parks system, featuring some four miles of trails through lush wetlands and mostly second-growth cedar, fir and hemlock.

Its easy trails are well-maintained, and creek crossings feature solid bridges. There are some hilly portions, but no long, steep switchbacks. Total elevation gain/loss is only a couple hundred feet.

If you're quiet enough, you'll pick up the phrasing of various songbirds, the "Who cooks for you?" call of a barred owl, or the tap-tap-tap of a red-shafted flicker. The two trailside ponds often feature an array of waterfowl - including the occasional hooded merganser. There are beavers at Beaver Pond just past the trailhead and evidence of their existence often can be seen in the form of gnawed trees.

Another feature is the 6-foot-wide old-growth Douglas fir, dating to the 1600s, near a marble bench along the backside of the main loop trail.

In early spring, Roger suggests looking for flowering trillium, and later you'll see salmonberries and red-flowering currant.

SEMIAHMOO SPIT

Semiahmoo Spit features a sand and pebble beach just south of Blaine, with expansive views toward Canada, Point Roberts and the San Juans.

"It's spawning time," Roger said, "so there are lots of seabirds eating the herring."

The area is known for its eagles, and - with luck - you might spot a nest there, Roger said.

OTHER SPRING OUTINGS

Here are some places to get close to the water:

Larrabee State Park: Well-established tide pools feature sea stars, nudibranchs and chitons.

Birch Bay State Park: Great for shorebirds, low-tide explorations and its nearby wetlands. Outdoor educator Holly Roger says this is the best park in Whatcom Couty for overnight camping.

Boulevard Park: "I can't wait to get to Boulevard Park," Roger said. "It's our first year with a beach" since shoreline restoration work was completed last year.

Scudder's Pond: Near Whatcom Falls Park, for the enjoyable hike that starts from the trailhead near the southwest corner of Alabama Street and Electric Avenue. "It's one of my favorite walks," Roger said. Look for a multiude of resident and migratory birds such as rufous hummingbirds, redwing blackbirds, Copper's hawks, barred owls and possibly even the elusive Virginia rails that live among the rushes and cattails. Beavers have built a dam in the southwest corner of the pond.

Squires Lake: In early spring, it's the perfect place to see the beavers. "I love it; it's such an under-utilized place," Roger said of the park south of Lake Samish.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com.

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