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Updated Friday, June 21, 2013 at 01:01 PM

Birding by bicycle on Fir Island

By Mike McQuaide
Special to The Seattle Times

An admitted cycling addict of all persuasions — road, mountain, cyclocross, tricycle, etc. — I throttle back my intensity in winters, rarely turning the pedals in anger, as it were. So a recent mellow meander across the Skagit Flats on the lookout for swans, snow geese and various other winged and feathered friends was just about perfect.

Encompassing the Skagit River flood plain from just north of Stanwood to near Edison, the Flats are a pool-table-flat, farm-and-tulip-field-rich area that’s a hotbed for birding enthusiasts. It’s renowned as a wintering haven for tens of thousands of snow geese who make the annual journey from Alaska and Siberia. (Yes, Siberia.) Swans, too, winter here by the hundreds. And of course, the abundance of eagles and other raptors lure birders here as well.

During warmer months, the area is a hotbed for cyclists, drawn by its flat landscape and low-traffic roads. In winter, not so much. No matter, that just meant that on our recent ride, buddy Jim Finch, of Mount Vernon, and I had more road to ourselves.

Towns present, towns past

Starting in tiny Conway, an hour north of Seattle, we pedal across a bridge over the Skagit River’s south fork to Fir Island — an island because the river’s forks flank it on two sides. Over the bridge, we immediately turn north on Skagit City Road. It’s named for long-gone Skagit City, at one time the area’s bustling hub with stores, saloons, hotels and a school, only to be replaced in that distinction when Mount Vernon was established a couple miles upriver. (No remnants of the old townsite remain.)

We ride past farm after farm on our left while on the right, the high grassy wall of the Skagit River dike protects us from the wind. Temp-wise, it’s high 30s but in our winter bike clothes, we’re bundled up warm. Overhead, the dark, puffy clouds appear indecisive — do they feel like dropping a little precip? Rain? Maybe sprinkle in some snowflakes? Or just threaten? (Luckily, they mostly just threaten.)

Against that dark backdrop, a squadron of six gleaming white swans flies by in front of us, heading in for a landing at the far end of a field. Up ahead, we round a bend and there are four more swans, waddling rather ungracefully in a muddy field. With their long swooping necks and elegant carriage, the effect of these regal creatures picking their way through the muck always strikes me as funny. It’s like seeing cute little girls all spiffed up in their Sunday best splashing about in mud puddles after church.

It’s a scene that repeats itself numerous times on our 15-mile loop. A handful of mud-loving swans in a field, about 50 or 100 yards from the road. We see plenty of eagles, too, some buffeted about by the wind as if being yanked back and forth by some invisible hand — and lazily flapping great blue herons crisscrossing the sky.

But so far, as we follow Skagit City Road as it winds south and becomes Dry Slough Road, no snow geese. Which is weird because I’ve been here and seen as many as 10,000 of them at once filling the sky in a whirling, honking, awe-inspiring snow-goose tornado.

“Wait ’til hunting season is over,” says Finch, who’s a greenhouse manager at nearby Washington Bulb Company and a lifelong Skagit Valley resident.

“That’s when you’ll see them all over the place, and they come right up to the edge of the road. It’s the darnedest thing; they know when it’s safe.”

(Duck- and goose-hunting season ends Jan. 27.)

Marshy wonderland

After seven miles, we turn left at Fir Island Road and just ahead, right onto Wylie Road, where we pedal head-on into a stiff wind. After about a mile, we enter the Skagit Wildlife Area where we pick up a hard-packed, dike-top trail and ride through a marshy wonderland of cattails and tall grasses, reeds and scrubby alders.

Herons emerge to take wing from hiding spots all around us. In an adjacent field we spot Northern harriers hovering in midair while eyeing the grasses for rodents to divebomb. We also spy, wedged in a tree, a massive eagle’s nest that appears decades-old, its current tenants (presumably) soaring nearby.

We follow the trail west as it eventually narrows and becomes a grass-strewn path, its terminus at a little pull-out spot with a bench on the banks of Freshwater Slough.

“I haven’t been here in like forever, since I quit running 12 years ago,” Finch says, scanning the delta where just a few hundred yards away, the mighty Skagit River empties into Skagit Bay.

Just beyond, Camano and Whidbey Islands rise from the sea while to the east, a curtain of dark clouds is drawn down low upon the snow-frosted foothills above Burlington and Mount Vernon. After a couple miles of exploration, we exit the wildlife area and, back at the base of the Skagit River dike, follow Mann Road for a couple miles back to Conway.

Our stats: 14.7 miles with only 135 feet of elevation gain — I think that’s a personal record for flattest ride I’ve ever done. And we saw swans, eagles, raptors and herons by the dozens.

So what if we didn’t see any snow geese. I’ll come back in a few weeks and they’ll be right up to the edge of the road.

Thousands of ’em!

If you go

Where

To get to Conway and Fir Island, take Interstate 5 to Exit 221, just south of Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Go west from the freeway to Fir Island Road, following the sign for Conway/La Conner. Parking is available just ahead in town or at the parking lot next to the red Skagit Barn.

Start the biking loop by heading west on Fir Island Road. Just ahead, after crossing the Skagit River, you’re on Fir Island. Turn right onto Skagit City Road.

Traveler's tip

For après-ride eats and drinks, visit the Conway Pub and Eatery (18611 Main St., 360-445-4733; conwaypub.com/conwaypub.html) or check for musical events at the Conway Muse (18444 Spruce St., 360-445-3000; conwaymuse.com).


The Seattle Times
On a winter bike ride, look for birds such as these trumpeter swans, strutting their stuff on Fir Island in Skagit County.








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