Where To Find Wildlife In The Winter



To most of us, winter is synonymous with hibernation and dormancy. But here in the San Juans, intrepid nature lovers have the opportunity to spot an array of birds that only visit between fall and spring months. Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan Islands are part of the Puget Loop of the Washington State Birding Trail. Aspiring naturalists will be able to check off several terrestrial birds as well as marine species. So lace up those hiking boots, grab a hat and gloves, and make sure the binoculars are handy!

While the species below are commonly seen in the San Juans, this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve chosen some of the more eye-catching and popular birds to get you started. For more information, check out the San Juan Islands Audubon Society.


Commonly seen on ponds, lakes, and marshes throughout the San Juan Islands, especially Egg Lake on San Juan Island, which has public access. Many other ponds are on private property but are visible from the roadside.  Trumpeters form long-lasting pairs, often traveling in family groups and with other waterfowl like Tundra Swans and Canada Geese.


In winter, loons adopt a much quieter profile along coastal waters, wearing drab, gray plumage. They typically stay close to shore, though, so scanning out to sea with your binoculars will often reveal loons hidden among the waves. Look for loons from Fourth of July Beach, Cattle Point, and South Beach on San Juan Island.


A common sight along the shore, the males have slate-blue plumage with reddish-brown sides. Both males and females have a white crescent behind the bill and a distinct white spot near the ear. Look for Harlequins from Cattle Point and South Beach on San Juan Island, Crescent Beach on Orcas Island.


Males are a striking black-and-white from a distance. Females are a subdued gray-brown with a neat white patch on the cheek. Look for these little black and white ducks in sheltered coves like Crescent Beach or Waterfront Park on Orcas Island and Roche Harbor or Jackson Beach on San Juan.


Surf scoters are mostly black with a large, sloping orange bill and white patches on top of the head and back of the neck. They can be commonly found around Fourth of July Beach, Cattle Point, and South Beach on San Juan Island.


Unlike other waterfowl, the Long-tailed Duck wears its "breeding" plumage only in the winter. Males have very long and slender tail feathers (hence the name). The best place to look for Long-tailed ducks is Jackson Beach, Fourth of July Beach, and South Beach on San Juan Island.


The Green-winged Teal is the smallest duck in North America. The nattily-plumed male has a cinnamon-colored head with a lustrous green crescent that extends from the eye to the back of the head. The best place to look for Green-winged teals is the lagoon at Jackson Beach, but can also be spotted in False Bay and Jakle’s Lagoon on San Juan Island.


Quiet lakes and wetlands are punctuated with the breezy whistle of the American Wigeon, a duck with a green eye patch and a conspicuous white crown. Noisy groups congregate during fall and winter, plucking plants with their short bill from wetlands and fields or nibbling plants from the water's surface. While more common on freshwater sources like roadside ponds, they can also be spotted in False Bay on San Juan Island and on the shoreline near the ferry terminal in Anacortes.


There are three merganser species commonly found in the San Juans, but the male Hooded merganser has the most extravagant crest of white feathers ringed with black, set off by their chestnut flanks. Even the females have a distinct cinnamon-colored crest. They can often be found mixed in with other small ducks like Buffleheads in sheltered coves like Roche Harbor and the lagoon at Jackson Beach on San Juan Island.


You’re most likely to notice Northern Harriers when they are flying. They have a low, slow, coursing flight style, a V-shaped wing posture, and a distinctive white patch in the tail feathers. The best place to look for Northern Harriers is the Redoubt site at American Camp on San Juan Island.


A large shorebird of coastal beaches, the Black-bellied Plover is striking in its black-and-white breeding plumage. It is the largest plover in North America. The best place to find them is the estuaries on Lopez, like the spit of Fisherman Bay Preserve, but False Bay on San Juan Island is another good spot.

There are many other charismatic birds that make the San Juans their home all year. The archipelago has the largest population of bald eagle breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. Rhinoceros auklets, black oystercatchers, and pigeon guillemots can all be spotted, and often heard, from shoreline lookouts like Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island.

Winter Romance, Orcas Island, Photography by Robert Harrison
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