Every February, snow geese blanket the skies and fields near Stanwood before their annual migration north. Beginning in March, massive gray whales migrate up the West Coast and through Puget Sound toward Alaskan waters. Both offer extraordinary wildlife watching opportunities – during a season when not much other wildlife puts on such a show.
So check out this year’s Snow Goose & Birding Festival, held Feb. 22-23 in Stanwood, and whale watching tours, beginning in early March. These are offered by two local companies, Puget Sound Express, cruising from Edmonds, and Island Adventures, operating out of Everett.
The Snow Goose & Birding Festival highlights the thousands of showy Snow Geese, feeding in fields to fatten up before they fly north. You’ll also see elegant Trumpeter Swans and flocks of wintering seabirds, shorebirds and raptors that call Stanwood and Camano Island home. This area is internationally recognized as crucial habitat for countless birds of sea, shore and land.
The two-day festival is headquartered at the Floyd Norgaard Cultural Center in Stanwood. You can take bus tours to view the Snow Geese and Trumpeter Swans feeding in nearby fields and attend seminars and presentations by birding experts. Bus tours are $5 per seat reserved; a $5 donation is requested to support presentations.
Other bus tours highlight Camano Island’s diverse habitats where you may see raptors, loons, ducks, great blue herons and many kinds of shorebirds. Nature Conservancy Tours include a walk on the dike along Port Susan Bay, a saltwater nursery for hundreds of thousands of birds. The Art of Photographing Birds is an especially poplar tour, offered only on Sun., Feb. 23.
There are also maps and information for those who wish to do self-guided tours of birding areas such as The Big Ditch and English Boom on Camano Island.
The Snow Goose & Birding Festival takes place 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 22, and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 23. Reserve tour and presentation space as early as you can.
Then go whale watching starting in March. Gray whales – while not as showy as black and white orcas – are more dramatic: up to 40 feet long and weighing 40 tons! So when gray whales surface, they are an amazing sight. You may also see orcas, minke and humpback whales – but gray whales are almost guaranteed to be spotted during their spring migration season.
Puget Sound Express operates whale watching tours from Edmonds’ marina beginning Mar. 6 through Apr. 30. The family-owned company also offers tours from Port Townsend and Langley, Whidbey Island, should you want to combine one of those tours with a multi-day excursion of north Puget Sound.
Tours depart Edmonds aboard the relatively new Saratoga, a large catamaran with 130 inside seats, big walk-around outside deck, restrooms and galley where you can purchase food items. The catamaran cruises to the protected waters of Possession Sound and Saratoga Passage where the gray whales congregate to feed.
The 2.5-hour Edmonds tour departs daily at 10:30 a.m. Cost is adult $85, children (ages 2-10): $65; infants are free. Puget Sound Express offers a whale guarantee: if you don’t see whales on your trip, you receive a voucher for a future trip.
Island Adventures offers whale watching tours from Everett from March 7 to May 17, cruising Port Gardner Bay, Possession Sound and Saratoga Passage. It also offers seasonal tours from Anacortes and Port Townsend. The three-hour Everett tours depart daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Operating spring gray whale tours since 2006, Island Adventures currently features its 85-foot-long Island Adventurer 4 vessel out of Everett. The ship has a walk-around lower deck, huge upper viewing deck, and large inside cabin with restrooms and galley where breakfast or lunch can be purchased.
Cost is adult $69, discounted adult (senior, military, student AAA, AARP) $59 and children (ages 3-17) $49; younger just $1. Book 30 days or more in advance to get a substantial discount on tickets.
Snow Goose & Birding Festival
Floyd Norgaard Cultural Center
27130 102nd Ave. N.W.
Puget Sound Express
459 Admiral Way
1726 W. Marine View Dr.
Everett, WA 98201
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.