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Similar to many city dwellers, I am often in dire need of a nature fix. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have the time to head out to my favorite national park or forest. Instead, I often satisfy my need closer to home, by seeking out urban nature in the green spaces, and even on the streets, of Seattle. In doing so, I have found that I am happier living in the city, have become a better observer, and feel a deeper connection to my local landscape and its human and non-human inhabitants.
My interest in urban nature has led me to write two books that explore these stories. The first was The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from the City, a dozen essays discussing topics such as crows, local geology, and weather. I also recently completed Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. It features 17 walks ranging in length from 1.1 to 7 miles.
Below are three of my favorite places to seek out nearby nature in Seattle.
Downtown Seattle: Although the diversity is not high, several species of birds can be discovered as terra cotta, carved, or sculpted decorations of downtown buildings. Eagles are the most common, with several dozen in many shapes, sizes, and styles. Good locations include the Times Square Buildng (414 Olive), ACT Theater (700 Union), Washington Athletic Club (1325 6th Avenue), and 1411 4th Avenue. Another good spot is 215 Columbia where you can see a duck and pelicans, as well as bears and whales. As with birding in wilder places, you may need binoculars to see these avian city dwellers. (Plus, careful observers can find duck tracks embedded in concrete.)
Union Bay Natural Area (UNBA): Restored from an old city dump that added 200 acres of made land to Seattle, the UNBA is one of my favorite places for quiet and contemplation. I often like to go sit on one of the benches, with their spectacular views out over Union Bay to Mount Rainier. Even when the mountain is hidden, I still feel a calm while resting near the water’s edge, especially when I hear Pacific treefrogs calling. And although I am not a great birder, I still can usually see birds ranging from great blue herons to buffleheads to bushtits, just a few of the more than 250 species spotted at UNBA.
Kingfisher Natural Area: Thornton Creek has the largest drainage of any urban creek in Seattle. Long neglected and often polluted, the creek in recent years has been going through a rebirth, in particular with some amazing restoration work. My favorite spot is the Knickerbocker Floodplain, adjacent to the Kingfisher Natural Area, just west of Lake City Way and south of NE 100th Street. When I first visited a dozen years ago, several houses dotted the concrete-encased stream banks. Now they are gone, replaced by a winding, wild creek, home to native plants. The restoration, completed in 2014 by Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle Parks, enhances streamflow, improves nutrient processing, and ameliorates flooding. Plus, just upstream, is a lightly developed path that leads back to one of the wilder places I know in Seattle, where I feel as if I have left behind the urban landscape. The “trek” can be muddy and not always obvious but that’s part of the fun.
David B. Williams is a freelance writer focused on the intersection of people and the natural world. His most recently published book is Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Previous books include Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, which won the 2016 Virginia Marie Folkins Award, given by the Association of King County Historical Organizations to an outstanding historical publication, and The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from the City. Williams also is a Curatorial Associate at the Burke Museum and maintains the website GeologyWriter.com. In June 2017, HistoryLink.org will publish Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal, which Williams co-authored.