skagit river

Searching for Bald Eagles

Written by Joelene Boyd, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator
Photographed by Stephanie Crow, Volunteer

The Nature Conservancy has a long history of Bald Eagle conservation along the Skagit River from preserving critical Bald Eagle habitat in the 1970’s to leading and coordinating Bald Eagle surveys along the Skagit and Sauk Rivers beginning in the winter of 1982-1983. In 2010, the National Park Service took over coordinating the winter surveys however The Nature Conservancy and our dedicated volunteers continue to support the effort.

Every year Conservancy staff and/or volunteers canoe down the Sauk River from Darrington, Washington to the confluence with the Skagit River, approximately 20 miles as part of the state wide mid-winter eagle survey. In early January 2016, two Conservancy volunteers took to the waters again canoeing down the Sauk River counting 45 Bald Eagles along the way. Earlier in the week volunteers canoed down the Nooksack River counting 491 Bald Eagles over a 9 mile stretch of river.  The Conservancy is fortunate to have long time volunteers (14 years!) who are committed to these conservation efforts as well as having fun on the river.

LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR WORK IN PUGET SOUND

 

Skagit River Bald Eagle Float

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By Samantha Levine
Photography by Dan Wilson

In the past two months, one thing I’ve learned for certain is that The Nature Conservancy has a tremendous breadth of work. As a new team member, I am soaking in as much as I can – from this blog, from reading our materials, and by chatting with our conservationists and other staff. But by far the best way to really get to know the work we do is to get out into the field and experience the natural places that we protect and learn from! To that end, I was thrilled to join a trip of Washington Chapter supporters on a float down the Skagit River last week. 

There was a time not too long ago that bald eagles were an endangered species, but they are out in huge numbers in the Skagit River area now. We saw 50 of them over the course of a couple of hours – and February is considered a time when the numbers are dwindling! Restoring habitat for the bald eagles was one of TNC’s earliest “wins” in Washington state, and it’s a great example of how we bring science, collaboration and hard work on the ground together to solve problems. 

As we floated down the river, we passed several TNC preserves, including some of the land at the mouth of Illabot Creek, where we paused to take in the scenery. It was a serene setting, the water was completely calm and the banks were lined with trees draped in delicate moss. The feelings this serenity evoked are reason enough for this area to be protected, but people aren’t the only ones who appreciate it. The creek is a very important part of the Skagit River salmon run – one of the few to host all five species of salmon. TNC and partners in the area worked hard over the past few years to ensure that this beautiful and important part of the Skagit watershed remain protected, resulting in Illabot Creek earning the designation of a Wild & Scenic River from Congress in December 2014. 

A day on the river – a break from the daily grind, a chance to sip hot chocolate and chat with likeminded TNC members, an opportunity to learn by experiencing nature – was just what this new team member needed. And I can’t wait to get back out into the field!

It’s Wild & Scenic!   After years of advocacy, The Nature Conservancy is pleased to share the news that Congress recently approved designation of Illabot Creek as a National Wild and Scenic River. Illabot Creek is a tributary to the Skagit River and home to a night roost for eagles and one of the most important salmon spawning grounds in Puget Sound.  The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect the mighty Skagit River for more than 30 years, so that migrating birds, bald eagles, legendary Skagit salmon runs and the iconic beauty of the Northwest will be there for future generations. 
 In the words of TNC’s director of strategic partnerships, Bob Carey, “Illabot Creek is one of the few places in the state where you can still really see what the old-timers meant when they would say they could once walk across the backs of salmon.” 
 Thanks to the hard work and leadership of  Senator Patty Murray, Senator Maria Cantwell, Representative Rick Larsen  and  Representative Suzan DelBene , Illabot Creek finally has the protection it deserves. 
 Please take a few moments to send these champions of nature a quick thanks for their tireless efforts to protect this special place: 




   US Senator Patty Murray   






   US Senator Maria Cantwell   








   US Congresswoman Suzan DelBene   






   US Congressman Rick Larsen

It’s Wild & Scenic!

After years of advocacy, The Nature Conservancy is pleased to share the news that Congress recently approved designation of Illabot Creek as a National Wild and Scenic River. Illabot Creek is a tributary to the Skagit River and home to a night roost for eagles and one of the most important salmon spawning grounds in Puget Sound.

The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect the mighty Skagit River for more than 30 years, so that migrating birds, bald eagles, legendary Skagit salmon runs and the iconic beauty of the Northwest will be there for future generations.

In the words of TNC’s director of strategic partnerships, Bob Carey, “Illabot Creek is one of the few places in the state where you can still really see what the old-timers meant when they would say they could once walk across the backs of salmon.”

Thanks to the hard work and leadership of Senator Patty Murray, Senator Maria Cantwell, Representative Rick Larsen and Representative Suzan DelBene, Illabot Creek finally has the protection it deserves.

Please take a few moments to send these champions of nature a quick thanks for their tireless efforts to protect this special place:

US Senator Patty Murray

US Senator Maria Cantwell

US Congresswoman Suzan DelBene

US Congressman Rick Larsen

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Illabot Creek

By Bob Carey, Strategic Partnerships Director, The Nature Conservancy in Washington

Most of us who have spent time in the Pacific Northwest have heard our elders and old-timers spin tails of being able to walk across rivers on the back of salmon. Very few of us actually get to experience salmon in the kind of concentrations that spurred such tails. Yet that’s exactly what I saw one day on Illabot Creek!

I was on a research expedition on the Skagit River. My colleagues and I pulled our canoe up on a gravel bar at the mouth of Illabot Creek. The lower reach of Illabot, where it empties itself into the Skagit River, flowed black. Or so we thought.

What first appeared to be a river darkened by a bed of leaf litter, turned out to be a river chock-full of salmon! From bank to bank for a 100 yards upstream Illabot Creek was packed with thousands and thousands of pink salmon — awaiting their upstream journey to spawn and hatch the next generation that would follow the same incredible journey to the north pacific and back, feeding killer whales, seals and humans along the way.

The incredible concentrations of fish and wildlife in Illabot Creek have made it a focal point for conservation efforts by The Nature Conservancy and other private, public and tribal partners over the years. It supports some of the largest salmon and trout populations in the Skagit River system – itself one of the biggest producers of salmon in the coterminous United States.

Through the years, in cooperation with our partners at Seattle City Light, WA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Skagit Land Trust, US Forest Service, Skagit River System Cooperative and others, much of the land in the Illabot Creek watershed has been placed in long-term conservation ownership. Protecting the land does not guarantee the water will be protected, and over the years more than one proposal has surfaced to build a hydroelectric dam on the river – potentially blocking fish passage, inundating rich habitat, and altering stream flows the sustain downstream habitat.

So a few years back, in collaboration with a large suite of local and state partners, we developed a proposal to build on our successful land conservation efforts and provide long-lasting protection of the waterway itself.

As of today, and thanks to the leadership of this region’s Congressional delegation, Illabot creek will continue to run free.

It will continue to host the salmon runs and wintering eagle populations that have helped bring the Skagit its fame. Congress has designated Illabot Creek as a national Wild and Scenic River. The incredible natural phenomenon I saw there years ago will be present for future generations.

Illabot Creek will continue to run free.

Fisher Slough & the Flood

The Skagit River crested at 31.5 feet on the river gauge in Mount Vernon on Saturday morning. This is the highest river we’ve seen since the Fisher Slough project was completed and the highest the Skagit River has been since 2006. That said, it’s nothing compared with the biggest floods seen on the Skagit in 1990, 1995, 1906, 1951 (all ~37 feet).

This is the first time the flood overflow structure has been been needed and its working beautifully! The flood storage area was approaching capacity and rather than overtopping our new levees, potentially damaging these levees, and sending the water to places we don’t’ want it to go, the water went over the emergency spillway made of rock built for these types of events.

This was inspirational. The structure was working beautifully, the levees were containing the flood waters and the there was no standing water on the adjacent farmland. The entire project was operating as expected. It was something to behold and evidence of the exceptional work of the project team and our partners!

This wouldn’t have been possible if not for the collaboration and trust from the local farming community, Dike Districts and partners such as WWAA and their inclusive, transparent knowledge into the design process!

Learn more about Floodplains by Design.

Farming for Wildlife

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Farmers in Washington’s Skagit River Delta in northwest Washington State are adding a new crop to their fields — shorebirds.

By flooding parts of their fields with 2 or 3 inches of water for part of the year, these farmers are creating new or improved habitat for shorebirds such as Western sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, dunlins and marbled godwits and at the same time improving the health of the fields for farming.

The dedicated farmers are participating in an innovative research project The Nature Conservancy has launched in cooperation with Washington State University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, and the Western Washington Agricultural Association.

Called “Farming for Wildlife,” the project is about finding ways to help provide some of the shorebird habitat that’s been lost while also supporting local farms. The partners involved are studying the relationship between three farming practices (mowing, grazing, and flooding) and habitat for migratory shorebirds. The intent of the experiment is to discover how habitat rotation can be compatible with crop rotations in the Skagit Valley.

THE SKAGIT DELTA COMMUNITY

The Skagit Delta is a vibrant rural community—one of the last strongholds of farming in Western Washington and a bread basket both regionally and nationally. The local community is rightfully proud and protective of its family farming heritage which reaches back for generations.

At the same time, the delta is rich in wildlife. Though altered over the years by human development, diking and draining, the delta continues to support tidal marshes and riverine habitats which host one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of wintering raptors on the continent.

And in recent winters, biologists surveying the delta have counted more than 150,000 dabbling ducks and more than 65,000 shorebirds, underscoring its status as a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway.

A WIN FOR FARMERS AND FLIERS

Worldwide, shorebirds have suffered dramatic population declines, and one of the greatest threats to these populations is the loss of wetland habitats. In the Skagit Delta, we’ve lost 70 percent of estuarine and 90 percent of freshwater wetlands. Despite that loss, the Skagit Delta still supports 70 percent of Puget Sound shorebirds during migration. Kevin Morse, the Conservancy’s Puget Sound program manager describes the delta as “one of the last best places for shorebirds.”

“They’ve lost this type of habitat along their migratory routes,” Morse said.

The real payoff will come if the Conservancy learns which practices are successful and can be replicated in other areas of the country. As part of the study, the Conservancy has rigorously monitored use of the habitat by shorebirds at different tide heights, as well as the presence of weeds, invertebrates in the soil and overall soil condition. If significantly higher numbers of shorebirds are feeding in the pilot fields than in neighboring farm fields, and the soil condition is measurably improved, and farmers embrace the treatments, that will spell success.

“If 100 years from now,” farmer Dave Hedlin said, “there are healthy viable family farms in this valley and waterfowl and wildlife and salmon in the river, then everyone wins.”

A Ride Through Puget Sound   Last night, I needed to get into a better head space, and I knew that being outside would do it. I grabbed my bike and headed straight from my neighborhood on the hill to the flatlands below. The houses thinned out and soon I was in open farmland. 
 One of my favorite ride starts out along the Skagit River. I don’t see the river because there’s a dike between the road I’m on and the river, but the mark of the river is evident. The road winds and twists – something not many roads in the flat lands do because they’re on a big grid system – and I discover new sights and sensations around each corner. A house with an orchard, the alpaca farm, wide open fields. The very ground that I’m looking out over is a product of the river. This silty, rich soil is some of the best in the world for farming. 
 Some places I pass through are shady because of the towering cottonwoods that grow next to the river. An eddy in the wind patterns brings the river’s cool air to greet me as I heat up from the exertion of my pedaling. Soon I’m in Conway and pass over the green waters of the south fork Skagit. My first “hill” is the bridge that carries me over the river. 
 I continue across Fir Island where the farmland stretches out toward salty Skagit Bay. I stop in when I see a friend out in his yard. He and his crew have butchered a hog today and planted 10,000 young plants he will grow for winter vegetables. He notes that my steel-framed bike is a good thing on these Skagit County chip-seal roads, and a bike-savvy farm hand nods in agreement. The sun is fading and we all want to head in for dinner. I hit the road again, now passing over the north fork Skagit River (hill #2!) and onto rocky, wooded Pleasant Ridge. The quiet forested roads here offer up choruses of bird song. 
 Soon I’m on the flat lands again – I take the long, straight roads now and my shadow stretches out in front of me. I am racing the sun for home. My mind is clear and I remember why it is that I live and work here. This place is a patchwork of bountiful farms, open space, towering trees, cool river air, friends and community. 
  I am home.  
  Jenny Baker is a Restoration Manager with TNC. She is grateful to be involved in work that impacts places around Puget Sound like the Skagit delta.

A Ride Through Puget Sound

Last night, I needed to get into a better head space, and I knew that being outside would do it. I grabbed my bike and headed straight from my neighborhood on the hill to the flatlands below. The houses thinned out and soon I was in open farmland.

One of my favorite ride starts out along the Skagit River. I don’t see the river because there’s a dike between the road I’m on and the river, but the mark of the river is evident. The road winds and twists – something not many roads in the flat lands do because they’re on a big grid system – and I discover new sights and sensations around each corner. A house with an orchard, the alpaca farm, wide open fields. The very ground that I’m looking out over is a product of the river. This silty, rich soil is some of the best in the world for farming.

Some places I pass through are shady because of the towering cottonwoods that grow next to the river. An eddy in the wind patterns brings the river’s cool air to greet me as I heat up from the exertion of my pedaling. Soon I’m in Conway and pass over the green waters of the south fork Skagit. My first “hill” is the bridge that carries me over the river.

I continue across Fir Island where the farmland stretches out toward salty Skagit Bay. I stop in when I see a friend out in his yard. He and his crew have butchered a hog today and planted 10,000 young plants he will grow for winter vegetables. He notes that my steel-framed bike is a good thing on these Skagit County chip-seal roads, and a bike-savvy farm hand nods in agreement. The sun is fading and we all want to head in for dinner. I hit the road again, now passing over the north fork Skagit River (hill #2!) and onto rocky, wooded Pleasant Ridge. The quiet forested roads here offer up choruses of bird song.

Soon I’m on the flat lands again – I take the long, straight roads now and my shadow stretches out in front of me. I am racing the sun for home. My mind is clear and I remember why it is that I live and work here. This place is a patchwork of bountiful farms, open space, towering trees, cool river air, friends and community.

I am home.

Jenny Baker is a Restoration Manager with TNC. She is grateful to be involved in work that impacts places around Puget Sound like the Skagit delta.

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A SECRET SKAGIT BEACH

By Robin Stanton, Senior Media Relations Manager

It’s a party like no other, a uniquely Puget Soundish adventure. Once each summer, a clan of paddlers sets out to be marooned for the day on a secret Skagit beach uncovered by the low tide.

We launch onto one of the tendrils of the Skagit South Fork as it makes its way out into the Sound. A motley assortment of canoes and kayaks, packed with kids and dogs and happy adults, floats out on the ebb current, easing over the sandy bottom of a channel that will be high and dry a few minutes after we pass.

A 45- minute paddle and we beach, dragging the boats up to make camp on the highest spot on this temporary island of sand in the midst of Skagit Bay. Kids and dogs spill out and zoom off to dig in the sand, wade in the water, search for sand shrimp and build epic sand castles.

Out come the coolers, Frisbees, shade tarps, a volleyball net. My husband and I, having neither children nor dogs, sit and sip our coffee and watch the scene unfold. Out here on the Skagit estuary, you can see the connection between land and water—it’s an evershifting, permeable boundary. I’m so proud of the work I support at The Nature Conservancy, which supports the whole system, from the forested foothills through farmlands and the river valley out to Puget Sound.

Today, we can enjoy the company, or turn and walk out onto the sand, exploring the pools left behind. Some days it seems like you could walk clear to Camano Island. Sea lions are hauled out on another distant sandbar. Dunlin swoop and swirl overhead.

It’s enforced relaxation – there is no leaving early, no running errands. There is just the beach and waiting for the tide. For four or five hours—no one really knows exactly how long.

“Is it coming?” “I think it’s coming!” “Not yet….” “Maybe it’s time….”

Everything goes back in the boats. Kids are building a bigger and bigger sand mound, creating their own island, trying to make it last a little longer.

Watch what happens as the tide comes in!

And then the tide comes in and we paddle home. Till next summer.

Your gifts to The Nature Conservancy will help ensure that rivers and sand bars in Puget Sound are clean and healthy and continue to support the wide variety of life that makes this place so spectacular.

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SCA + PORT SUSAN BAY

This past month we partnered with the SCA (Student Conservation Association) to have a crew work for two weeks on a few places where we work, mainly on the Upper Skagit and at our Port Susan Bay Preserve! 

Crews spent time working in the Upper Skagit doing manual weed control of Scotch Broom, holly, clematis and some other weeds as well as removing an old building! At Port Susan Bay crews spent most of their time looking for Spartina.

This is the first time we’ve ever partnered together for nature and we loved having them work with us to keep Puget Sound healthy and clean.