February is a time of two seasons in western Washington. Winter still rules in the mountains (see my last post) and spring arrives in the lowlands. One of the best places to see the meeting of the seasons is on Skagit River delta west of the town of Mount Vernon. Between the South and North Forks of the Skagit River, lies Fir Island – home to thousands of snow geese every winter. Just north of the North Fork lies thousands of fertile acres, many planted with spring flowers.
The snow geese generally arrive in November and are gone by April, with the peak number from mid-December through mid-January. At their peak, there are easily tens of thousands of geese present on Fir Island. Besides the geese, trumpeter swans and tundra swans also migrate to the area. Like bald eagles? Plenty of them as well.
The field north of the river have a few geese as well, but are mainly known for their spring daffodils and tulips. By the time the tulips arrive, the geese are gone, but if your timing it right, you can see the snow geese and blooming daffodil fields on the same trip.
Six years ago, during the first weekend of March, I went to the area and found a huge flock of geese and acres of blooming yellow daffodils. Last week, friend and I made the trip, hoping to duplicate my timing of 2010. And we saw thousands of geese, a few swans, and a dozen or so bald eagles. Unfortunately, we were a bit early for the daffodils – they were just starting to bloom. I would guess that this week and next may be prime blooming.
To see the geese and swans, head north from Seattle on Interstate 5 and take the Conway exit (exit #221). Turn west off the freeway, and at the roundabout in Conway, get on Fir Island Road. The geese can usually be found in the fields either north or south of Fir Island Road a mile or two after you cross the Skagit River. The geese spend the night on the water, and fly back inland during the morning. Last week, we arrived a little before sunrise, a bit early for the geese. But by the time we had finished taking a few sunrise shots, we heard honking on the air. We watched geese fly in in groups of 2 to 200, most landing at a field a few hundred meters off the road. Later in the morning, a few bigger flocks (maybe a 1,000 birds) flew in. It was an amazing sight.
With luck, the flocks will land close to the road and you can get good shots with a 70-200mm zoom lens (as was the case when saw them in 2010). That was not the case last week for me, and I found myself wanting something in the 400 to 600 mm range (which I do not own). I shot with my 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconvertor.
Want the best of winter and spring in the Puget Sound lowlands – take my advice and try the geese and daffodils of the Skagit River delta in late February and early March.
For various reasons I haven’t picked up my camera in about six weeks and it is driving me crazy. David duChemin recently wrote a blog post about tending the fire that really spoke to me and I promised myself I’d get out this weekend. But life got in the way. My son Brooks, and otherwise healthy 26-year old, had his lung partially collapse without an apparent reason on Thursday and is now in the hospital. He may get out tomorrow (we hope). With this, Tanya and I have been spending a lot of time driving back and forth to Seattle to visit Brooks in the hospital. So, no photography this weekend.
So instead, since it has also been a few weeks since I posted, I give you some shots from five years ago this month, when Tanya and I drove to San Diego to see daughter Janelle when she was going to university. Along the way we stopped for a couple of hours at Pinnacles National Monument, which in 2013 became a National Park. I don’t imagine much changed when it gained park status, except perhaps more visitors. When we were there in 2010, it was rather out-of-the-way and quiet. I hope it still is. I’d like to get back some day and spend more time exploring. When we were there in 2010, the wildflowers were blooming. Spring is such a wonderful time of year. Enjoy these shots from Pinnacles National
I’ve lived in Washington nearly my whole life, yet only heard about the Beezley Hills Preserve this year. Beezley Hills Preserve is a 4,800-acre natural area protected by the Nature Conservancy. On the hills north of Quincy, Washington, the preserve has views south over the Columbia Basin and west to the Cascade Mountains. However, the views aren’t the reason to visit – the plant life is. Beezley Hills is part of one of the largest intact tracts of shrub-steppe ecosystem in the state and one of the best wildflower spots in eastern Washington. Spring time, from late April to mid-May, is prime time to visit when most of the wildflowers are blooming. It’s during these few weeks in spring when this sagebrush desert shows its best colors.
Tanya, Nahla and I visited last Friday, April 25, and the wildflowers were not quite yet at their peak bloom. We did see arrowleaf balsamroot, Hooker’s balsamroot, phlox, sagebrush violet, trumpet bluebells, and common spring gold all in full bloom. My favorite, the hedgehog cacti, were just starting to bloom. Cactus are not that common in Washington, and Beezley has one of the largest concentrations of hedgehog cactus in the state. The lupines and bitteroots, for the most part, were not yet blooming, though we did see one white sulphur lupine just starting to flower (white sulphur lupines are the only white lupine in Washington). Beezley doesn’t get much visitation. We only saw two other people while on our hike, and they were just leaving as we arrived.
To reach Beezley Hills Preserve, make your way to Quincy (take either exit 149 or 151 off Interstate 90) and head east on Highway 28. Near the eastern edge of town, turn north on Columbia Way, which curves into Road P NW, also known as Monument Hill Road. (Note: directions I found in one guidebook and on the internet for Beezley Hills say to turn onto Road P NW off Highway 28. However, you can only turn south on Road P from Highway 28, not north.) Drive 7.1 miles and park next to the access road for a communications tower at the top of the hill. On the south side of the road, there is a gate into the Beezley Hills Preserve, marked with a small sign reading “Nature Preserve – Foot Traffic Only.” There is no sign announcing the preserve.
From the gate, the trail is along an old jeep track, which becomes fainter with distance. After a short distance, we had trouble following the trail. However, it doesn’t matter much, hikers are free to roam at will through the preserve, taking care to not step on the fragile plants. The entire preserve is fenced. Just stay inside the fenced area. You cannot get lost, the communications tower is always visible. A loop around the property makes about a 3-mile hike.
We were there on a mostly cloudy day, which helps with wildflower close-up photos. On a sunny day, you may wish to bring a reflector and/or diffuser to help cut contrast. Consider bringing a macro lens for close-up shots. Alternatively, try a wide-angle lens and get in close to the flowers to show them in their natural setting. Sweeping vista shots will likely be best near sunrise and sunset, though I did okay with the cloudy skies in mid-afternoon. While spring is the best time to visit for wildflowers, Greg Vaughn, in his book Photographing Washington, also suggests visiting in autumn.
After visiting Beezley Preserve, you might also consider a visit to nearby Moses Coulee for a totally different looking landscape. There are backroad routes into both the southern and northern portions of Moses Coulee from the Beezley Hills Preserve, but perhaps the easiest route, at least to the southern end of Moses Coulee, is to drive back to Quincy, head west on Highway 28 toward Wenatchee, and turn left onto Palisades Road where Moses Coulee where it intersects the Columbia River. The northern portion of the coulee, crossed by Highway 2, is not easily reached from Quincy on paved roads without a fairly lengthy drive.
If you read my last post, you know I have been frustrated by not having time to go out and shoot. I’m still pretty busy with other stuff, but did find a few hours last Thursday to sneak out with the camera. The evening sky was partially overcast with light clouds, which provided a nice diffuse, low-contrast light. The air as still. A perfect evening for macro flower shots. Luckily, I live less than two miles from one of the nicest dahlia and rose gardens in the Puget Sound region. I grabbed the gear and headed over to Point Defiance Park.
As I was entering the gate to the garden (the garden is surrounded by a 10-foot tall fence to keep the deer out), a gardener was coming out. She told me they had just dead-headed the whole garden and it was in prime condition. I couldn’t have picked a better time. The dahlia blooms did look like they were in their prime, as were most the roses. I set up the tripod, slapped on a 100-mm macro lens and some extension tubes and lost myself in the work. Perfect!
I wasn’t the only photographer there that night, there were three portrait photographers in the garden, two doing senior-high photos and one was shooting two young children (I don’t envy that poor photog). They were making money, and may or may not being enjoying their work. I was not making money, it is highly unlikely I will ever sell any of the images I made that night, instead I was enjoying my craft and saving my sanity.
Occasionally, there was the slightest breath of a breeze, slightly moving the blossoms. I turned up the ISO a couple stops to keep the shutter speed less than a second, and kept on shooting. I ended up shooting for about two hours until the light started fading and the exposure times became increasing long. It was the perfect antidote to my pent-up need to create.
April in the Skagit Valley is one on the photographic highlights of Washington State. April is when the tulip and daffodil fields west of Mount Vernon are in bloom (actually, the daffodils typically start blooming in March). These fields, and the month-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, attract big crowds – and, therefore, I’ve avoided them for years (actually I did photograph some of the early daffodil fields a few years back, visiting at non-busy time). However, I did venture up to the fields last Friday – and wow, was I missing out by not going earlier. Actually, I picked a good day. It was rainy in Seattle and Tacoma, but not too bad up in Mount Vernon, and the weather may have kept the crowds down (being a weekday also helped). There still were plenty of people, just not the mobs the flowers attract like bees on sunny weekends.
Here’s a quick report:
- best time to go – go now! The tulips are at their peak. The early tulips have already been headed (the growers de-head the tulips to prevent disease and promote bulb growth, and the longer you wait, the more flowers will be de-headed), the mid-season tulips are in full bloom, and the late-season ones are just starting. Most the daffodil fields are long-past their prime, though a few still have decent flowers.
- best display garden – Roozengaarde. There are two major tulip growers in the valley, Roozengaarde (a division of Washington Bulb) and Tulip Town. Both have display gardens. Roozengaarde’s is larger and better developed. There is an entry fee of $5 – well worth it. This fee also gets you into their tulip field across the road. Roozengaarde’s other tulip fields, elsewhere in valley, are free to visit.
- best tulip field – Tulip Town. Behind the display garden at Tulip Town is relatively small tulip field, but one packed with lots of colors and varieties. Most the other tulip fields in the valley are very large, and though they may have several varieties of tulips, it’s difficult to get more than a couple of varieties into a single image. No such problem at Tulip Town. Another big advantage at Tulip Town is two red barns next to the field that make good backgrounds. Like Roozengaarde, there is a $5 entry fee.
- weather – it rains a lot in the area in April, you just have to work with it. Sunny days (like today) are great, but not very predictable unless you have a flexible schedule. You can make great photos on cloudy days, or even in the rain (as long it is not a downpour).
- footwear – the fields are muddy – extremely muddy if it has rained lately. Wear boots. I wore hiking boots; many people had rubber bo0ts.
- pets – of course, Tanya and I had Carson with us. Dogs are not allowed in the display garden at Roozengaarde or in Tulip Town, but are allowed in most the fields. Carson had a great time laying in mud puddles.
- parking – the entrance fee to Roozengaarde also pays for parking at their fields – assuming the parking lots are open (they close if it is too muddy). There is also a parking lot at Tulip Town. Otherwise, you will need to park on the road. Be warned: if any part of your car is across the marking the edge of the road, you will get ticketed. The local cops were out in force when we were there.