Padilla Bay Estuarine Research Reserve

Migrant Trumpeter swans from the north dotted farmlands along the road to my destination a few weeks ago: Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Skagit County. Paraphrasing from the PBNERR site: Padilla Bay is an eight mile long by three miles wide estuary at the saltwater edge of the large delta of the Skagit River in the Salish Sea. In 1980, it became part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Because it’s filled with sediment from the Skagit River, the bottom is very flat, muddy and so shallow that it almost entirely intertidal, which means that it’s flooded at high tide but the low tide exposes miles of mud flats. This allows nearly 8,000 acres of eelgrass meadows to grow. Eelgrass is valuable because it’s habitat for wildlife and commercially harvested animals. Salmon, crab, perch, and herring use it as a nursery. Millions of worms, shrimp, clams, and other invertebrates live there, providing food for great blue herons, eagles, otters, seals, as well as humans. On a sunny Friday morning in late November, I arrived at the compound’s large, nearly empty parking lot along Bayview Edison Road.


Admission is free, but they request donations, so I placed mine in a clear plastic cube and walked past a perimeter wall displaying the story of the Breazeale family’s involvement in the project. They donated the 64 acres on which the interpretive center, built in 1982, stands. I entered a long, high ceilinged room with colorful displays about the estuary and the area’s flora and fauna. Things had changed little, if at all, since the last time I visited during an elementary school field trip seven years prior. I pressed a button to hear taped eagle’d call. It sounded like it’d caught a cold. One display included sand fleas…with legs made of springs. Stationary fish species gazed down from above. The area was clean, neat and informative, but outdated. After reading about the estuary, eel grass, and a nearby heron rookery (Up in the Trees with Great Blue Herons), I made my way to the section about the sea.

Several tanks filled with creatures had been my favorite part of the interpretive center the first time I visited, and were again. Fish swam, shrimp crawled. A sea star, disengaged an arm from the rocks. Under a curved tank arch, a sign asked visitors to forgive the rubber stuff. The rubber version of a Painted anemone didn’t do justice to the ones I’d seen in situ at Deception Pass State Park though a real live Plumrose anemone did. Stuffed birds showed the comparative sizes of owl, eagle, hawk.


Sunlight streamed through the window of the Hands-On Room. Games, puzzles and puppets provided ways to learn while playing. I noticed the second of only two employees during my visit: a man who greeted me from a room at the back and answered my questions about beavers, which I’ve tried but failed to find in the ACFL (I’ve since seen them). He pointed out a beaver skull as we commiserated about their elusiveness.


Outside, I walked towards the road, through a small tunnel and tried to reach the beach, but the tide was so high that I would have hit water at the bottom, so I skipped the steep intimidating spiral staircase and walked up the hill towards the trail head instead.

The 0.8 mile long nature trail lies above the center. Wheelchair access ends early, but the rest is easily accessible to the ambulatory. The path is lollipop-shaped with the stick part at the start. I followed the paved to graveled to woodsy to grassy path through some trees to a huge neighboring pasture filled with unusually furry grazing cattle. Near the end of the loop, a sign warned of bees in the trees, but I didn’t see them as I made my way past. I enjoyed my visit to the Padilla Bay Estuarine Research Reserve including the Upland Trail, which I completed in about an hour. But then, I was the only one there. 

I returned a week later and stopped at the west side of Bay View State Park south of the interpretive center, passed by the camping area, crossed under the road, and parked in the lot. Towards the west is a fenced, grassy area with an enclosed-on-three-sides covered picnic area, restrooms, about 20 picnic tables and an information kiosk. An sheet showed local bird species, but the only species I saw in person, the Belted kingfisher, wasn’t shown. At high tide, little of the beach was exposed. To the south it was rocky, while the west and north were sandy enough to build sand castles in warmer weather.

Bay View State Park is not only a great place for a picnic, but was also the location of the start for the Bay View Women’s Run, held in May, which I agreed to run, last minute, with friends in 2013. It has since moved to the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center. The flat, scenic out and back course follows Padilla Bay. Proceeds support women’s issues. The 2.2 mile Shore Trail (the southernmost two miles shown on the course map below) can be accessed most easily from two locations, a large parking lot about two-thirds mile south of Bay View State Park (a five minute walk from the lot to the trail head) at the north end or a smaller lot adjacent the trail at the south end. Linda Roe’s Trip Report from Washington Trails Association site is correct.

Bay View Women's Run

After visiting the Reserve (and since) I wondered about the interpretive center’s display board about the March Point Heronry. Apparently, it’s “one of the largest and most successful nesting areas for Great Blue Herons in all of Western North America.” During nesting season from March to July, a live camera shows the progress of juvenile herons. It isn’t accessible to the public, but I was determined to figure out its location. And did. Because the leaves had fallen, a number of empty nests were visible along a short stretch of a nearby street. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site says this about nesting, “Male Great Blue Herons collect much of the nest material, gathering sticks from the ground and nearby shrubs and trees, and from unguarded and abandoned nests, and presenting them to the female. She weaves a platform and a saucer-shaped nest cup, lining it with pine needles, moss, reeds, dry grass, mangrove leaves, or small twigs. Nest building can take from 3 days up to 2 weeks; the finished nest can range from a simple platform measuring 20 inches across to more elaborate structures used over multiple years, reaching 4 feet across and nearly 3.5 feet deep. Ground-nesting herons use vegetation such as salt grass to form the nest.” I can’t wait to return in the spring (when the tree leaves will likely block the view of much of the action).

Heron Nests 12-11-2015 12-44-40 PM

My advice: on a sunny day during low tide, which you’re more likely to find in the summer, take a day trip to the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center (arrive when it opens), Bay View State Park (Discover Pass required) and the Shore Path.

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