Spencer Island Birds Rule Over Factories And Freeway

Well-used parks near cities have that slightly worn look, like the smudged dots on display maps showing "You are Here."

There may be crowds and the occasional odd piece of litter (what's the history of the computer monitor on this mudflat?), but there's delight in knowing that people can so easily be here, outside, listening to the cackling and chortling of hidden creatures, rather than sitting home watching television or shopping.

The approach to Spencer Island, on the Snohomish River delta in Everett, is industrial and inauspicious. There are factories and a freeway and the unfortunate matter of the waste-water treatment plant - from which on weekdays, you can hear workers being paged over loud speakers.

But gradually the highway noises fade and others take precedence: the rowdy rattle of a kingfisher, the improvisations of the winter wren, which sound like a child's game, "duck, duck, run-around-like-a-crazy-person."

The 412-acre island is managed by Snohomish County Parks and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The area was opened to the public in 1995, and since then about 200 species of birds have been spotted, as well as river otters and foxes. Hunting season (which runs through midwinter) is over now, but in-season hunting is allowed in the northern part of the island. At those times, stick to the 1.5-mile trail around the southern end (take a right after the bridge). (Call 425-339-1208 or 425-775-1311 for hunting-season information.)

For the first part of my unguided hike, I thought I wouldn't get a good view of anything. My binoculars needed repair and made me see double. Every time I took my pencil out to make notes, the birds would take off. (I've seen human subjects with the same reaction.)

But the island's varied habitat - sloughs, tidal marshes and wood lots - make for great birdwatching, and the dikes around it provide good elevation for viewing. Several old berms were recently removed so the tidal marshes could be restored (someone let the ocean back in!) and a waterlogged stand of trees in the south end is providing lots of wood-duck habitat and rotten wood for woodpeckers.

The ponds and mud flats are home to mallards, shovelers, American widgeons, northern pintails and some sandpipery characters with beaks about as long as their legs, which I later learned could've been dunlins.

Nearby, overlooking a slough with houseboats and a few tugs, I heard an avian version of Babel, calls that meant nothing to me, but ones that a fluent guide could interpret easily. I could recognize towhees, red-winged blackbirds, robins, chickadees and wrens. But beyond that, I felt like a tourist in Hollywood with one of those Star Maps, gaping, hoping to spot the rare bird, but unqualified to know if I'd seen a true celebrity or just the gardener.

For those who want a trained guide and the company of other informed enthusiasts, the Seattle Audubon Society is running two field trips to the island: on Saturday, March 21, and Sunday, April 5.

Neil Zimmerman, who leads one of the trips, said birders this time of year usually spot "a really good collection of local dabbling ducks," as well as eagles, harriers, western sandpipers and great blue herons.

He recalls watching a peregrine hunting shorebirds during one field trip. "It came down and hit a green-winged teal right in front of us," he said. "All of us got to watch a peregrine falcon have lunch."

No one can promise a replay of that Snohomish County version of "Wild Kingdom," but, guided or not, a visit to the island can put you in the company of hundreds of new and familiar creatures.

Tina Kelley's column runs Fridays in Northwest Weekend. She can be reached at Northwest Weekend, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or via e-mail at weekend@seatimes.com. ------------------------------- If you go:

Take Interstate 5 to Exit 195 in Everett, go left on Marine View Drive, bear left on state Highway 529 North, across the river. Go right at the first exit, following signs for Langus Riverfront Park and Smith Island. Go straight on Smith Island Road. From the beginning of Smith Island Road it's 1.3 miles, past the park, under the freeway, by the sewage treatment plant, to the Spencer Island parking lot. You can drive further down the gravel road to the drawbridge to drop people off, but there's no parking there.

The Audubon trips start at 6:30 or 7 a.m. Saturday, March 21, and Sunday, April 5, and run through midafternoon. Space is limited. To sign up, call the society at 206-523-4483 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.