Wintering at the Locks

Hidden away among the luxury yachts, fishing boats and working tugs is a gem of a birding spot. The Ballard Locks are sandwiched between the saltwater of Puget Sound and the freshwater of Lake Washington. Lining the shores of this rich zone is the lovely Carl S. English Gardens, a unique combination of garden, green space, fresh- and saltwater that provides rich habitat for a wide diversity of bird life. February and March is a wonderful time to visit, since the number of wintering bird species is high and the number of visiting tourists is low.

Tear your gaze away from that dream "ship" waiting its turn through the locks and focus on the saltwater environment. You'll see salmon fry just beginning their journey to the ocean, passing from calm lake water to the pounding surf of Puget Sound. These young fish provide a tremendous boost of winter protein and sustenance to sleek, double-crested cormorants, whose long necks can be seen riding low in the turbulent waters below the gate. They dive quickly and with great precision spear or snare small fry. As dusk arrives, the cormorants depart to roost on the Lombardy poplars lining the southern edge of the Ship Canal in Fremont, where they appear as dark holiday ornaments in the gathering night.

The snakelike look of the cormorants contrasts dramatically with the black and white elegance of the Barrow's and common goldeneyes, named for the brilliant golden eye shining against their sleek black plumage. The common male has a distinctive white circle on his cheek, while the Barrow's sports a white crescent from eye to cheek. These ducks are attracted to the wealth of mollusks found along the Locks' concrete outer walls.

Precariously perched on the ledges and wires overlooking the entrance to the Locks are the "old fishermen" - Great Blue Herons. Standing as silent sentries over the calmer waters, herons are the most patient of fishers. A birder's vigil will be rewarded when, with a lightning-swift stab, the heron impales a fish. Herons are common at the Locks, nesting in nearby Ki-wanis Ravine and in the English Gardens.

A year-round highlight species found in the English Gardens is the Anna's hummingbird. The males are particularly lovely in winter months, with brilliant, iridescent regalia for the breeding season. You'll find them "singing" and displaying to protect prime habitat in the rich gardens. The secretive females nest in late winter - and a perceptive observer will see them darting from winter blossoms to a secret nesting area tucked into a thick shrub.

Be it boats or birds, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks is a fantastic place to visit during the winter. After the chaos of summer, the quiet and calm provides time to observe closely the many species of birds visiting and living there. Take advantage of this gem of a location. Get outside and go birding.

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