One of the top birding destinations in the Skagit Valley is the Headquarters Unit of WDFW’s Skagit Wildlife Area. Situated on the southeast corner of Fir Island in the Skagit River Delta, this spot is often simply referred to as Wiley Slough or Wylie Slough. The correct name of the waterway (and even eBird gets this wrong!) is Wiley Slough. This is confusing because this outstanding birding site is located at the end of Wylie Road, which is named after a prominent local farming family, which in 1913 acquired the homestead established nearly 40 years earlier at that site by John Wiley (no relation).
This WDFW multi-use wildlife unit is a 190-acre tidal marsh (estuary) west of and adjacent to Freshwater Slough – Wiley Slough meanders through the center of the property. It is predominantly vegetated by cattail and sedge and used extensively by waterfowl and other waterbirds. The area is used for waterfowl hunting, fishing, bird dog training and bird watching. The dike-top provides walking access for hunting and bird watching. If you are uncomfortable in a heavily used hunting area, please consider visiting after the end of hunting season, which this year concludes January 28.
The birding at Wiley Slough is phenomenal. According to eBird, it is the hottest of the Skagit Valley’s hotspots with 232 different species recorded over the years. In winter expect to see a wide variety of shorebirds, ducks, hawks and falcons. There is a prominent and often photographed eagle nest in the middle of the wetland, and in recent years Great horned owls have nested near the parking lot. It has also been home to an unlikely guest this winter – a Black phoebe. Last winter it was a hotspot for Bohemian waxwings.
One of most attractive features of this area is its accessibility. The level gravel paths are comfortable for people of all ages and abilities. There is even an accessible birding blind built by the Washington Waterfowl Association. The trail splits in two, with one continue to the edge of the property to the west and the other continuing as far as the South Fork of the Skagit River. Please note, as you approach the South Fork the trail gradually turns into a narrow, muddy path that is not accessible for people with disabilities.
Directions: Take Interstate 5 to Exit 221, just south of Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Go west from the freeway and turn right on to Fir Island Road, following the sign for Conway/La Conner. In 1.8 miles, turn left onto Wylie Road and follow for 1 mile to a T-intersection and a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. Turn left and follow the signs to either of the two parking lots. (Google Maps link). Discover Pass required.
Site History: The Headquarters unit was purchased beginning in 1948 with federal Pittman-Robertson funds for waterfowl hunting. Historically the site was managed to provide agricultural enhancements for winter waterfowl forage. With the Endangered Species Act listing of many salmonid species such as Chinook salmon, habitat management has since shifted to restore estuary habitat. The restoration design which included building setback levees, relocating the Wiley Slough tide gate farther inland, and removing part of the perimeter levee allow tidal and river flows to recreate channels and provide additional natural estuary habitat.