When I decided to write a birding feature for Explore Washington State, I wracked my brain about which of my favorite birding locales I would showcase for an hour of birding. Ultimately I decided that it would be most appropriate to take you on a journey that echoes my own when I first began birding, so I chose a site that is familiar, close to home and (fairly) accessible: the north pool of Olympia’s Capitol Lake.
Why Capitol Lake?
Capitol Lake is an excellent place to bird for a number of reasons. First, it’s right downtown so if you’re a tourist it’s easy to work it into your day and similarly, if you’re a local running errands around town it’s a nice pit stop. I also love this location because it can be anything you need it to be. If I’m feeling full of energy I can walk a lap or two around the lake and identify everything with binoculars, or if I’m tired I can set up a spotting scope and scan across the lake a few times. This is a place where you can spend a few hours or just fifteen minutes. The hard-packed gravel is okay (but not great) for wheelchairs and strollers, it’s on multiple bus lines and there aren’t many fences to disrupt the view if you are birding from a seated position.
Winter is an excellent time to start birding in Washington. While many of our spring and summer birds have flown south for the winter, our tenacious year-round residents come out in droves. The winter allows you to watch birds without spring’s fresh leaves blocking your view and you can begin to get acquainted with our most common birds. Then when spring and summer comes around you can work on learning all of the new migrants with the process of elimination on your side.
Winter in Washington also happens to be the best season for ducks, which is great for a beginner birder to learn because they’ll mostly cooperate and sit still on the water while you take in all of the details that make them who they are. My hour of birding on Capitol Lake was certainly duck-centric, and I found it relaxing to scan through the large rafts of ducks and find which ones were not like the others. You can bring a field guide with you if you like — I recommend the Sibley Guide to Birds of Western North America. If you don’t feel like hauling around a book then you can use Merlin, an app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that allows you to search through birds using a “likely birds” feature and it can even help you identify birds by uploading a photo! The app is free and easy to use.
I began my birding on Capitol Lake on January 23rd, 2021 around 12:45 in the afternoon. It was unseasonably sunny and it felt incredible to enjoy some sun in an otherwise cold, wet winter. Anybody who has spent time in Washington knows that the sun tends to draw crowds of people outside, eager to seize the day. Luckily for me, the ducks didn’t seem to mind.
Immediately upon arriving at the east edge of the lake I was greeted by the familiar quacking of a group of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) but as I got a little closer I noticed that there were American wigeons mixed in (Mareca americana). The male wigeons looked striking in the sun with warm chestnut-brown bodies, a white forehead and emerald green on the sides of their heads that shone in the sun like the gemstone itself.
Further into the lake I could see the characteristic small, black and white bodies of buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) with the male’s black heads showing green and purple iridescence in the sunlight. Mixed in with the buffleheads were the slightly larger lesser scaups (Aythya affinis) and ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris), two species which look remarkably similar but can be separated by the male ring-necked duck’s white-bordered blue bill, while lesser scaups show a more plain blue bill.
I walked a bit further along the edge of the lake to get a better look at some ducks that were tucked into an alcove just out of sight and happened upon a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) happily hopping on the ground and pecking at a patch of moss growing on the concrete. If it noticed me at all, it didn’t seem to mind as I watched it stretch its whole body out to reach the tallest bits of moss and contentedly munch on whatever it was going after.
Changing my angle on the lake paid off with a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) roosting on the bank and a pied-billed grebe (Podylimbus podiceps) hanging out with a couple of ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), which is a species I don’t have the pleasure of seeing all too often.
I kept track of the species I could see and hear using an old receipt I found in my car. Typically I’ll write shorthand codes for each species and for birds in smaller numbers I’ll keep a tally, while for larger flocks I’ll keep notes to form an estimate. Eventually I lost my pen, however, and switched to using eBird’s mobile app to directly record the species I encountered and submit my observations to eBird’s database. Many birders forgo the paper-and-pen approach altogether and use a strictly digital format but in my training as a field biologist I’ve come to prefer the process of writing out my notes.
Capitol Lake has so much to offer whether you’re just starting out or you’re an experienced birder. For beginners it offers excellent views and plenty of birds to observe and learn from, while for the more experienced birders, it’s a location that’s known to harbor rarities from time to time if you’re diligent. A place that can be enjoyed by locals and out-of-towners alike; both for humans and for our avian friends!