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The Montlake Fill

There’s something about the garbage heap I am strolling over.  It’s in the middle of the city yet it holds the fascination of so many people, birders and otherwise.  The contrast of ecologically bleak city of cement to the even vaguely wild is enough to get the blandest of mind churning about nature.  I’ll admit it – I love the Montlake Fill.

The Union Bay Natural Area is the proper title for this little drop of land.  From 1926 to 1965 it was actually a dump that the City of Seattle graciously pushed over with soil (hence the “Fill” part of the name) and attempted to landscape.  I don’t know about calling it a natural area.  Between the covered over refuse (I’m sure there is some nasty crap down there) and the exposure of more land with the lowering of Lake Washington’s water table as the Ballard Locks were constructed, it doesn’t seem the pinnacle of natural acreage.  Then there’s the many invasive plant species that the University of Washington is valiantly attempting to eradicate.  In all honestly the places they’ve quote on quote “restored” seem to have the least amount of birds.

But regardless of the seemingly pointless tampering or silly new names, the Fill is spectacular for seeing a bit of nature in the city.  Even on a rainy, early November day, I got the urge to bike down the hill from my house to see what I could stir up.  It turned out pretty well.

Bald Eagles aren’t my favorite birds but the pair that nests nearby don’t bother me.  They fly around twittering and scaring the ducks, but for the most part they actually behave like birds of prey and find their own food.  The gregarious American Widgeon seemed to get particularly anxious about this prospect and were in a frenzy of rubber ducky squeaking as I began my circuit of the main lot.  I’d somehow forgotten how beautiful the cream-colored cheeks of a male Widgeon are as the birds clambered back down to the lake.

Mount Rainier was half visible behind a veil of clouds on the other side of the water and I took a quick inventory of the ducks on the lake.  The usual culprits Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwall, Mallard, and Buffleheads were all floating about in the bay, tranquil after their scare earlier.  A few Northern Pintail were also about along with some Ring-necked Ducks.  Marsh Wrens rattled from the cattails and a Great Blue Heron sat sentinel over a patch of shoreline.  The smell of fresh rain and lakeside decay is a smell I envy these animals who live it.

The beauty of birding in the city is that it can relieve so much tension from your day.  It’s an escape you begin to relish on a normal schedule.  A quick duck off from work (like my lunch break at a hotel I used to work at) and the sights and sounds brought tranquility.  Everything melted away.  I think there is a great deal of wisdom in this.  Although so much is going on in a nature setting, the grind of the desk or of driving in traffic so much less eloquent.  After all people go on retreats to the country not Los Angeles.

A group of joggers crushed by on the gravel trail as I stood pishing at a willow.  To them it looked like I was making odd noises at a tree.  From my perspective I was imitating a avian alarm call to excite the Audubon’s Warblers into coming to take a look at me.  Who knows, maybe there was a Palm Warbler with them.  I wouldn’t scoff at a bit of color on this dreary day.

Speaking of color there was the potential for Wood Ducks at the cut of water across from University of Washington’s Husky Stadium.  No such luck, but the male Green-winged Teal preening on the shore were certainly nice too – so tiny but so full of pattern.  A Merlin zoomed past, probably after starlings in the UW parking lot.

Some birds were flying over and one in particular caught my attention.  Its undulating flight wasn’t quite right for a woodpecker and I followed the black and white bird to a small shrub.  A nice looking first year Northern Shrike!  I’d heard about this bird but it’d stayed an enigma in recent visits.  Two more birds flew over, calling as they did – Horned Larks!  Things were starting to get a bit more interesting, just as I needed to get going.

Another wonderful thing about urban birding is that it fits in with our busy schedules.  While I don’t condone the anxiety-ridden existence of the harried suit clad modern society aspires to, I still have to pretend to function coherently alongside.  A quick dip into the Fill is doable from a busy urbanite’s perspective (I cringe at even offhandedly calling myself a blasted urbanite).

Walking back to my bike I peeked at some Hooded Mergansers and Pied-billed Grebe on the final pond of the loop.  Cedar Waxwings called overhead, their masses growing with the changing of the season.  Rain began to drive down as I got on my bike and peddled away from my streak of daily nature.  Every spot at the fill holds special memories of my formative years as a birder, naturalist, and person of inspiration.   These sorts of places are a blessing and I wish every kid had a place like this growing up.  It may not be so “natural” but it sure is full of nature.

Filed under: Seattle, The Montlake Fill

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.

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