Kirkland’s is an acquired addiction among wildlife watchers. You might visit once and enjoy the stroll, but see nothing much out of the ordinary.
Go there twice, however, and you’ll likely find something truly intriguing: A beaver rolling up a lily pad and eating it like a burrito; a river otter splashing and chasing perch in Forbes Creek; a bald eagle swooping and diving at coots; a red-breasted sapsucker hammering its beak on a sign with a metallic rat-ta-tat-tat (looking for a love-bird).
Go there three or more times and you discover that this curious corner of Lake Washington is crazy with critters.
“This is just a unique area,” says Diane Hill, one of about 25 people who serve as volunteer rangers and lead wildlife tours at the park. “If you’re a birder, you have to come back often. There’s something going on all the time.”
In a two-hour visit recently, a pair of binocular-toting birdwatchers spotted four of Western Washington’s five native woodpeckers (downy, hairy, flicker and sapsucker), two bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, a trumpeter swan, dozens of coots, wigeon, mallard and ring-necked ducks, double-crested cormorants, wrens, bushtits, kinglets, sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, hummingbirds, assorted ubiquitous other birds (robins, crows, etc.), and a nutria—that’s a large, non-native, wetland-destroying rodent that nobody loves.
“For a few of us, it’s kind of our home park,” says MaryFrances Mathis, a master birder and Eastside Audubon member who also leads birding tours there. “I’ve got a database of sightings going back 12 years of more than 175 species, and some are very rare ones.”
The rare ones include an indigo bunting, a beautiful blue bird more common in the eastern United States; a red-naped sapsucker, more common in the Rockies; and a black-throated blue warbler, another unusual visitor from the east.
Mathis said the park’s combination of habitats—wetlands, open water, shallow bay and upland forest—is what makes it such a magnet for wildlife. It is so rich that the Audubon Society has included Juanita Bay Park—former golf course once slated for development—on its recently issued Washington State Birding Trail Puget Loop map. “It’s very rich,” she says.
Beavers have made the park their home for years, and can often be seen in the mornings and evenings feeding on lily pads. “They roll up the lily pads like a burrito,” Mathis says. Coyotes also live there, primarily in the woodlands on the east side of the park. "I love coyotes. I've had experiences with them at the park," she said.
Deer are occasionally seen. On sunny days, dozens of turtles climb up into logs along shore to catch some rays. Otters are seen, but not often, along with muskrats. Birding is good year-round, and changes with each season. In recent years, up to almost after being absent for decades, along with a myriad of ducks and other aquatic fowl.
So rich is the edge between the wetlands and the forested uplands that red-tailed hawks are regularly seen year-round perched and watching for prey in a decaying tree snag on the east side of 98th Avenue, which dissects the park. Bald eagles are daily park visitors.
“It is a wonderful park. It’s so well used,” says Michael Cogle, deputy director of the Kirkland . “It's definitely used not only by residents (of Kirkland), but also by park enthusiasts from all over the region.”
On most weekend days when the weather and light is good, you’ll see wildlife photographers with huge lenses and cameras on tripods waiting for the perfect angle.
Cogle says Eastside residents today have Kirkland residents of yesterday to thank for protecting the park, through park levies approved by voters years ago—not to mention city council members with the vision to put those levies on the ballot. “What a tremendous legacy Kirkland voters gave us and future residents when they approved those park bonds,” he says.
Eastside Audubon sponsors two types of informative guided wildlife tours at the park, one type led regularly by master birders and the other led by a group of some two dozen volunteer rangers. They are all appropriate for any age group, and periodically a “roll and stroll” tour is led for those with mobility issues.
The next tours are set for April 1 and 24. The tours begin at the park kiosk near the parking lot. Bring binoculars if you have them, since they're always a big help in bird- and critter-watching. For details, see the Eastside Audubon website.
In the meantime, enjoy our attached photo gallery of Juanita Bay Park wildlife.