In Washington Park Arboretum, there’s a place where you can walk on the lake. Just dress for mud.
The Washington Park Arboretum Trail starts at the Foster Island parking lot near an area where islands shelter the waters. This is the first part of the lake to freeze during a cold snap, and the last to thaw.
If there is ice, pick up a pebble and toss it. If it bounces off the surface, it’ll make an otherworldly “pew-pew” noise. (Here’s an explanation of how that happens.)
Then you cross a bridge and get onto Foster Island, the first of two islands on the walk. Follow the trail under Highway 520, and then take a left just before the main trail dead-ends at a view of the lake.
You are entering the wetland zone, with tall cattails on either side of you, and a thick layer of mud underfoot. (This trail is not accessible for scooters or wheelchairs. If you’re pushing a stroller, you are going to need to be able to lift it over obstacles now and again). A brief detour to the right brings you to a lookout by the lakeshore.
This is a good one to explore. There’s a sweeping view of sky, lake, boats and birds. You might spy a kingfisher diving from one of the nearby trees. (Here’s what they sound like, in case you want to learn the call in advance.)
Kingfishers are crow-sized birds, though you might think they are smaller, because they seldom let people get very close. They like to perch by the water’s edge watching for a fish coming close to the surface. When they see one they’ll dive for it. They are wonderful fliers. Sometimes you can see them hovering over a spot on the lake.
But the main show is on the water. Many ducks and other waterfowl spend the winter in our waters, where they take advantage of our mild weather to feed and to find mates.
The males are in their most splendid mating plumage. If you are new to birding, this is a great place to start. They are big. They are out in the open, without camouflage. You don’t need binoculars to identify them, though if you have binoculars, a closer look is rewarding.
(How to use binoculars: look at the bird, or whatever you want to see, and without taking your eyes off it, bring the binoculars to your face. The first time my son, then 5, managed it, he was amazed. "It's so big!" he said.)
If you know a birder, ask her what her favorite duck is, because she most likely has one. She is less likely to play favorites among other types of birds, such as sparrows or seagulls. But ducks, yes.
Continue to squelch through the cattails until you get to the boardwalk, which zig-zags out into the lake, then cruises along the shore of Foster Island before turning to cross to Marsh Island. It’s not set up for navigating on wheels. There are steps and places where the bits of boardwalk fit together unevenly. Some areas are a wee bit sloped. It helps make it a delightful place for little kids to explore on foot. Walking out in the lake can bring you closer to the birds.
There are often huge black flocks of American Coots. During the summer, these birds of ponds and lakes are known for being fiercely territorial, with only one pair of birds per territory. But here they are content to raft up by the thousands. There are about 20 kinds of ducks you might spot from somewhere along this walk, including wood ducks, whose males are the most flamboyant of them all. They’re iridescent green at the top of the head, with a bright red eye, orange, white and black beak, spotted chestnut breast, offset with white stripes. (They’re my seventh favorite duck. I find them a little gaudy.)
Marsh Island is a wild witchy tangle of moss-covered willows, their branches forming a roof over the muddy trail. There are a few lookouts here, and it is fun to check them out. Check near the shoreline for trees that beavers have been chewing on.
The other end of Marsh Island brings you to a view of the cottonwoods overlooking the mouth of the Montlake Cut. Eagles like to hang out in these trees, so be sure to scan for giant birds with white heads. (Listen, too. Here’s what a bald eagle sounds like.)
This is a prime fishing area for Common Mergansers (my fourth favorite duck), and double-crested cormorants. You can often see the cormorants pulled out on logs or navigation buoys, stretching out their wings to dry their feathers.
If you’re up for a longer walk, the trail connects with the Lake Washington Ship Canal Waterside trail. Or you can turn back here and enjoy a muddy stroll through water and islands back to the parking lot.
More nature walks with Fiona Cohen:
A winter beach walk at West Seattle's Lincoln Park
6 ways to enjoy nature in Seward Park
Great trails for a fall/winter family hike near Seattle