Updated: August 2022
Union Bay Natural Area is a 74-acre oasis of wild wetland and meadow surrounded by Seattle bustle. The area right next to the University of Washington and the University Village shopping center is a prime spot for birders, who have recorded more than 200 species going about their business in the cottonwoods, shrubs, reeds, ponds and lakeshore. It is a showpiece for what conservation-minded people can accomplish. For more than 40 years, it was Seattle’s main garbage dump, but over the past 30 years, people have transformed it into prime habitat. And it is a wonderful spot to give kids a chance to get close to wildlife.
It is very accessible. The gentle terrain and well-maintained crushed limestone paths make the area easily navigable by strollers or mobility scooters. And there is so much to see: meadows, ponds, some precious natural lakeshore, and lots of wildlife taking advantage of it all.
Before you go
It is best to set a few rules for your family before you come. One is that everyone must stay on the trail. It takes work to make healthy habitat in the middle of a city, and the Washington Department of Transportation just finished a two-year project to create and enhance wetlands in the area, so there are a lot of bare spots where conservationists hope that native plants will grow in. And where there are bushes and tall grass, animals need them to hide and nest undisturbed.
Another rule is that if you bring a dog, it must be on a leash.
And another important rule is that people should be as quiet as possible. The reason for this is that you are there to see wildlife, and the slower and quieter you are, the more you will see. For many kids, being quiet all the time is close to impossible, especially if you are out in an open space where it is possible to run and jump and bonk things with sticks. This is fine. It’s an important part of being a child and learning about your surroundings. But your kids should be able to be quiet once in a while.
If they come across an animal on or near the trail, they should stop what they are doing and watch until the animal moves on.
If they come across people looking through binoculars or scopes, or taking pictures, kids should be slow and quiet. Don’t scare the animal people are looking at. After all, you might want to look at it, too.
Finally, when you come to a spot where you are sure of finding wildlife – the water’s edge is a good one – then you should all work on stopping, listening, and paying close attention, if only for a minute or two.
What to take with you
It might help to look up in a bird book or an online bird guide some of the birds you are likely to see and hear. In summer at Union Bay Natural Area, you are pretty sure to see bald eagles, osprey, red-winged blackbirds, great blue heron, swallows and chickadees. Another fun thing to do in advance: listen to some bird songs. Three good ones for summer: red-winged blackbird, common yellowthroat, and marsh wren.
If you have binoculars, bring them, but don’t worry if you don’t have any. There’s a lot you can see without fancy optics.
Park at the Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st St.
What you are likely to find
In spring and early summer, the skies above Union Bay natural area’s meadows swirl with swallows. They are fun to watch as they swoop and turn in pursuit of insects. How can there be enough insects to feed all these birds? We can hardly see any insects out there. Keep watching and you might catch one handing an insect to another while both are in flight. As young birds learn to hunt, their parents still feed them, on the wing. Sometimes a swallow will skim over the lake or pond with its beak open, drinking the water. Sometimes a swallow will flit a few feet in front of you on the trail. The kinds you are most likely to spot are violet-green swallows, tree swallows and barn swallows. They move fast, so it’s hard to sort out which is which.
Flowers and bees
Take a look at some of the flowers by the sides of the trail. What kind of insects are pollinating them? Do different kinds of insects like different kinds of flowers?
The loop trail passes by a raised wooden platform. In summer of 2018, this is home to a family of ospreys. These fish-eating birds of prey are the sea hawks that inspired Seattle’s NFL team name, though unlike football players, they are only around in the summer. When an osprey fishes, it hovers over the water, and then dives when the moment is right. It’s also fun to watch ospreys take care of their nests. If a bald eagle comes too close, they’ll chase it away.
Clustered in low ground next to the trail are stands of horsetails, strange-looking plants of a type more ancient than the dinosaurs. They don’t make flowers, only spores, and they don’t have anything easy to recognize as a leaf. It is fun to look at their segmented structure, feel their rough texture (they make good scrub-brushes) and imagine what it must have been like at the time of the dinosaurs, when plants like these grew to the size of trees.
On the top branches of shrubs along the lake edge, you can find male red-winged blackbirds flashing their red and yellow shoulders and singing. They do that to attract females and defend their territories, warning off rival males as well as would be predators. They can be fierce defenders. At Union Bay Natural area it is quite common to see red-winged blackbirds chasing off crows or eagles. Nearby, if you look carefully, you might see brown-streaked birds about the same size and shape as the male red-wings. Some of these are females. Others are youngsters born earlier this year.
As you walk down the trail, you might spot rabbits getting out of your way. Rabbits are not native to this region, and the ones in the Union Bay Natural area are probably descended from pets someone released. They shouldn’t be here, but they are very cute.
Keep an eye on the water’s edge for a chance to see a great blue heron. Groups of chickadees make noisy progress through the bushes – generally a parent bird or two, surrounded by a group of hungry youngsters. The parents will feed them or lead them to food sources. Common yellowthroats sing from the shrubs. Although they are vividly colored, with a bright yellow breast and a black mask, they are hard to find because they tend to stick to the lower branches. You will definitely hear them, though. Another bird that’s easy to hear but hard to see is the marsh wren, They live in the cattails and sing long, complex mixes of chirps, trills, rattles, and dot-matrix printer noises. And there are many more to see: ducks and cormorants in the open water, woodpeckers in the trees, songbirds in the meadow and shrubs – there’s a reason birders keep coming here.
City kids who come to Union Bay Natural area can get a rare taste of the drama and variety of the natural world. Not bad for an old garbage dump.
Here is a trail map for Union Bay Natural Area and other places surrounding the Center for Urban Horticulture.
Originally published June 2018.
Fiona Cohen is the author of the “Curious Kids Nature Guide: Explore the Amazing Outdoors of the Pacific Northwest.” She lives in Seattle.
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