Text by Jane Hadley and Randy Robinson
Bay Center lies along U.S. Highway 101 in Pacific County in the southwest corner of the state. It’s about 13 miles southwest of the county seat of South Bend and 32 miles north of Ilwaco. The Bay Center peninsula juts northwestward into Willapa Bay at about the mid-point of the bay, accounting for the town name. The Palix River empties into the bay along the northeast side of the peninsula.
For birdwatchers, Bay Center offers some great viewing opportunities and beautiful scenery. The peninsula easily can be birded in less than half a day – or longer for those who tarry or go on foot. Those who can’t — or prefer not to — bird by foot can easily bird from their vehicles. Best time for waterfowl and shorebirds are spring, fall and winter.
Bay Center is an unincorporated town, which in 2000 had 174 residents, many of whom depend on oysters, clams and crab for their living. The town bustled in the late 19th century as its residents milled timber, canned fish and mainly harvested and shipped native oysters to San Francisco as fast as they could be scooped up. Bay Center no longer has five stores, a hotel, and its own school, but it has a tavern, a shop that sells fresh local seafood, a small general store, a KOA campground and a county park with some camp sites. The headquarters of the Chinook Tribe is located in Bay Center. You can get a reasonable breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the tavern, which used to be known as the Blue Heron but now is called Dock of the Bay.
Start at the intersection of U.S. 101 and the Bay Center Dike Road (not to be confused with the Bay Center Road, which also intersects 101 about 1 mile south). Turn from 101 onto the Dike Road. Almost immediately on your right, there is a short road that travels back towards 101. Pull in here and check the brambles for sparrows, of which there often is quite a variety, including a Swamp Sparrow once. A bit further back on this short road is a tiny pond and associated marsh, where Virginia Rail can be found. On the left side of the Dike Road are large fields grazed by beef cattle of the Rose Ranch. In these fields in winter are usually found Canada Geese, Cackling Geese, and sometimes Greater White-fronted Geese.
At high tide, especially when the fields are wet after a rain, shorebirds sometimes roost. Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks sometimes cruise the fields. Snipe can be seen here, and, in winter, Western Meadowlarks are on occasion seen. Turkey Vultures are common in summer. The drainage ditches that criss-cross the fields host waterfowl, including Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Mallards, and Green-winged Teal, and during migration, Wood Ducks and Cinnamon Teal. Savannah Sparrows nest in Bay Center and can be seen in the fields along Dike Road. On the right (northeast) side of Dike Road, is the Palix River which here broadens into Willapa Bay. Many huge flocks of Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Western and Least sandpipers are seen here during spring migration in late April and early May. Significant numbers of Black-bellied and some Semipalmated plovers also are seen.
More modest numbers (though still thousands of dunlin) are present in winter. Other shorebirds seen during migration include Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Greater Yellowlegs, and less common, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, and rarely, Long-billed Curlew. Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, and kingfishers are common year-round. A Great Egret or two are seen most but not all years in the late fall.
As you drive along Dike Road, check the trees for Merlins, Red-tailed Hawks and Peregrine Falcons, especially during migration when large flocks of shorebirds are present. Waterfowl dot the river along Dike Road. Overwintering residents include Western and Horned grebes and occasionally Eared and Clark’s grebes; White-winged and Surf scoters; Common and sometimes Pacific and Red-throated loons; Red-breasted Mergansers; American Wigeon; Common Goldeneye; and occasionally Northern Pintail and Greater Scaup.
In late summer, Brown Pelicans can sometimes be seen lounging on floating docks in the bay. Gulls are generally numerous, especially Ring-billed Gulls and hybrids of Western and Glaucous-winged gulls. Less often seen are Mew, Thayer’s, Heermann’s and California gulls. Caspian Terns are common in the summer. After driving about two miles along Dike Road, you will reach the Dock of the Bay Tavern. Turn right here, cross a bridge and head up the hill into “downtown” Bay Center. You can look around town or drive straight into Bush Pioneer Park. In the park, walk into the woods on a road with campsites on either side. Be careful about walking too close to the edge of the cliff overlooking Willapa Bay, because the cliff walls are constantly eroding and are unstable. As you look out toward the center of the bay, look for Brown Pelicans in late summer and brant in winter. Follow a trail to the right down to a small sandy pocket beach. Once onto the beach walk to the other end and on your right clamber over some logs to another trail that leads across the tip of the peninsula to the river side of the bay.
During migration, you can sometimes get a good view of shorebirds here. In the forest and marsh here at the park, we have seen or heard Downy Woodpecker, kinglets, Red Crossbills, Townsend’s Warblers, Black-throated Gray Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers, Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed chickadees, various sparrows, Steller’s Jays, Northern Flickers, Winter Wrens, robins, Varied Thrushes, and occasional Red-breasted Nuthatches and Hutton’s Vireos. Also around town we’ve seen Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, Band-tailed Pigeons, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Pine Siskins, Wilson’s and Yellow warblers, Vaux’s Swifts, Cedar Waxwings, Swainson’s Thrushes, Common Yellowthroats, goldfinches, House Finches, Bewick’s Wrens, juncos, various swallows, starlings and crows. After leaving the park, head back to the tavern and set your tripometer to 0. Turn right onto the Bay Center Road. About one-third of a mile down this road, turn right onto Ranta Road, a recent real estate development. We’ve seen and heard Olive-sided Flycatchers and Great Horned Owls at the end of this road.
Six-tenths of a mile from the tavern (more if you do the Ranta Road side trip), there is a big dip in the Bay Center Road. Here, there’s a small lake on the left, where sometimes are seen Ring-billed ducks, Mallards, Pied-billed Grebes and occasionally Wood Ducks. At 1.5 miles from the tavern, next to a highway guard rail, is a narrow gravel shoulder that is a good spot to pull over and look for shorebirds. An official, paved pullout is a short bit further along the road, but the birding is not as good there, though it’s probably the best cell phone reception in Bay Center! The Bay Center Road ends up back at U.S. 101 at 3.3 miles from the tavern.
If you have the time and the tides are out, you can walk along the beach that runs along the southwest side of the peninsula. You can get to the beach either at Rhodesia Beach or in downtown Bay Center at the west end of School Street. You get to Rhodesia Beach by turning right off Bay Center Road, one mile from the tavern. Another great way to bird Bay Center is by kayak. There are boat launches at the Bay Center Marina and also on the Palix River at U.S. 101, a very short distance past (south of) the Dike Road, on the east side of U.S. 101. During migration, you can get very close to feeding shorebirds in a kayak, in the section of the river/bay next to Dike Road and also further up the Palix River east of U.S.101. Be aware of winds and tides, because you may fairly sail if the wind and tidal flows are with you and really struggle if they are against you.
If you kayak about an hour out into the bay from the Bay Center Marina to a spot known as Ellen Sands, you will see at high tide an impressive gathering of shorebirds, gulls, raptors and waterfowl. When you kayak in the bay, however, keep a close eye on weather, know the tides, and be careful not to get stranded on mud in this shallow bay. And do not walk on the mud – you may sink and find it impossible to get out. Unusual sightings in Bay Center have included Snowy Egret, Swamp Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Gyrfalcon, White-tailed Kite, Chipping Sparrow, and Black Turnstone.