Saved by the Wildlife of Smith Cove

//Saved by the Wildlife of Smith Cove

Saved by the Wildlife of Smith Cove

I was homesick when we uprooted from the Bay Area to Seattle, missing my long strolls along the ocean. I discovered a small public park on Elliott Bay in our new neighborhood, a niche of a corner of a park, barely visible on the map. It’s a corner patch of a 7-acre parcel, where a large swath of that space is a soccer playfield. The section on the bay is a small lawn, trees, shrubs and a few benches overlooking port traffic and the cruise ship terminal. It’s a postage stamp on the larger marina, but it’s gritty and complex — an industrial cove with a view to floating hotels and their top-deck pools, tender boats and police patrols.

Holland America Cruise Ship at Smith Cove Seattle

Holland America- ©ingridtaylar

click for larger image - ©ingridtaylar

click for larger image – ©ingridtaylar

Smith Cove Park is populated only occasionally with dog walkers, cruise ship aficionados, marina boaters and a few transient souls who stop there by way of a nearby bike route. I went there for the waters — and for the salt air  — without expectation of wildlife. But, that was about to change — one late April day.

Taking a break from unpacking boxes, I was sitting on a bench there, watching a fishing vessel angle into port.

Fishing Vessel on Elliott Bay

Fishing Vessel on Elliott Bay – ©ingridtaylar

Suddenly, this sound pierced the shipping hum:

I spun around to look for the familiar bird behind the raspiness. Overhead, clear as his call, I saw him:

Caspian Tern over Elliott Bay seattle

Caspian Over Elliott Bay – ©ingridtaylar

This Caspian Tern flew with purpose over the chaos of the port … and toward even more tumult over Interbay … over the warehouse bunkers that were once a living salt marsh, and over the filled, paved, and tracked landscape of Balmer rail yard.

That was my first Seattle tern and, in Joseph Campbell’s terms, this tern was my Call to Adventure — to embrace, appreciate and learn about the nuances of tiny, urban wild spaces.

In a future post, I’ll write about the two-year citizen science project that evolved from this single Caspian Tern sighting. In this piece, I’m posting just a glimpse of the wildness that reveals itself around this little park on Seattle Port property — different days, different light, different species.  They’re not always easy to see, but they show up when I take the time to sit and wait … and watch and listen for wildlife among the tugs, cranes, cargos and masts of a working port. (This act of patience sometimes requires a strong cup of coffee.)

This Osprey took me by surprise and I didn’t have a high enough shutter speed to freeze the wings. This image is testament to the photographer’s adage that you should always look behind you. I didn’t do that, and a whole set of Osprey expeditions took place behind my back before I saw him.

Osprey fishing on Elliott Bay Seattle

Osprey Fishing on Elliott Bay – ©ingridtaylar

Shortly thereafter, I learned this Osprey was the male from a nesting platform on Port property, within distant viewing of Smith Cove Park.

Terminal 91 Osprey Platform Seattle

Port of Seattle Osprey Platform – ©ingridtaylar

I discovered that a pair of Belted Kingfishers frequented this cove, fishing and performing flying miracles in and around the dock pilings.

Belted Kingfisher in Seattle

Female Belted Kingfisher – ©ingridtaylar

I met this river otter while sitting at the picnic table … another shot I wasn’t quite ready for in terms of exposure. Two otters popped out of Puget Sound, periscoping for all of 10 seconds before submerging and never reappearing that day.

River Otter in Elliott Bay

River Otter in Elliott Bay – ©ingridtaylar

On another day, during an extreme low tide, I had a different and distant otter sighting in this cove.

River Otter at Smith Cove Seattle

River Otter at the Cove – ©ingridtaylar

At 5 o’clock one evening, I found this Canada Goose, swimming solo, calling out to what appeared to be no one.

Canada Goose at Smith Cove Seattle

Canada Goose – ©ingridtaylar

A few minutes later, I heard the characteristic call-and-answer heat up between her and a distant voice. After five minutes, he flew in, landed beside her, and engaged in a few friendly hellos. I discovered during return visits at 5pm that these two repeat this routine every evening at the same time.

Canada Goose Pair on Elliott Bay

Canada Goose Meetup – ©ingridtaylar

During a super low tide much later in the season, I captured this family traipsing across low tide mussel beds and seaweed.

Canada Goose Goslings on Puget Sound Seattle

Canada Goslings – ©ingridtaylar

This is also the spot where I captured the Bald-Eagle-Gull-Osprey showdown.

Bald Eagle at Smith Cove Seattle

Bald Eagle – ©ingridtaylar

Young Starlings fledge at this park and feed on the borders of berry bushes.

Starling Fledglings in Seattle

Starling Fledglings – ©ingridtaylar

A few crows nest there as well.

American Crow on Seattle Waterfront

American Crow Foraging – ©ingridtaylar

The Northern Flicker’s distinct call of “kleeer” is always ambient sound at the park.

Northern Flicker at Smith Cove Park Seattle

Northern Flicker – ©ingridtaylar

One afternoon, this Golden-crowned Sparrow popped out from under a fir tree and foraged around my feet at the picnic table.

Golden-crowned Sparrow at Smith Cove

GC Sparrow – ©ingridtaylar

Pigeon Guillemots flit around the port pilings, always at a distance making photos exceptionally tough. Of course, on the day a Pigeon Guillemot came close, the light was absent and I had a scrim of rain between me and the bird.

Pigeon Guillemot at Smith Cove

Pigeon Guillemot – ©ingridtaylar

In the winter, the usual suspects of Puget Sound waterfowl arrive. From that perch I’ve seen Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Scaup, Surf Scoters, and American Wigeons. These female mergansers spot their fish, face down in the water, paddling along like snorkelers.

Red-breasted Mergansers fishing in Elliott Bay

Mergansers Fishing – ©ingridtaylar

Barrow's Goldeneye Flock on Elliott Bay in Seattle

Goldeneye Flock – ©ingridtaylar

Female Goldeneye at Smith Cove Seattle

Female Goldeneye – ©ingridtaylar

Regular visitors all times of year are the Great Blue Herons — Seattle’s official city bird. They fish at low tide, and put on plumage displays like ballets, when one heron encroaches too close to the other.

Great Blue Heron at Smith Cove Seattle

Great Blue Heron – ©ingridtaylar

Great Blue Heron on Elliott Bay Seattle

Great Blue Heron Dip – ©ingridtaylar

Great Blue Heron Display Seattle

Great Blue Heron Display – ©ingridtaylar

I almost always see a harbor seal or two in the cove … less often, California sea lions coming in to exploit the benefits of changing tides.

Harbor Seal on Elliott Bay Seattle

Harbor Seal on Elliott Bay – ©ingridtaylar

Finally, this might be the most unusual wildlife I’ve seen at Smith Cove … a guy in Robinson Crusoe duds who jumped into the cove, chasing a cruise ship out of port.

Crusoe - ©ingridtaylar

Crusoe – ©ingridtaylar

Here’s an overview of the park and port. The red circle shows the location from which I took these shots. 🙂

Smith Cove Park Wildlife Seattle

Smith Cove Park – ©ingridtaylar


  1. CQ August 8, 2013 at 8:23 am

    The last photo blows my mind. To think that so many beautiful birds and marine mammals are in view of such a puny park overlooking a port dominated by hulking cruise ships seems inconceivable to me. It’s as if these varied and vibrant expressions of Life and Love know their favorite photographer has arrived, so they purposely fly in or swim by — just to parade in front of her lens!

    I wish the dolphins from “The Cove” in Japan could find their way to Smith Cove Park in Seattle. Here, their hearts would meet a human heart as big as theirs, and be reciprocally blessed.

    • ingrid August 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      CQ, there’s a book called “Rewilding the World” which, like a lot of my books, I’ve half finished. 🙂 It addresses, among other things, the idea of creating patchworks of green space that link up in chains. It’s one conservation response to the fact that we’ve destroyed or fragmented so much habitat, that we can never revert to pristine nature in those instances. But we can create patches and stopping points and viable swatches of habitat that, when linked together, create a new type of wildness. I’ve come to appreciate tiny habitat spaces in the past many years, first when working on a few-acre parcel on San Francisco Bay that now hosts a number of bird species, and then after moving to Seattle and seeing some of the diversity in what’s left of wild spaces along the lakes and Puget Sound.

      • CQ August 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

        Ingrid, I’m so grateful to learn of that book and of the conservation initiatives it addresses.

        I will add it to my “orders” at the local library. I find when I borrow books that have due dates, the chances of my making time to finish them increase! 🙂

  2. Furry Gnome August 9, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Boy, these are some great bird shots!

    • ingrid August 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      Muchas gracias! 🙂

  3. Glenn Nevill August 9, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Where there is water, there is life…

    • ingrid August 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Glenn, so true. And on that subject … I’ve read some of the recent pieces on the boom in leopard sharks around San Francisco Bay! It’s so excited, even from afar, to see what’s happening in the context of the salt pond restorations. Can’t wait to be back in person to spend time around it all.

  4. susan August 9, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I loved this and have met everyone of the residents and visitors posted. My favorite spot is at the western edge of the yacht club on the slope of grass, bike against a tree, staring into the open Sound. Often, the eagle sits above and the kingfisher dodges in and out.

    • ingrid August 14, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Susan, thanks for the comment and for stopping by. It’s such an interesting place, for juxtaposition against the urban and industrial, and also because of its less-traveled status. That will probably change now that plans are in the works for a larger people-oriented park at this location.

  5. Mia McPherson August 9, 2013 at 4:31 pm


    I love this post and the nature you find in such a small park is amazing.

  6. Sonja Ross August 10, 2013 at 6:58 am

    I’ll be visiting Seattle in early February next year, and this post has made me hope that it won’t be pouring with rain on my free day there so that I can get out and see some of the birds you’ve shown so inspiringly.

  7. Elizabeth August 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Once again- you leave me speechless and amazed and filled with gratitude. Thank you, Ingrid. Thank you.

    • ingrid August 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Mia, as I wrote to CQ above, I’ve become nearly mesmerized at times by how much life small pieces of habitat can actually sustain.

  8. bob August 24, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Excellent photos!

Comments are closed.