MARCH POINT — In the years since a local couple donated a forested 3.5 acres on March Point to the Skagit Land Trust in 1994 to protect a great blue heron nesting site, the trust's protective reach in the area has grown to 12.2 acres and the number of nests to more than 700.
The land trust now has an opportunity to add another 3.5 acres to the home of the large, primarily fish-eating birds.
"This is fantastic heron real estate," Skagit Land Trust Executive Director Molly Doran said during a digital event introducing the opportunity Monday.
A private landowner is giving the land trust an opportunity to purchase the property before officially putting it up for sale. The land trust has until Aug. 1 to secure $70,800 for the purchase.
"Even though it is in the midst of the industrial area of Anacortes ... there are numerous types of trees which are quite tall," Doran said of the herons' need for for high, sturdy nesting sites. "But the most important aspect is the proximity to Padilla, Fidalgo and Similk bay eelgrass beds for foraging."
While the existing 12.2-acre nesting site, called a heronry, is well used and has seen an increase in the number of herons at the site, speakers Monday said being able to add adjacent land is important.
If the land is sold to another buyer and developed, any construction activity or new use close to the heronry could disturb the birds.
"The bottom line is that any activity this close to this heronry could be catastrophic," Doran said.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife lists great blue herons as a priority species because of their reliance on specific habitat such as that seen at March Point to breed and raise their young.
According to a number of Fish and Wildlife documents published since 2008, the fact that herons gather at such sites annually to breed makes them vulnerable. If something impacts that habitat — such as a wildfire or human disturbance — the population could decline rapidly.
"Early termination of even one breeding attempt can lead to a considerable loss of offspring," a Fish and Wildlife document states.
That happened at a heronry on Samish Island, when something spooked herons in 2017 and they abandoned their nests — and the young birds within them.
The reason that heronry was abandoned isn't known, but preventing new development is one way to help prevent it from happening at March Point.
"We need to protect everything we can," Doran said.
March Point is an ideal nesting site because of the protected forest, the buffer of white noise provided by nearby Highway 20, and easy access to food at low tide.
"If you are a heron, you want to nest there because all seven of the types of fish that are their preferred types for eating are found there," Doran said of the eelgrass-rich portions of the surrounding bays.
Herons have nested at the site since at least the 1950s, according to the land trust. The birds' use of the site grew as smaller heronries throughout the region disappeared or became unusable due to development.
"With the loss of much of their nesting habitat, small colonies combined in the last best places to become mega-colonies," a land trust project page states.
The March Point heronry is now the largest on the West Coast, supporting a population of about 3,500 of the birds, according to land trust estimates.
The 3.5 acres now available to the land trust would enable the heronry to be able to accommodate more birds.
"March Point is unique. There are not many places with trees tall enough and strong enough to support heron nests ... adjacent to the extraordinary eelgrass beds of Padilla Bay," Skagit Land Trust board member and volunteer Anne Winkes said. "What the March Point herons don't have is room for their colony to expand."
The land trust has been interested in these 3.5 acres for decades.
"Now that the landowner is ready to sell, we’re excited to add it to the March Point Heronry Conservation Area," land trust Development and Outreach Director Laura Hartner said.