Field guide to Jetty Island

Jetty Island sits at the mouth of the Snohomish River and Port Gardner Bay. The estuary formed by the mix of salt and fresh water has helped turn a man-made berm into an islan

d teeming with plants and animals. Here are a few:


Pandion haliaetus


raptor has strong feet and talons and hooked beaks for hunting. Osprey frequently dip into the water and pull out a favorite food, the starry flounder. Identify osprey in flight by looking for the wings to make a McDonald’s-like arch. The island’s other birds of prey have straighter wing spans. Spot osprey all along the island.


Fucus distichus

These look like a sea plant but they’re actually algae, not a true plant because they don’t have roots. They’re also known as Dutchman’s pants, because that’s what some people think they look like, or firecracker weed, because they make a satisfying pop when squashed. Spot on the island’s east beach.

Large-headed sedge

Carex macrocephala

This plant’s stem is triangular and on top sits a spiky head. The flowers are either male or female, and sometimes both exist on the same plant. It blooms in the spring and the seeds ripen in the summer. It thrives along sandy beaches, especially on dunes. It’s long underground root system helps keep Jetty from eroding away.Spot upland in drier portions of the island.


Charadrius vociferus

The tawny shorebirds sprint across the sand in spurts. They often nest in tall grasses. When a predator comes too close, the mama killdeer will lure it away from her eggs by feigning a broken wing. The birds earn their name from their call, which sounds like an excited “kill-deer.” Spot around Jetty Island’s lagoon.

Spotted sandpiper

Actitis macularia

This little brown shore bird sports distinct round spots. Maybe its most distinctive trait is the constant bob of its rear end as it walks. It’s not clear why the bird bobs but chicks begin nearly as soon as they hatch from the egg. Another unusual trait: the female sandpiper — instead of the male — establishes and defends the territory. Spot along the island’s shores and at the lagoon.

Moon jellyfish

Aurelia aurita

These jellyfish can get up to more than a foot in diameter but most on Jetty Island are about the size of a soda bottle bottom and they look a bit like that too. Their threadlike tentacles fire away at prey like miniature harpoons when something touches them. They rarely sting people and, if they do, their sting isn’t serious. Spot along the beaches and floating off shore.


Salicornia virginica

This short, succulent plant has been popping up in gourmet restaurants as “sea asparagus.” It does have a salty, pleasant taste. It’s typically found near another similar-looking succulent, Fleshy Jaumea, which is poisonous. So save the sampling for a guided ranger tour. Spot in the saltwater marshes.

Pacific silverweed

Potentilla pacifica

The green leaves sport silver undersides. Step on this plant, and leave behind silver footprints. Yellow flowers appear late spring through summer. American Indians would eat the cooked roots of this plant.Spot in the saltwater marshes.


Grindelia intergrifolia

This plant’s common name comes from its icky-sticky surface. American Indians used gumweed as a treatment for sore throats. It works but tastes awful. The substance under different names is often used in commercial cough medicine. Spot in upland drier portions of the island.

Wild strawberry

Fragaria Chiloensis

This is one plant rangers introduced on the island and it’s doing well. It has shiny, green leaves and sends runners horizontally. Tiny white flowers turn into tart tiny berries. These strawberries are edible. Spot along the south end of the island upland.

Acorn barnacles

Balanus glandula

These creatures start as microscopic plankton floating around the water until they find a rock or other solid surface. They produce a super glue which they use to attach their heads to new homes. Their feathery appendages reach out when the tide is up to pull in food. They need water to survive; they grab a drink and hold onto it as the tide recedes. Spot on beach rocks and the dock.

Saltmarsh dodder

Cuscuta salina

The tangles of orange stringlike matter aren’t mermaid hair. They’re a leafless, rootless plant that create energy not by photosynthesis but by absorbing nutrients and water from host plants such as pickleweed. Although these plants are parasites, they aren’t prolific enough to wipe out their marshland hosts. Spot in the saltwater marshes.

Black cottonwood

Populus trichocarpa

Jetty Island has few trees because its sandy soil lacks the necessary nutrients. An exception is the tough black cottonwood, a quick-growing deciduous tree in the willow family. It’s so tough a hewn stump floated to the island recently and was still sprouting new branches and leaves. Spot a thicket southwest of the dock.

Beach pea

Lathyrus maritimus

This plant produces long tendrils and pretty purple-pink flowers. The seed pods fatten up and the peas are edible, although ingesting more than a few may make unaccustomed tummies ache. Like all legumes, these peas help fix nitrogen in the soil, an essential nutrient for plant growth. Spot upland in drier portions of the island.

Most of the facts in this guide come from the brain of Kraig Hansen, an Everett park ranger and the city’s chief naturalist for 18 years. The city also offers its own flora and fauna guide of Jetty Island, available on the island. Plant scientific names and other facts also were gleaned from the U.S. Forest Service’s species database and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant database.

Explore Jetty Island beginning in July through Labor Day for free by taking a ferry from the 10th Street Boat Launch & Marine Park in Everett. Everett residents can reserve ferry passes; that’s a good idea since there’s often a wait on nice days and weekends. Regular walking tours are offered on the island by naturalists. Private tours also may be arranged. Call the Jetty Island Kiosk at 425-257-8304. Find more information here.

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