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home : columns : columns May 24, 2016

3/5/2013 2:18:00 PM
Nature at Nisqually
Great blue heron preparing to swallow a BIG, alien bullfrog. photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Great blue heron preparing to swallow a BIG, alien bullfrog. photo by Jim Anderson

By Jim Anderson

You know that stressful drive from Portland to Seattle? Take a traffic break and take the Nisqually exit: the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is not more than a mile from the turn-off.

As you pull up to the visitor center (VC), don't miss the juvenile bald eagle perched in the big cottonwoods. Don't get all pushed out of shape by all the cars stacked up in the parking area; once you've paid the fee for enjoying all the wildlife you'll see, start out on one of the trails, or boardwalk, you'll appreciate how big the refuge is. It soaks up a lot of people.

The fee is only $3 - and you can bring three other adults with you, and everyone under 16 gets in free.

You can start your tour by dropping into the VC, which is always a good idea for any park or refuge you visit; it gives you a good "feel" for the time you'll spend exploring the area. But be warned, as soon as you leave the VC and take to the boardwalk, have your binocs and camera ready. The huge riparian forest of towering cottonwoods you enter has enough birds singing, hopping and zooming throughout it to catch your ear and eye to keep you enthralled all day. You may even be late getting to Seattle, or Portland - depending on whether you're going north or south...

That great blue heron to the right was spotted not more than 100 yards from the VC, while we were walking along the Twin Barns Loop boardwalk. It was fascinating to observe the accuracy with which the heron speared the alien bullfrog moving along bottom in the inky, tannin-soaked water. (Bullfrogs are not native to the PNW, and are causing severe damage to native amphibians, and often gobble up baby ducks as well.)

Another 50 yards along the same route we observed a crowd of people standing quietly, all looking intently in the same direction - some with the aid of cameras on tripods, and equipped with long lenses. As we walked up quietly, we spotted a huge old-growth cottonwood with an ancient injury in the trunk, occupied by two half-grown great horned owls.

Seconds later, the crowd watching the baby owls were jolted out of their reverie by a loud commotion on the other side of the boardwalk where one of the parent owls was being harassed by an adult Cooper's hawk.

The best part of all this activity in February is it's taking place in the so-called "off season." I have a hunch it would be impossible to cover even one-tenth of the refuge in a summer day, when the warblers and the other 300 some-odd birds, mammals and amphibians are doing their thing.

The Nisqually River Delta is a biologically rich and diverse wetland at the southern end of Puget Sound with a wide variety of habitats. The freshwater of the Nisqually River combines with the saltwater of Puget Sound to form an estuary rich in nutrients and detritus. Biologically, nutrients support a web of sea life; the benefits of which extend throughout Puget Sound and beyond.

While most major estuaries along the Pacific Coast have been filled, dredged, or developed, Nisqually River's has been set aside for wildlife. In 1974, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the delta and its diversity of fish and wildlife habitats. The estuary was restored in 2009 by removing dikes and reconnecting 762 acres with the tides of Puget Sound. Which makes the refuge the largest estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest and a vital ecological step in the recovery of Puget Sound.

Estuary habitat is essential for migratory birds, but approximately 85 percent of estuarine habitat throughout Puget Sound has been destroyed by human encroachment and development. For this reason, protected lands like Nisqually NWR are critical to the continued survival of migratory birds.

In addition to protecting waterfowl, the habitat diversity that exists in a natural estuary also provides food for seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors. In order to improve habitat for the full range of species present, the refuge recently restored 732 acres of estuary by removing over five miles of dike.

What this boils down to is that U.S. Fish & Wildlife - in cooperation with the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, private and other partners - have provided a refuge for wildlife and people. In season, waterfowl hunters utilize the refuge, and all through the growing season visitors can fill their eyes, ears and heart with the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.

And one of the most thoughtful and easy methods for everyone to enjoy this experience is the beautiful boardwalk that allows handicapped people, parents with children - plus Old Duffers like me - to see and enjoy so much of the refuge, especially the boardwalk that takes you right out into the wetlands.

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