Bird Watching on the Boardwalk: Waterfowl, Raptors, Songbirds Rest, Refuel and Reside at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

OLYMPIA — Rain or shine, on foggy days and clear, at 8 a.m. every Wednesday morning, you’ll find Phil Kelley  at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a birding scope strapped to his back, ready to lead a bird walk.

Kelley lives just down the road from the refuge, a mere 5 miles away. When he retired in Dec. of 2003, he decided to make a commitment to walk the Nisqually NWR each week.

“You have to keep moving,” Kelley said. “I like to stay busy.”

It was through Kelley’s commitment to keeping fit and busy that the Wednesday bird watching group was started.

As Kelley walks the refuge each week, he takes notes on bird sightings and posts them on the Tweeters mailing list (

“After I started publishing my sightings on Tweeters, people began asking if they could walk along with me,” Kelley said. “There were less than a half dozen of us when we started.”

Today the weekly informal birding group is a mixed flock of twenty to thirty birders — some come to walk the boards, see the birds and watch the changes of the seasons nearly every week, others just drop in for a one-day excursion.

They may start early on Wednesday mornings, Kelley said, “but even if you’re late, it isn’t too hard to find us,” Kelley said, “just follow the boardwalk.”

Eric Slagle, of Olympia, is another volunteer for the Nisqually NWR who has been walking the refuge area nearly as long as Kelley.

“This is a really good group,” he said as he walked the boardwalk trail. “We’re focused on learning. We enjoy being outside, sharing the joy of birding, seeing the change of the seasons — it’s a lot of fun.”

What You Can Expect to See

This Wednesday’s walk was covered with a thick layer of fog, but that didn’t slow these birders down. There are plenty of birds to see, close to the trail.

At the first stop along the birding walkway, one member of the group began “pishing” (pish is an imitated bird call — usually a scold or alarm call — used to attract birds) near a likely group of alders. It wasn’t long before a fine group of Ruby-crowned Kinglets was seen flitting through the brush.

“I just saw his red crest!” said an excited birder as she watched the tiny, hyperactive woodland songbird through a pair of binoculars.

And the bird walk was officially off to a great start.

Further down the path, the group came upon a small gathering of Ring-necked Ducks.

“The Ring-necked Ducks are here from December through February, they’re one of the favorites,” explained Shep Thorp, another volunteer with the Nisqually NWR, who just completed Master Birder Certification through the Seattle Audubon Society. “They move inland in the spring to nest, but they’re here with us all winter.”

Thorp was one of a handful of group members carrying a spotting scope and willing to share views with the group.

Pintails, Widgeon, Mallards, Gadwall, Scaup, and a huge flock of various geese were scattered across the waterways and marshes. The booming sound of shotguns firing could be heard from the public walkway, but none were close enough to worry the birders. Even the waterfowl seemed a little blasé about the noise.

In spite of the great numbers of waterfowl seen, the numbers of geese this year are a little lower than usual, Kelley said.

“We usually have about 5,000 geese here by this time of year,” he said, “but right now there’s only around 3,000. Normally the cold would have driven them down already, but we just haven’t had the weather for it yet.”

The group paused for a long while to watch an American Bittern, sitting just a few feet away from the boardwalk railing, as he quietly hunted in the bird-thigh high water.

The American Bittern wears a subtly-colored set of camouflage feathers with stripes on its neck, throat and breast that help it blend into his surroundings. When disturbed by an intruder, the bittern will stop, point his bill up toward the sky, draw his feathers up tight and sway with the motion of the wind-stirred vegetation.

Further down the group spotted a mixed flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows, Bushtits, Chickadees and a Brown Creeper.

“In the winter,” Kelley explained, “these birds will often form a mixed flock and forage together.”

Red-tailed Hawks were commonly seen, as were Northern Harriers and American Eagles.

“There will be more eagles here soon,” said Kelley. “Last year we had upwards of 50 eagles out here in late winter. A lot depends on the salmon run as to when they show up.”

The fog was too thick to be able to see the Snowy Owl that has been hanging around the estuary.

“The last time we saw a Snowy Owl here was 2005,” Kelley said. “There were three of them then. As far as we know, there is only one this year.”

When asked what draws him to come back to the refuge to walk, week after week, Slagle said, “It’s so dynamic here, things are always changing, there’s always something new. And when you come on a regular basis, you get to see some exciting things.”

Just then, near the end of the walk, a small, dark falcon raced by the group flying low, then suddenly took a turn toward the ground and disappeared from view.

“That was a Merlin,” said Slagle, “do you know how you could tell? He’s small and dark and so fast you can’t see him well enough to identify him.”

The remaining trio of bird watchers slowed their walk down the pathway, waiting to see if they were going to come upon a Merlin with his prey.

Slagle grinned, “You see what I mean about ‘exciting things?’ That’s why I keep coming back.”


Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and Outdoors enthusiast who lives in Cinebar.  She can be contacted at, text or call 269-5017.