By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
American Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Canada Geese, Mallards and Red-winged Blackbirds are commonly seen birds in many areas — across all of Lewis County.
Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Harriers, Killdeer and coyotes are common too, but a little harder to find.
But if you want to see an American Bittern, Pied-billed Grebes, Northern Shovelers, Wilson’s Snipe, nutria and all of the previous birds and mammals all in one place — and on a consistent basis — you’ll have to make the drive to a wildlife refuge.
The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a short 70-mile drive south from Chehalis, just past Woodland, and it is worth every mile.
I made the trip on Monday afternoon with my youngest son as my chauffeur, camera lens hand and chief wildlife spotter.
Ridgefield NWR, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, holds 5,218 acres of wetlands, grasslands, riparian corridors and forests. The River ‘S’ Unit of the refuge contains a 4.2-mile auto tour route, an observation blind and (seasonally, from May 1 to Sept. 30) a 1.6 mile hiking trail.
Ridgefield NWR was created in 1965 to provide wintering habitat for the Dusky Goose, the darkest colored goose of the seven sub-species of Canada goose. Changing habitats and predation had severely threatened the survival of the Dusky Goose. The Ridgefield NWR provides key over-wintering grounds for this goose sub-species, other geese, Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, a huge variety of ducks, songbirds and raptors.
The refuge landscape provides a home for nesting American Eagles, Great Horned Owls, Great Blue Herons and many others. It feeds shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds by the thousands. There are 13 species of amphibians and reptiles and 23 verified species of mammals — including the invading nutria — that call the refuge their home.
“The nutria are non-native mammals, originally from South American,” explained recreation planner Eric Anderson. “They were brought here in the 1930s to be raised for a fur trade industry that never really took off.”
Released into the wild, the nutria have since displaced many of the beavers and muskrats native to the area and, like the many native birds and mammals, the nutria have flourished in the refuge environment.
4.2 Miles of Wildlife
The tour of the River ‘S’ Unit of Ridgefield NWR is viewed from the comfort of your motor vehicle — your observation blind on wheels.
From the moment we left the visitors information center until the end of the tour, we were surrounded by wildlife.
A paddling of Northern Pintail ducks, dabbling with their tell-tale long-pointed tails in the air, greeted us at the first lake. This elegant duck is known as the ‘greyhound of the air,’ a well-earned title, I’m sure.
The lakes and ponds were filled with Mallards, American Widgeon, Ring-necked ducks (another favorite) and too many species to count.
As we came to the first turn, we slowed the car to wait for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service truck to pass through the gates and noticed an odd-looking dog trailing behind. It took a few moments for me to realize that it wasn’t a dog (pets are not allowed outside of visitors vehicles at the refuge), but a coyote.
Along one particularly marshy, muddy area of the trail, we spotted a pair of Killdeer working the edge and were so captivated by their dramatically bold plumage that we nearly missed the well-camouflaged mass of Wilson’s Snipe foraging in the mud behind them — a new bird for my personal life list.
Groups of swans, most of them Tundra Swans, were scattered throughout the area. At a distance, they looked like giant down pillows floating in the water.
‘Crazy as a Coot’
Rafts of American Coots paddled through nearly every slough, pond and lake of the refuge.
The coot is a very common bird, seen roaming waterways of every sort throughout the state. But at the refuge you have the opportunity to view this entertaining bird and its ‘crazy as a coot’ behavior from just yards away.
The American Coot has been nicknamed the ‘marsh hen’ or ‘mud hen’ because of the way they bob their heads when they walk or swim. Coots don’t have webbed feet, but their toes are lobed on either side, enabling them to paddle through the water.
They seem part chicken and part eagle — especially in attitude. Coots, like eagles, are kleptoparasitic, which means that when they don’t feel like hunting up their own supper, they’ll steal a meal from another bird.
Raptor Feeding Grounds
Thirty feet in the air, in a tree standing beside the tour trail sat a Red-tailed Hawk, who calmly surveyed his surroundings while a trio of cars, filled with birders pointing long lenses and spotting scopes his way took in the view.
The raptors here don’t seem troubled by the attention; they just go about their business.
Northern Harriers soared overhead throughout the trip, their owlish faces pointed toward the ground as they scanned the area for voles on the move.
American Eagles — some flying so low as to give us a bit of a scare — were abundant and very vocal. We watched as one eagle came in for a landing to take a drink, sending several pairs of nervous Mallard ducks scurrying off for cover.
There is only one point of the tour in which you are allowed out of your vehicle, at the observation blind overlooking Canvasback Lake.
There we came upon a group of University of Portland biology students on a field trip. They had discovered a quartet of tiny Pacific Tree Frogs.
“Sometimes it’s so wonderful out here,” said student Brian Preston, of Portland, as he gently held one of the frogs in his hand for me to see and photograph, “there are so many different frogs here.”
The 1.5-mile long Kiwa hiking trail is only open from May 1 to Sept. 30 because, as the refuge brochure explains, “wild animals, especially waterfowl, are easily disturbed by humans and may be forced to use vital energy reserves trying to escape from their feeding and roosting areas.”
If You Go
Come prepared with binoculars, bring a blanket to keep warm if the temperatures are low (you’ll want to keep your windows open for this trip).
Wildlife watching is best shortly after sunrise and close to sunset. Be aware, however, that the gates to the refuge close at around 5:30 p.m. and your tour will take at least an hour. We spent two hours making the drive, and felt rather hurried at that pace.
The refuge asks for a $3 donation for each carload entering, an annual pass is available for $15.
An informative Audio Tour CD is available now at the Visitor’s Station at the entrance to the auto tour route and also at the refuge headquarters. The CD coordinates with 14 markers set along the Discovery Tour Route.
Check the Friends of the Ridgefield NWR website (www.ridgefieldfriends.org) before you go and print out the list of bird sightings posted the prior week. This list will give you an idea of what you will can see.
“If you see a group of people parked in an area along the road, you can be sure they are watching something interesting,” said Anderson. “Keep an eye out for Great Horned Owls nesting, they’re hard to spot, but usually gather a crowd.”
Sandhill Cranes will be showing up soon, according to Anderson, as well as a large variety of migrating birds making a stopover at the refuge on their way to their nesting grounds to the north.
Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer based in Cinebar. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.