A Driving Blind

As December comes to a close so does our Family Big Year. Although, December is a crazy busy month for us we made time recently to check out the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt of adding a few more bird species to our Big Year list.

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise with over 5,300 acres of water, wood, and field habitat for birds. From October to May visitors must stay in their cars to avoid disturbing wintering waterfowl. However, there is a 4 mile road through the refuge that visitors are allowed to drive, which gives great viewing access. In addition the refuge offers a guided auto-tour via CD that provides an overview of the refuge and the wildlife species that might be seen.

While most of the refuge is closed to foot traffic during the fall and winter there is a viewing blind that remains open and can be accessed via a short path. The blind looks out on one of the ponds and provides a great view of Tundra Swans, Coots, and other waterfowl.

Although, birding while driving can be a little bit difficult (especially for the driver) it is a really great way to see a large number of species in a relatively short period of time. During our visit we counted over 15 different species of birds and hundreds of individuals. We also added one new species to our Family Big Year list bringing our total up to 114!

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Wilderness Wednesday – Steigerwald Lake

We are finally settled in our new rental house in Vancouver, Washington! Leaving Montana and heading towards a more populated area we were afraid that we would lose the access to wild places that we love so much. However, we have been pleasantly surprised with how many parks and wildlife refuges exist in the greater Vancouver area. We were even more delighted to find out that there is a homeschool group that gets together for “Wilderness Wednesdays”. We love to get out into nature whenever possible, but what a great idea to make a special trip to a favorite nature based destination every Wednesday.

For our first “Wilderness Wednesday” we headed east of our new house to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal. When we arrived there were two school buses in the parking lot bringing local school kids to the refuge on a field trip. It was great to see so many kids out in nature. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is is comprised of 1,049 acres of wetlands, woodlands, and field that border the Columbia River. The diversity of habitats makes it a great place to view a variety of birds.

We didn’t have to make our way very far down the refuge trail before we started seeing birds. From song birds to water birds our three hour visit at the refuge was packed with bird sightings. In total we ended up viewing 15 species of birds, four of which were new species for our Family Big Year. On our way down the path towards the Columbia River we were most excited to spot three Hooded Mergansers. The coloring of the male is really something!

However, our trip back from the Columbia River to our car was even more exciting as we passed by a small section of woodlands and heard an owl hooting. We stopped to listen and used our best owl imitation to hoot back. The owl responded and we called back and forth for several minutes before spotting the owl tucked up close to a tree trunk. It took a while before we got all five of us to clearly see the owl and just as we were able to leave a second owl swooped down and perched on a lower branch giving us an amazing view. We were able to snap some great shots of what we can now tell was a Great Horned Owl (although it looked really wet). Then both of the owls flew off over the water to a second patch of woodland. It was really an amazing sight!

When we finally made it back to the car we were exhausted. Even though we had only walked about 2 1/2 miles we had worked hard looking, listening, and observing new bird species. It turned out to be a very successful Wilderness Wednesday and we can’t wait for the next one.

Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve

June has been a busy month and we have found very little time to go out birding as a family. Fortunately this past Sunday our schedule freed up and we were able to head south along Flathead Lake to explore Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve. The preserve is made up of 132 acres and is managed by the Nature Conservancy. The area is home to a wide array of wildlife, but our main goal was to see some new bird species in and around the marsh.

At first the Younger Fives were a little put off by the Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve as there is no designated trail. We had to remind them that when we lived in Maine one of their favorite activities was bushwhacking through the woods. A little ways in we found a rough foot path to follow and that made them a bit happier. Five String concluded that we have spent too much time on the well worn trails of the Montana park system lately and need to seek out more secluded spots. The Younger Fives countered that being told that bushwhacking was involved and to wear long pants would have been appreciated.

Luckily any further family bickering was averted a short ways into the preserve as two Calliope Hummingbirds alighted on a tree just in front of us. This was our 88th species to date in our Family Big Year. The coloring of the male was gorgeous, but hard to capture on film. The Calliope was the only new species that we encountered at the preserve, but we did see a number of birds that we have already recorded including red wing blackbirds, turkey vultures, and tree swallows.

All in all the outing was a success. It was really nice to be off the beaten path away from hikers, dog walkers, and bicyclists. As Montana is really starting to get busy with an influx of tourists it is nice to know that places like the Safe Harbor Marsh Preserve exist as a reprieve.

We Won the Sharp-tailed Grouse Blind Lottery!!!

Back in February Five String entered us into the Sharp-tailed Grouse Blind lottery at the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t really think that we had a chance in winning as the spots are limited and the blind is only open to the public three days a week between April and May. So, we were super excited when we received an email a few weeks ago telling us that there had been a cancellation and that the April 28th spot was now ours if we were still interested.

During mating season male Sharp-tailed Grouse display in a communal fashion to attract females. They do this at a site know as a “lek” which is usually a flat area free of dense vegetation. The lek or “dancing ground” where the grouse blind is situated at Benton Lake was first observed in 1988 and Sharp-tailed Grouse have been returning to it every year since.

Visitors to the blind are required to arrive one hour prior to sunrise so that they don’t disturb the grouse. For us this meant leaving our hotel in Great Falls at 4:45am. The Younger Fives were troopers at getting up and dressed even though it was pitch dark outside. From the auto road at the refuge we then had to walk about 400 yards through the dark, avoiding ground squirrel holes until we reached the blind. The grouse blind was built by an eagle scout and has seating room and viewing windows for six people.

As soon as we reached the blind we could hear that grouse already on the lek. We tiptoed inside, took our seats, and enjoyed listening to the sounds of the grouse while we waited for the sky to lighten. In no time at all we were able to view the male grouse as they displayed. Their orange eye combs and purple air sacs are really quite the sight. We were all impressed by the noise that their feathers make as they dance. We stayed at the blind for over 2 hours and while it was a chilly 40 degrees outside we were comfortable inside the blind. During our visit we were able to count 45 males and 2 females. Five of Hearts put together a short video of what we saw, so that you can share in the experience.

Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

We were all really excited to visit the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge near Ilwaco, Washington on our recent vacation. The refuge is made up of units near and along the Long Beach Peninsula. The variety of habitats from old growth forest, to marshes, and open ocean make this refuge a great place for bird watching, hiking, and just enjoying the coast. The Cutthroat Climb at the Headquarters Unit was a huge hit with the Younger Fives. You will definitely want footwear that can get wet during the spring. The Leadbetter Unit at the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula was great for birding along the bay, but the trails to the ocean were all flooded past thigh level. We ended up visiting the refuge on several days and would love to return to do some camping on the island portion of the refuge.

Cutthroat Climb at Headquarters Office

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Leadbetter Unit