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!
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.
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.
With our vacation rental house being situated right on the Columbia River we were eager to visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum and learn all about the famous Columbia River Bar and why it is designated as one of the most dangerous ports of entry in the United States. Today’s very rainy weather made it the perfect day to spend our time investigating the exhibits inside and outside of the museum.
While the exhibits were well put together and informative we did find that the organization of the museum was lacking. The exhibits didn’t seem to be organized in any sequential order, so walking from exhibit to exhibit felt disjointed. However, the museum did a great job of providing information about the history of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean. From the original Native American tribes, to the earliest explorers, through to today’s busy shipping industry that moves goods up and down the river.
There was a lot of information regarding the booming fishing industry that operated in the area and the large number of canneries that were set up along the shores. However, some of the most fascinating exhibits dealt with why the Columbia River Bar is so dangerous to ships and detailed the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred over the years. We enjoyed learning more about how the pilot boat system works and we were impressed to learn that every large trade vessel going up and down the Columbia River must have a specially trained pilot aboard. One for going through the Columbia River Bar and a separate for traveling the river.
Although there were a few hands-on exhibits in the museum, the Younger Fives’ favorite part of the museum was getting to tour the Lightship Columbia which was anchored out in the Pacific Ocean about 5 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River for almost 30 years. We were met aboard by a very helpful museum employee who answered all of our questions about how the Coast Guard helps ships navigate through the bar and up the river. We were then able to explore the inside of the ship where the crew would sleep, eat, and relax when not actively working to help ships navigate between the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River.
All in all the Columbia River Maritime Museum was worth the visit. It wasn’t the most interactive museum that we have visited in our travels and the organization was definitely lacking. However, the wealth of information that it provided regarding the dangers of the Columbia River Bar was just what we were looking for.
This past Sunday we arrived in Washington State for two full weeks of exploring the coast. It has been over a year since we saw the Pacific Ocean and the kids were so excited to get out onto the beach and greet their old friend. Needless to say nobody returned to the house with dry feet 🙂