Wednesday, December 13, 2006

SW ~ Tualatin River Wildlife Refuge: Winter

Date visited: December 1, 2006
Agency: US Fish & Wildlife Service
Path Surface: Gravel
Elevation gain/loss: 40 feet
Distance: Two miles round trip
Ratings: Setting +++ Calorie-burning ++
Directions: To get to the Refuge, drive south on Highway 99W through the town of King City and look for the brown signs. About .7 mile beyond the Cipole Road traffic light, turn right into the refuge. Note that use of the trail is restricted to walking pedestrians. No bikes or pets allowed.

The Tualatin River meanders through Washington County, a thin corridor of nature through the ever-encroaching suburbs. Historically, the river flooded, creating wetland and riparian habitat—an open invitation to a variety of wildlife. That invitation all but disappeared with control of the flooding. The Fish & Wildlife Service has rolled out a new welcome mat, though, by creating the Tualatin River Wildlife Refuge.

Of the 545 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, only a few are close to an urban/suburban population. Unfortunately, signs of proximity infiltrate this refuge. For one thing, you are constantly reminded of the invasion of civilization by the soft roar of Highway 99 traffic. That said, the avian population does not appear to be affected, so we try to block out the sound as well.

The Refuge currently consists of 1,346 acres. Of the five units, only one, the Atfalat'i Unit,is open to the public. Even Atfalat'i access is severely restricted in winter to a single one-mile nature trail. The motto here is “Wildlife First.”

The nature trail begins from the parking lot and eases down a hill to a sapling oak savanna. We chose to focus on the flock of gold and white crowned sparrows that we saw 300 feet from the parking lot instead of the pile of twisted metal just over the refuge boundary ahead of us. From the tangled brush, juncos and song sparrows also dart. Down among the baby oaks, a kestrel hopped from tree to tree, posing just long enough to get the camera out but not for the picture.

Pass by various study sites along the way. In just under a half mile, an expansive viewing platform invites a look at, and sometimes over, the river. Kingfishers rattle by, and chickadees and red-breasted nuthatch dangle from the branches of the sizable douglas firs.

Continuing on brings you across a field to ash and evergreen woods at .7 mile. Finally, there a hush to the traffic noise. Ruby crowned kinglets flit overhead. At a fork, the left leads to an overlook, where a sign warns of a “steep grade” ahead. The grade is not terribly steep, nor is it lengthy, but the view from the overlook is barely worth the effort. In the distance, we saw a huge cloud of red-winged blackbirds rise from the bare trees.

At the one-mile mark and end of the main trail, an even bigger viewing platform surrounds ancient oaks and overlooks brown, scraggly vegetation only wildlife could love. Geese strut their stuff and the glowing white of a great egret emerges from the brown scrub. In the distant bare branches, two red tail hawks trade places, one flying in to perch and the other departing from the same spot.

I haven't even mentioned the waterfowl. That is because the best place for viewing them in winter is not from the nature trail. After returning to the parking lot, walk toward the south edge and start on the trail to the bus stop. Fork right to circle the building to a perch overlooking the ponded flood waters. Set up your scope or whip out your binoculars to see double crested cormorants, northern shovelers, northern pintails, green wing teals, blue heron, lesser scaup, ring-necks, widgeon, etc. We also had a fly-by from an immature bald eagle.

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