From the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge brochure:
“Any meeting of a river and a sea is a place of change … It will be proof of our ability to survive … if we learn to respect wild places like the Nisqually Delta, to trust them for their naturalness, and to love them for their power to move us.”
~Victor B. Scheffer, Scholar and Author
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Washington was a vibrant delta — part of the magnificent Puget Sound estuary — before the land was converted to a farm in the early 20th century. During the period when wetlands around Puget Sound were being drained, developed, sold and industrialized, the Nisqually Delta area was diked to create acreage for Alson Brown’s farm. Brown was ahead of the curve (the industrial farming curve) with his egg incubators, tractors and refrigerators. But in a succession of events over the years, including financial hardship for Brown, the farm eventually lost its profitability.
You can see remaining Twin Barns in the distance, in this photo. The view is looking back from the boardwalk, toward the Visitor Center.
It was a grassroots effort to save the Nisqually Delta in 1974 that led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase 1290 acres of the Brown Farm, turning it into Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This Refuge is now home to hundreds of species, including more than 200 bird species, various mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish. For several years, a Great Horned Owl pair has nested near the Refuge boardwalk and just last week, the parents successfully fledged two robust owlets. Nisqually is a wintering ground for migrating ducks and shorebirds, and provides habitat for river otters and minks, coyotes and deer, along with salmonids and forage fish of the estuary.
Nisqually Delta is a vital estuarine area for the Pacific Northwest, especially when you consider that much of Puget Sound’s wetlands have disappeared to development. According to the Alliance for Puget Sound Shorelines, 75 percent of Puget Sound’s salt marshes have been destroyed, which translates into dramatic losses for species that depend on nearshore environments. As such, Nisqually isn’t just a tantalizing span of marshes, waterways, boardwalks and views of Mt. Rainier. It’s a critical, ecological stalwart at the south end of Puget Sound.
The highlight for visitors is a new boardwalk completed in 2011. The boardwalk was part of a three-year Nisqually Delta plan to restore 762 acres of estuarine habitat. The old farm dike was removed, sending the natural flow of Puget Sound waters back into the wetlands. From the Visitor Center to the end of the boardwalk, it’s a two-mile hike out into the estuary, with the reward of wildlife sightings and views of Mt. Rainier — when the old volcano isn’t obscured by clouds, that is.
Following the boardwalk to the sea, you’re suspended on planks over Puget Sound.
It’s remarkable to travel that far, on foot, out over the marshy mud of the estuary … nudged along by salt breezes and surrounded by the musical score that is this marsh life: the chatter of Bald Eagles across McAllister Creek, the pattering of dabbling ducks rooting through the mud, the faint crackling of frogs hiding out in grass tufts … herons croaking as they stake out tidal ponds for lunch. This panorama shows the last section of the boardwalk, as it culminates in an observation platform at the end:
Here, Mount Rainier becomes gradually visible as clouds lift. Earlier that day, Mt. Rainier was completely socked in and invisible.
Who and what you see at Nisqually NWR depends on the time of year, the hour of the day, and the tide tables. From winter through early spring, you’ll find waterfowl, some shorebirds, and raptors like Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls. Many songbirds and swallow species return in the spring and stay through the summer. Birds like herons can be seen year round, as can some of the non-bird species like coyotes who make Nisqually home.
On this February day with a super-low tide, I saw random Refuge residents: one of the fledged Great Horned owlets, sleeping near a parent and shielded by a thicket of trees; several Bald Eagles, both adult and sub-adult; ducks including Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teals, Northern Pintails, Mallards, and American Wigeon; a Northern Shrike; several Great Blue Herons; Canada and Cackling Geese along with two Greater White-fronted Geese; Mew Gulls and Ring-billed gulls; a Belted Kingfisher; and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A few birders who arrived earlier in the day told me they’d seen Peregrine falcons and a coyote roaming the grounds.
A huge flock of mixed geese, both Canada and Cackling, descended on the refuge in a mad foraging spree before sunset.
Despite deadline pressure, I couldn’t bring myself to leave after arriving later in the day, so I was one of the stragglers, tramping back to the parking lot before the gate closes at sunset … which is still early in this part of the winter world. Along the way I saw these Ring-necked Ducks by fading light, in the freshwater ponds.
And … I watched the moon rise through gnarled branches, as the sun dipped below the treeline.
Here’s a patchwork of footage I shot while exploring the boardwalk trail at Nisqually:
Some Winter Birds at Nisqually NWR
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Information
- Location: Off I-5, eight miles north of Olympia, Washington
- Website: www.fws.gov/refuge/Nisqually
- Directions & Information: Plan Your Visit
- Entrance fee: $3.00 (2012/2013). For other fees or discounts, see the website
- ** Note: The last section of the boardwalk is closed during waterfowl hunting season (mid-October to late January), since hunting is permitted around the far end of the boardwalk area and on McAllister Creek. A sign at the closure gate says: “Visitors will see and hear waterfowl hunters.”