The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex (HBNWR) has several different units totaling almost 4,000 acres. These units consist of a mosaic of mudflats, estuarine eelgrass meadows, saltmarsh, brackish marsh, seasonally flooded freshwater wetlands, riparian wetlands, streams, coastal dunes, and forest. These habitats support over 316 species of birds and 40 species of mammals. The refuge also provides habitat for approximately 100 species of fish and marine invertebrates, many of which contribute to sport and commercial fisheries, including steelhead, coho and chinook salmon, and Dungeness crab1. Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex is located at the south end of Humboldt Bay in Eureka, about 260 miles north of San Francisco, California.
As I approached the Visitor Center, a Great Egret (Ardea alba) was spotted in one of the freshwater marshes along the road (click on photos for full sized images).
A map of the Humboldt Bay area beaches, dunes and wetlands which encompasses several public wildlife areas can be viewed here provided by the Friends of the Dunes. Below is a map of the HBNWR showing the location of its three units that are open to the public, the Salmon Creek Unit, Hookton Slough Unit, and Ma-le’l Dunes Unit. The Lanphere Dunes Unit is accessible only by permit or guided tours (contact Friends of the Dunes).
One of the main goals of Humboldt Bay NWR is to provide all sectors of the public with quality wildlife observation and wildlife photography opportunities. Once at headquarters, a universally accessible deck and short boardwalk attached to the Richard J. Guadagno Visitor Center provides a wildlife observation area for all visitors, including those with severe mobility challenges.
You can get a good overview of the refuge complex from the plaques just outside the entrance door. Inside the Visitor Center itself are stunning dioramas, interactive displays and a beautiful observation room equipped with telescopes and a ‘Kids Corner’ full of books and activities for young nature enthusiasts. Binoculars and a “Discovery Pack” are also available for checkout. Discovery packs include identification guides for plants, animals, tracks and scat, binoculars, magnifying glasses and a field notebook.
The Shorebird Loop Trail (1.7 miles round trip, see map above) adjacent to the Visitor Center is level and consists of gravel and packed dirt. The trail provides visitors with wildlife viewing and photography opportunities beginning at the boardwalk as you leave the center.
A little farther down on the south side of the trail there is an observation kiosk that can act as a photography blind …
with interpretive signs…
and a beautiful view of the adjacent wetland habitat.
On the north side of the trail, beyond the marshland, you see a huge old barn…
and just beyond the old barn, a view from the “WildWing” wetland deck looking West toward Humboldt Bay.
Interpretive signage is an important aspect of any National Wildlife Refuge to help educate the public about wildlife and the ecosystems that support individual species. Humboldt National Wildlife Refuge has made this a priority with many interpretive signs like this one describing “Avian Hunters” inhabiting the refuge.
When visiting any coastal wildlife area the tides may have a huge influence on what species you may see during your visit. Shorebirds and waterfowl may be abundant in a saltwater marsh near high tide and virtually absent at low tide.
Unfortunately, we ended up at Long Pond at low tide observing only a few Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) on the mudflats. You can view or download a copy of the current tide table for the refuge here.
This is how the saltmarsh appears at low tide, looking back at Salmon Creek from the Shorebird Loop Trail. It slowly fills via a tidegate which is part of a restoration project to return Salmon Creek to its natural state as a tidal salt marsh with complex slough channels.
At or near high tide we may have seen any number of shorebirds that were most likely out on the bay at this time.
In part 2 of this tour of Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge we will head back toward the visitor center and check out the birds nesting around the old barn. Then we will head over to Hookton Slough and the South Spit.
The refuge does have a photo blind that you can reserve at no charge and you can also download their list of Watchable Wildlife, both in PDF format. You can also view or download the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge brochure which is full of information about the refuge and find several maps of the area on their map page.
References:1USFWS Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge