It’s not like Mount Rainier or Olympic National Parks, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, not the sort of place you plan a trip around. It’s not scenic, there are no mountains, no beaches, no waterfalls, no old growth forests. But I spent more time here than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. I might have spent more time here than all other parks combined. Not because of what it didn’t have, but because of what it did: the auto tour.
There’s a mostly one-way gravel road that winds through the seasonal ponds and lakes of this unassuming little refuge across the Columbia in Washington where for significant portions of the year you have to stay in your car. Because the animals aren’t spooked so easily if you are in your car compared to when you are not, I watched birds and mammals behave naturally from close distances. I met this yellow-headed blackbird, showing off his acrobatic skills as he straddles two stems, at Rest Lake late on a sunny spring evening.
I stayed dry in the rain and warm in the cold. Relatively warm in the cold, I shut my car off when I stopped and sometimes I stopped for hours. I kept an extra coat to drape over my legs on the cold days, extra towels to drape around the car on wet ones. I started playing around with video towards the end once I got a camera capable of good video but it was too late for me to have taken very many, but those few videos joins thousands of pictures in my archives.
I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many hours I sat in my car and watched bitterns hunting at the edges of the lakes. Or watching herons and coyotes hunting voles in the big meadow at the end of the auto tour. Watching the eagles and swans at Rest Lake. Watching red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, song sparrows, common yellowthroats, American goldfinches, all from one spot at South Quigley Lake.
There are a couple of short hiking trails at the refuge, one only open during the warmer months when the cackling geese are gone, but mostly what drew me was the auto tour. Too much so I suppose, I knew I should explore other places more often, if nothing else for the exercise. But I kept having wonderful experiences so I kept coming back.
I haven’t been up as often the past few years, mostly because I was walking Ellie during the hours I would have normally visited the refuge, but Ridgefield I will hold in my heart for all of my days. Goodbye, I love you.
A female American kestrel pulls apart what looks like a mouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on a winter morning in 2006. There are a couple of species of mice at the refuge that I’m aware of, deer mice and Pacific jumping mice, but I have no idea which this is (was). Some predators at the refuge swallow their prey whole, while others like kestrels pull them apart and eat just the parts they want and toss aside the rest.
A coyote pauses in the shadow of a dense thicket of blackberries, invasives that are widespread across parts of the Pacific Northwest including Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The coyote was next to the parking lot at the trailhead for the Kiwa Trail, I got to see and hear it howl in the sunlight before it sauntered up to the blackberries and started down the trail (which was closed to humans, I watched the coyote from my car).
One of the nice features of bird guides on mobile devices, compared to their traditional paper counterparts, is the ability to only show birds you might see in a state (apart from the occasional rarity that has strayed far from its normal course). I used this feature when researching the places we considered moving, to see how many of the birds will be new to me and how many I’m going to have to say goodbye to. Some will at once be familiar and unfamiliar, such as this song sparrow singing from the cattails at Ridgefield’s South Quigley Lake, as while the ubiquitous sparrow does live in Arizona it has a different look from the those of the Pacific Northwest.
This is part of the attraction of the desert for us, it’s a big change from what we are used to, and my hunch is I’ll have fun exploring the landscapes and wildlife there for many years to come. We’ll see if time proves me correct, but I’m optimistic. I am going to miss in particular the auto tour at Ridgefield though, this is by far the place I’ve spent the most time in the Northwest, as well as the wetlands in general.