A yellow-headed blackbird stuffs his beak full of insects, destined for his hungry family back at the nest, as he straddles plants just above the waterline. Taken at Long Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in May 2011, the yellow-heads didn’t often come as close as the more ubiquitous red-wings but it was such a treat when they did.
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.