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A Winter Day Trip to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge with a Ring-necked Pheasant

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On our trip to Theler Wetlands we ran into a birder who told us to make sure to visit the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. We have driven past here many times on trips south to Portland, it is right off I-5, very easy to get to but not too close to Edmonds where we live. The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is a place where year round you can see many different species of birds, during spring and fall migration thousands of birds move through here and they even research bird migration here at the refuge. Even on a winters day we found many birds and can’t wait to go back during migration season!

We started our walk heading on the east section of the Double Barn Loop Trail towards the Riparian Forest overlook. Check out the map here. We believe we spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk in this area, but it did not stay still and was not too close so we weren’t able to get a photo. Moving around the loop we heard lots of frogs but there was not much bird action in the wooded area on this day – at the end of the loop the trail connects to the Estuary Trail.

This is where we found most of the action today – we saw some low flying large predator birds which we were told maybe Northern Harriers based on their flight patterns. We ran into another birder who has been coming here for years but says he’s been unable to snap a shot of the Harriers and today our luck was not better but keep an eye out for them if you visit! The first thing we were actually able to get a photo of wasn’t a bird but a salamander – this is exciting for me as I’m always looking for salamanders, frogs, and turtles but don’t often have much luck. This little guy was crossing the trail so quite an easy find! I believe this was a Northwestern Salamander, common to the PNW.

Soon after finding the Salamander we found the prize of the visit – a male Ring-necked Pheasant! These large colorful birds do a great job of blending into the tall grass but we were able to spot it and get a couple of good pictures. They’re not too common in our area but can be found near the Puget Sound or in Eastern Washington farmland.

After spotting the pheasant we moved out into the open area where that leads to a long boardwalk that follows McCallister Creek as it empties into the Sound. To the left is a ponds/marsh area with lots of ducks and other marsh birds, to the right the saltwater or in our case mud flats as the tide was out. We saw a large flock of American Wigeon, American Coot, Mallards, Northern Pintail ducks, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Western Grebe, and some Greater Yellowlegs. There were many Great Blue Heron‘s here as well but one particularly old one with a nice beard we were told was always around and ready for a good phot. Not to mention many gulls and likely other ducks we weren’t able to identify as well as some Harbor Seals playing in the estuary. And there were of course some very large bald eagles hunting, we saw one take a duck out of the water and fly it back to it’s nest!

The Eagles were not the only one’s hunting the ducks – the only negative on the day was they allow duck hunting just across the creek this time of year! It is a little alarming to hear very loud gun shots and then see the hunters while out out birding. On our way back near the pond near the parking lot we were lucky to see a Yellow-rumped Warbler snatching mosquitos near the pond by the visitor center, it was kind enough to sit still for a photo. We will certainly be back soon in hopes to find the Harrier and birds migrating back north in the spring time!

Things to note:

  • No dogs are allowed due to this being a wildlife refuge so plan to leave them home or make sure they have a safe place to hang while you explore.
  • Wear waterproof boots for best access so you can set yourself up for a great shot regardless of the weather or ground conditions.
  • Head down to Lacey or up to one of the many Tacoma brew pubs for a bite to eat after a day of nature
  • Be aware of hunting season – if you don’t enjoy loud gunfire you’ll want to skip this area though I don’t think the hunting seasons are long
  • Please check out our resources page to learn more about the camera we used to take these shots!

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