Text by Wilson Cady
This 5,150 acre refuge was created in 1965 to protect the “Dusky” Canada Goose, a large dark-breasted subspecies whose nesting grounds on the Copper River Delta in southeastern Alaska were altered by earthquakes. A great diversity of other bird species, iincluding Sandhill Cranes are attracted to these oak and ash woodlands, areas of extensive marsh] and wet fields. Although much of the refuge is closed to protect nesting Bald Eagles and other species, there are two units that are open to the public.
Take Exit 14 from I-5 and drive west on Pioneer Street to South Ninth Avenue in Ridgefield (2.5 miles). Turn left here and drive 0.6 mile to the entrance to the River “S” Unit, on the right. The narrow entrance road goes steeply down through a ravine forested with Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Bigleaf Maple where you may find Brown Creeper, Hutton’s Vireo, Varied Thrush (winter), and other passerines.
There are several wide spots along this road where you can park and bird. After you cross the bridge over Lake River, there is a parking lot, restrooms, and a small visitor’s center with maps, a checklist and a dry erase board to check for recent observations. A dike encircles this unit of the refuge and the water levels are managed to provide winter food and resting areas for up to 35,000 geese and 40,000 ducks. Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes are abundant from fall through spring.
Controlling the water level in the numerous ponds optimizes the growth of aquatic plants that provide food for wintering waterfowl. American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, and Soras are common in these heavily-vegetated habitats. Up to a dozen species of shorebirds can be found in late summer when some of the lakes become mudflats. During the summer, mosquitoes can make birding on foot difficult, especially in shaded areas.
Between October 1 and May 1, you must remain in your vehicle as you travel the 4.2-mile auto tour route loop. The only exceptions are at the entrance restroom parking lot and the observation blind at Rest Lake. Use of FRS radios to communicate with other birders is highly recommended as you travel the route during these winter months. Close range observation and photography is possible as the birds get accustomed to vehicles and remain close to the roads without flushing. An exception to this rule is during the Ridgefield Refuge BirdFest held during one weekend every October when there are guided trips into the closed areas.
During the rest of the year you may walk or drive the tour route although bicycles, joggers, and dogs are banned. Red-shouldered Hawks, which have wintered here annually since 1991, can be found from late summer to spring in any of the forested areas along the driving route. Oregon White Ash is the most common tree in the forest of this unit. A good spot to check these trees for migrants or wintering species is along the trail to the observation blind, which overlooks Rest Lake. By walking north, along the slough across from the observation blind parking lot, you may spot Black-crowned Night-Herons roosting in trees over-hanging the water. On your right, just past the observation blind, is the wheelchair-accessible Kiwa Trail, which loops through wetlands with nesting American Bittern and rails. Check areas with cattails throughout the refuge for colonies of nesting Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
After the road leaves the forest it goes around Rest Lake, a large, shallow marsh where Ruddy Duck, Black-necked Stilt, and Black Tern have nested. Between Rest Lake and the entrance parking lot you skirt a large meadow that attracts flocks of geese and numerous raptors.
To visit the Carty Unit go back north after leaving the River “S” Unit to the town of Ridgefield and turn left on Pioneer Street to Main Street (0.4 mile). Turn right at the stop sign and go 1.0 mile north to the entrance, on the left. This non-hunting unit, which is open year-round, preserves a Columbia River floodplain in much the same condition as in 1806 when Lewis and Clark visited the Chinook village of Cathlapotle and its 900 inhabitants. Maps of the Carty Unit and checklists are available at the parking lot kiosk.
Two trails await you on the other side of the footbridge spanning the railroad tracks. Here, a visitor center, housed in a hand-split cedar plankhouse built using the original Chinook techniques and materials, highlights the Native American history of the refuge. The trail to the left goes down a hill and along an old road skirting Carty Lake, then through cottonwood and willow stands with scattered open meadows. The willow forest around these lakes and ponds should be checked for Red-shouldered Hawks. A Vermilion Flycatcher spent one winter in the marsh near Carty Lake where large numbers of waterfowl can be observed. This trail goes for several miles through mixed hardwood forests and open meadows with several trails that branch off that can be explored.
The Oaks to Wetlands Trail, to the right of the Plankhouse, is a nearly-level, two-mile loop that starts under majestic Oregon White Oaks. Western Scrub-Jays are common here. This refuge is one of the few places in the state where one has a reliable chance to see White-breasted Nuthatches of the subspecies aculeata, which once were fairly common from the Vancouver Lowlands north to the Fort Lewis Prairies. This “slender-billed” form of White-breasted Nuthatch is still widespread in western Oregon, but the Washington population is close to extirpation. Where this trail goes to the left, stop at the small bridge over a spring-fed wetland and check for Virginia Rails. The trail continues over basalt outcroppings forested with Douglas Fir to shallow-soiled areas with Oregon Ash and Oregon White Oak.
There are places where you will have good views of ponds and wetlands. In spring, Camas lilies, along with other lilies, bloom on the rocky peninsulas that jut into the ponds. The conifer forest along this trail holds many species not easily found on the rest of the refuge and is always worth checking. Additional information can be found at the Refuge Headquarters at the Carty Unit where they would also welcome reports of unusual sightings.