Birding the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

At last, we find ourselves on our first visit to an official birding sanctuary in Olympia, Washington. Where the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the southern edge of the Puget Sound, the estuary habitat is shared by the lands of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, a hunting area by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service, a closed research area by the wildlife refuge, and the bird sanctuary.  It’s okay to be geeky about birds here and we relish in the company of fellow birders of all ages. Young birders sketch bird call frequencies with guides and the visitor center lends binoculars to guests free of charge. We walked along the boardwalk trail with our eyes and ears enlightened for the western birds of this protected area. 

While still new to birding, we haven’t memorized bird calls and depend on visual identification through our photographs that we can compare later with field guides. We walk slowly and quietly so as not to spook any birds that may be along our sightlines, stepping with care to avoid sticks, leaves, and the thundering crunch of gravel. Light steps on grass or boardwalk are the most successful ways for approaching birds at close range with the camera ready. Many birds are also well-camouflaged to their environments which makes birding a bit like a game of “I Spy.” 

Derek seems to have a natural ability for spotting something in the far-off distance that he eagerly attempts to point out to me to photograph. At an overlook of the Nisqually River, I took my time reading the historical signs about the first peoples and native wildlife while Derek squinted across the river scanning the treeline with his binoculars ready. Suddenly, he motioned for me to come to his side with an arm outstretched at a brown blob on a tree branch across the river. It was none other than the white-capped feathers of a bald eagle perched above the river. While we didn’t quite have the focal range on our camera lens for a sharp image, we were able to identify its distinct characteristics with the naked eye through our binoculars. Our first bald eagle sighting in its natural environment, we proudly shared the sighting with the other birders on the dock so they could share in the view of our nation’s favorite bird. It was a successful outing on the banks of the Puget Sound as we racked up Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, a Cedar Waxwing, and a mother Wood Duck with her ducklings in tow. We celebrated our new sightings with a feast at the Dockside Bistro in downtown Olympia followed by a sunset walk along the dock while jellyfish flickered at the surface below.

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