Low tide is the best time to visit Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, located near Olympia in northwest Washington state. Conveniently for me on the day I visited, that happened at 12:30PM. I arrived at noon and explored the refuge for 3 hours.
Just as I set foot on the boardwalk that would take me through a riparian forest, I spied a snake that I had never seen before. Later research at home revealed that it is a subspecie of garter snake, the Puget Sound Garter Snake. Nothing to fear; it is not poisonous.
I was able to get only a couple of quick shots of this handsome snake before a young girl came tromping along the boardwalk in the opposite direction and nearly stepped on the snake. I yelled. She jumped. And the snake darted back under cover.
Continuing along the boardwalk through the riparian forest section of the refuge, I discovered a new-to-me flower, an Orange Jewelweed.
The boardwalk borders a couple of swamps in the riparian area, so it was no surprise to see some Canada geese and a turtle. A few large dragonflies darted here and there, but I could convince none of them to hold still long enough to snap their picture.
After a pleasant half mile (0.8 km) stroll, I came to a viewing platform alongside the Nisqually River. I paused here to enjoy the view and briefly chatted with another photographer.
Then, it was off the shaded boardwalk and onto a gravel track in full sun as I walked another half mile across a salt marsh. Nisqually is usually windy, but this was an especially windy day, so even though the temperature was around 80°F (27°C), it did not feel hot. Being constantly on the lookout for birds, it didn’t take me long to spy a juvenile Great Blue Heron. Thanks to the wind, he looked even more unkempt than normal.
The gravel track came to an end and the path continued on another boardwalk. This one traverses Shannon Slough, a saltwater estuary. The boardwalk is approximately 1.3 miles long and, much as I would have liked to go to the end, my arthritis was letting itself be known at this point, so I contented myself with going about half mile more before turning around.
This boardwalk is a rare jewel, as it goes some distance across the tidal mud flats. It is such a treat to be able to see the smaller shorebirds, which would be invisible from a distance.
At first, however, I was disappointed that there were so few birds near me, but then I stopped and waited and watched. Immediately, I started to notice the little birds flying here and there, landing briefly, then flying elsewhere. I had noticed only a few while walking, but the moment they had my undivided attention, there they were.
And the treat of the day, was this little bird that I was lucky enough to focus on during the brief moment it was nearby.
On the long walk back to my car, I saw a Northern Harrier raptor hovering above, but was unable to focus my camera on him before he was gone.
Then, as I turned toward the twin barns area (this refuge was formerly a dairy farm with two barns that are still standing), I happened to glance at a little freshwater pond partially obscured by grasses and shrubs and saw this fellow.
This heron stood so still that many passersby did not see him. Near the Twin Barns, Nisqually NWR.
While I stood there, admiring him and taking several photos, other people glanced at the little pond, saw a couple of mallard ducks and would have walked on, except that I pointed out the heron to them.
All in all, it was a wonderful three hours, but I was very glad to get back to the car, where I could sit in comfort and out of the wind for the hour’s drive back home. As I drove, I couldn’t help but wonder about how many things we fail to see. The little girl failed to see the snake, though it glowed brilliantly in the sun. I failed to see the little birds on the mudflats until I stopped and really looked. Several people failed to see a great blue heron standing still less than 20 feet off the footpath. Seeing, really seeing, takes effort and concentration and even then, I suspect, I missed more than I saw during my time here. Ah well, that gives me an excuse to return again some day, doesn’t it?
For more information about Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, including a map of the hiking trails, see http://www.fws.gov/refuge/nisqually/