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.

Puget Sound Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii, seen at near the parking lot at Nisqually NWR.
Puget Sound Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii, seen at near the parking lot at Nisqually NWR.

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.

Impatiens capensis.  Orange Jewelweed, also known as Spotted Touch-Me-Not and Orange Balsam is an annual plant native to bottomland soils and along creeks.  Photographed here at Nisqually NWR.  It was transported to England and parts of northern and central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Impatiens capensis. Orange Jewelweed, also known as Spotted Touch-Me-Not and Orange Balsam is an annual plant native to bottomland soils and along creeks. Photographed here at Nisqually NWR. It was transported to England and parts of northern and central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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.

Canada Geese are year-round residents at Nisqually NWR.  They find plenty to eat in this fresh--water marsh.
Canada Geese are year-round residents at Nisqually NWR. They find plenty to eat in this fresh–water marsh.
Western Pond Turtle, Clemmys marmorata, seen at Nisqually NWR
Western Pond Turtle, Clemmys marmorata, seen at Nisqually NWR

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.

As seen from an overlook on the Riparian boardwalk at Nisqually NWR

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 unusually windy day made this juvenile look exceptionally scruffy and unkempt.  Low tide at Nisqually NWR saltwater wetlands.
The unusually windy day made this juvenile look exceptionally scruffy and unkempt. Low tide at Nisqually NWR saltwater wetlands.

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 meanders across Shannon Slough in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
This boardwalk meanders across Shannon Slough in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

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.

Seen from Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR.
Seen from Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR.
On the Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR
On the Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR

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.

Seen from the Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR.  A bird expert in the Flickr group Birds of Washington, finally identified this bird as an American Pipit, a migratory visitor.
Seen from the Shannon Slough boardwalk, Nisqually NWR. A bird expert in the Flickr group Birds of Washington, finally identified this bird as an American Pipit, a migratory visitor.

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.

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/

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6 thoughts on “Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

  1. I think seeing all things came naturally to those in generations past; today, we are too busy to slow down, and take in what’s right under our noses! I’m as guilty as anyone, too!

    I love the iridescence of the snake!

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    1. You are right that we are too busy to slow down. I have seen some TV programs about the brain and seeing, recently, and it turns out our eyes only focus on a small percentage of the world around us and the brain fills in the rest of the image from memory and expectation. The key to seeing more, though still not a complete picture, is not to multi-task: no talking, no distractions, no movement, no thoughts going elsewhere. Even then, we can’t see it all, but being too busy or distracted prevents us from seeing so much. When trying to spot wildlife, I am learning to sometimes stop and focus all my brain-power on seeing. That sounds simple, but it takes practice.

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  2. A Citrine Wagtail…huh! No wonder I didn’t recognize it. I never get enough of Nisqually; did you know they are the “parent” refuge to the Grays Harbor NWR? We have been trying to get them to send some of the money spent to upgrade Nisqually to help upgrade our little refuge…to no avail. Maybe if they had we wouldn’t be having such a hard time getting the Port of GH to take us seriously about putting in oil storage tanks right across the road from the refuge! sigh

    Anyway…glad to see your photos and read your posts.

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  3. Hi BC,

    You have taken some super photos. I adore birds, but my bird photography is rarely satisfactory, so I appreciate your photos immensely.

    Bird watching and nature watching, is about pattern recognition too, so practise and concentration certainly helps, but the concentration makes it very tiring – I often go to sleep in the car home, LoL, when I’m not driving of course. some years ago we went for an afternoon walk with a warden in a reserve, and it was brilliant how much more he spotted than we did.

    Having said that, the joy of being surprised by something new, or something rarely seen is marvellous for the spirit.

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    1. Thanks, Andy. My bird photography is seldom satisfactory either, but if I keep shooting and shooting and shooting, eventually I manage a keeper or two. It does take practice and, I am learning, a familiarity with camera settings beyond “auto”. Also, as I am learning, it takes a lot of practice to spot birds, especially in underbrush and shadows.

      The best thing about the joy of discovering something new or rarely seen is that it can happen again and again in different ways, but it can only happen once in each way, so each is precious.

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