Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is opening a new boardwalk trail into restored estuary just in time for winter birding.

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NISQUALLY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Thurston County — As the light fades and the tide creeps out to sea, they come by twos and threes, their wings whistling in the evening sky: ducks, alighting on the mud flats for supper.

This sight, so ordinary, is extraordinary here. For more than 100 years the tide was fenced out of this estuary with dikes. But beginning in the fall of 2009, the dikes were removed, and the tide welcomed back to 762 acres of the refuge. Combined with parts of the estuary already restored by the Nisqually Tribe, nearly a square mile of habitat has been returned to its natural state, the biggest nature reboot north of San Francisco Bay.

The restoration project, totaling about $13 million, is already working. Salmon started using the newly available habitat immediately, not only those from the Nisqually watershed but beyond, including chinook, coho, chum and pinks. Tags were recovered from hatchery salmon reared from as far away as northern Puget Sound.

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Part of the project involved closing the loop trail that used to circle the refuge atop those dikes, beloved by birders and walkers from near and far. But by the end of the month, the refuge will open the first section of a new boardwalk trail, allowing birders and other nature enthusiasts to walk out in to the newly restored estuary for the first time.

“We are so excited that people will get to be deep in the heart of the Nisqually estuary as it is restored,” said Refuge Manager Jean Takekawa. “It is a very different experience. Before, you were at the edge, looking in from afar. Now you just feel like you are a part of the landscape.”

By Feb. 1, the refuge will open the entire trail, just over a mile in all, out to its terminus at an octagonal viewing platform, with 360-degree views of Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, the Olympics and the mouth of McCallister Creek.

The project is the payoff for more than a year of waiting to access this special habitat once again, and the boardwalk sports features not available on the old trail.

The walk begins with an elevated viewing tower, providing sweeping views over the estuary. A photo blind, including slots cut for kids as well as those using wheelchairs, is a photographer and wildlife watcher’s dream.

The trail itself is laid out in a pleasing meander, rather than a dull beeline, and includes pushouts along the way, inviting walkers to pause and take in the view.

Work on the boardwalk trail began in April.

Much care was taken in the details. The hand rails are wooden and sanded smooth to make them pleasing to the touch. The rails are set lower in many areas to allow unobstructed viewing for kids, or from a wheelchair. Wire grating between the railing posts is an extra-wide grid, for an airy appearance that obstructs the view as little as possible.

The experience of the trail is quite different from the old gravel loop trail, almost like paddling a kayak, with its path through the water that surrounds visitors in every direction.

Everywhere is a reminder that this is no lake: It is a tidal estuary. Saltwater eases through dikes cut to allow the water to once again access the old sloughs and side channels that were here all along — more than 20 miles of creeks and sloughs that salmon and birds use to rest, hide and feed.

On a recent winter day, the clouds in every shade of lavender and gray were reflected in the quiet water, and Mount Rainier rode the horizon, snowy white. The winter palette of white, gray and umber had the feel of an antique lithograph — only this landscape was richly alive, as the tide sighed through the channels, and wigeons whistled.

Eagles were here and there, both juveniles and adults, and great blue herons walked with a stiletto gait through the shallows.

The new boardwalk trail is 100 percent accessible for people using a wheelchair and at 8 feet wide, comfortable for walking with companions. Because it pushes so far out into the estuary, it allows a visual immersion at both high tide and low.

“You could spend a whole day here, watching all the changes,” Takekawa said. And it’s true: The light and cloud cover change and the water levels build and recede, bringing different birds that utilize deeper or shallower water, or exposed mud flats.

The first piece of the trail will be open by the end of the month — no date certain has been set yet — just in time to enjoy the winter birds in the refuge.

American wigeons, green wing teal, Canada geese, dunlin, yellowlegs, northern pintails are all here to enjoy, along with those glorious standbys, bald eagles, great blue herons and belted kingfishers. A white egret was thrilling birders lately, a surprise visitor out of its usual southern range.

“You never know what you are going to see,” Takekawa said, “and it is different every day.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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