RIDGEFIELD, Clark County — A recent Saturday’s showers were no barrier to wildlife viewing.
It sure didn’t matter to the wildlife, with raindrops running off the birds like water off a swan’s back.
And the rain didn’t discourage the viewers. That’s because they didn’t have to leave the comfort of their cars to approach some iconic Northwest birds.
Their route is part of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, a section where people don’t have to go outside to get outdoors.
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The refuge’s River “S” Unit, just south of Ridgefield, is an auto loop, and nature watchers must stay in their vehicles.
Once River “S” visitors are past the check-in station and are on the 4.2-mile auto route, they can leave their cars at only one point. That’s where a short trail leads to a roofed-in observation blind overlooking Rest Lake.
“On a rainy day like today, it’s a great place,” Justin Keeler said as he and his family walked back from the wildlife blind to the parking lot. “You can get out of the house on a crummy day.”
The La Center resident brought three members of his family — son Layth Ula-Keeler, 9; daughter Layali Ula-Keeler, 6; and his mother, Carolyn Keeler, who was visiting from Wyoming.
“We were getting a bit of cabin fever,” Scott McMillan, of Tigard, Ore., said during his group’s stop at the viewing blind. “It’s better on a wet day because there isn’t as big a crowd.”
Not as big a crowd of people, anyway. The birds seemed to be well represented, from water fowl on the lake’s surface to raptors perched on trees or sliding through the sky.
“We counted 13 bald eagles here one day,” Kelly Harbour said inside the viewing blind, as McMillan was photographing a flotilla of white swans on the lake.
Officials have mandated the car-only viewing guideline along the loop so the birds don’t waste energy.
“Birds come here to rest,” refuge ranger Josie Finley said. “We’ve studied them. A slow-moving car won’t disturb them, but seeing a person will flush them out of the water. Their instincts are written over a long period of time, and cars are still relatively new.”
“Every species is different,” Finley said. “But across the board, they’re more comfortable with a slow-moving vehicle than with a predator. A mammal. Us.”
For people who prefer to actually be outside, the refuge’s Carty Unit, north of town, offers a year-round nature walk on the Oaks to Wetlands Wildlife Trail.
While birders come to the refuge for a chance to get of the house and see the birds, the birds come to the refuge because it’s a home away from home.
“In winter, waterfowl are seeking food and a resting place,” Finley said. “They’ve nested, raised their young to a certain size, and they’ve started to run out of food” in Canada and Alaska. “It’s freezing there now.
“Tundra swans are a huge attraction at the refuge now,” said Finley, who also is in charge of the volunteer and education programs. “We’re seeing a lot of bald eagles, lots of geese.”
The Friends of the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge group has a great online wildlife list, Finley added.
“It’s an amazing resource, because you can go back and see if a bird is rare or uncommon,” Finley said.
The Friends’ list, updated the day before this visit, indicated that one of the birds walking right down the side of the road Saturday — a great egret — is considered uncommon: present, but not certain to be seen.
While the refuge offers a chance for migratory birds to recharge their batteries, so to speak, the same is true for some human travelers.
Lucia Faithfull had been visiting family in White Salmon and was heading home to Federal Way when she pulled off Interstate 5 to visit the refuge.
“This place draws me,” Faithfull said. “There’s something magnetic about it.”