Birding Steigerwald

National Wildlife Refuge Area

by Wilson Cady (photos by Sherry Hagen)

 

The protection of the Steigerwald Lake area was the first conservation project taken on by the Vancouver Audubon Society when the chapter was formed in 1975. Ten years of work led to it becoming a National Wildlife Refuge, and in 2009 it was opened to the public. This formerly seasonal floodplain lake, located on the eastern boundary of Washougal, in Clark County, is the southernmost spot in the state. With its location at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge and at the foot of the Cascade Mountain Range a migration crossroads is created. Birds following along the foothills and those traveling through the near sea level break in the mountains may be encountered here. Over 200 species have been recorded on this 1,049 acre refuge including White-faced Ibis, Surf Scoter, White-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Gyrfalcon, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Gray Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Sage Thrasher, and Lesser Goldfinch.

COTTONWOOD BEACH

To get to these access points return to the Highway and drive east to the 32nd Street entrance into the Port of Camas/Washougal on your right. Right after you turn off the Highway there is a pull-off on the right side of the road that affords views of a remnant channel of Gibbon痴 Creek. On the right side of the road the creek is tree and brush lined, check for Green Herons and Wood Ducks on the floating logs and overhanging branches. Across the road the creek goes through a large marsh where bitterns and rails are common. (photos below)

STEAMBOAT LANDING

The first birding stop is at Steamboat Landing Park just east of milepost 16 on the Lewis and Clark Highway (Highway 14). This park on the Columbia River has a floating fishing dock from which you can scan the Columbia River for loons, grebes, and diving ducks over the rocky reef just downstream. The parking lot here gives you access to the west end of the dike that now separates Steigerwald Lake from the Columbia River. There is a road on top of the dike that is open to the public for about 3.5 miles as a walking, biking, and equestrian path, do not cross any fences onto Refuge or private property. You can also access the dike from several other spots to reach the birding spots with much shorter walks.

WALKING the DIKE (from the Park)

To walk the dike you can either leave your vehicle in the beach parking lot or park at one of the two other road accesses that are farther east. As you head east, off shore is Reed Island, an undeveloped State Park with a Great Blue Heron Rookery. Check the shallow protected waters between the island and the dike for loons, grebes, and diving ducks and the open fields for geese, cranes, and raptors. Along the dike there are white posts with mileage marks on them, the barns at mile 1.25 often have wintering sparrows around them.

CHECKING for SHOREBIRDS

Drive past the park to the west end of the road where you can climb the dike to check for shorebirds on the Columbia River sandbars, when exposed during low water. From the dike looking North you can see part of the old creek channel with a bridge-like weir that keeps debris from reaching the pumps that help keep the industrial area dry. Green Herons perch on this weir and can sometimes be seen roosting on the crossbeams beneath it.

WASHOUGAL SEWAGE LAGOONS

 

Go back to 32nd St. and North to the highway and turn right. At milepost 17.5 are the Washougal Sewage Lagoons, you can view these from the entrance road or from the highway shoulder. Wood Ducks are abundant in both spring and summer; other birds seen here have included White-faced Ibis, Tufted Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Black Phoebe, and Palm Warbler in the trees to the west.

VISITOR担 CENTER & GIBBONS CREEK TRAIL

Along the highway as you travel east the shoulder is wide enough that you can safely park to scan the refuge fields. The entrance to the Refuge Visitor痴 Parking lot is at milepost 18.1. There is an informational kiosk where you can read about the refuge and pick up maps and checklists plus a restroom. Here you can see how Gibbon痴 Creek was put into a raised aqueduct to get it across the wetlands at a height sufficient to clear the dike at the Columbia River. From the Visitor痴 Parking Lot the Gibbons Creek Art Trail goes through the wetlands to the dike. The total round trip on the trail is about 2.75 miles, even when the trail along the North side of the creek is closed from October 1st to May 1st. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards are working on removing non-native plants and replacing them with native trees and shrubs. Cattail patches have reappeared and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a species that formally nested here are being seen again. Thousands of geese and ducks use these fields and the ponds during the winter. Back on Highway 14, just past the railroad overpass at milepost 18.9, is a large viewing area, a spotting scope is a necessity from this vantage point. Gyrfalcon, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet and Short-eared Owl have been seen from here.

Continue south on 32nd Street to the dike where there is a parking lot and a trail over the dike to Capt. William Clark Park on Cottonwood Beach. Between the dike and the sandy beach there is an extensive riparian forest of cottonwood, ash, and willows. This forest is excellent in migration for passerines and Bullock痴 Orioles are conspicuous nesters. Camping is allowed here with a permit from the Port of Camas/Washougal, 24 South A St. Washougal, 835-2196.

Just past these barns the refuge property begins, and there is a shallow Red-tail Lake which is good for nesting American Bittern and wintering waterfowl. The Gibbons Creek Art Trail goes from here across the refuge to the visitor痴 parking lot on Highway 14. A description of the Art Trail is given below starting from the Highway 14 parking lot. At milepost 2 is the Gibbon痴 Creek Fish Ladder which allows salmon and steelhead to pass over the dike. The east entrance to the Northern section of the Gibbons Creek Art Trail is here too, be aware that this section of the trail is closed from October 1st to May 1st to protect wintering geese from disturbance. A large Purple Martin colony near the fish ladder has produced enough birds that they have re-colonized the snags on refuge, one of the few spots in Washington that they use natural cavities for nesting. The cottonwood forest on the refuge is in long rows parallel to the river and mark what were the tops of sandbars when this area flooded on an annual basis. Here you may find nesting House Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Lazuli Buntings. In another .5 mile you will come to a fence across the dike marking private property where you will have to turn around and return to your vehicle.

The Dike Trail from the Park

Gibbon痴 Creek Channel

Looking West

Gibbon痴 Creek Channel

Looking East

Wood Duck Tufted Duck Palm Warbler

Steigerwald NWR Gibbon痴 Creek Parking Lot Trail of bridges & gravel Trail through marshes & woodlands

Trail lakes Redtail Lake Nesting Canada Geese

Osprey nests

Lazuli Bunting Bullock痴 Oriole Green Heron

Established December 1975

Highway 14

Entrance to Cottonwood Beach

Capt. William Clark Park

The Dike Road

Nesting Purple Martin

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