by Wilson Cady
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.
To get to these access points return to the Highway and drive east to the roundabout at the 32nd Street entrance into the Port of Camas/Washougal on your right. Immediately 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’s 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.
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 the SR-14 roundabout and turn right (east) onto SR-14. 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.
Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge main entrance
Steigerwald NWR is currently closed to all access for a major habitat project, the Steigerwald Reconnection Project. From July 6 to October 2 of 2020, the Refuge will be entirely closed to public access, including the levee trail East of Index Street coming out of Captain William Clark Park. This total closure will be in effect again from April 2021 until the April 2022, the anticipated completion of the project and re-opening of the Refuge. This schedule and access is subject to change, so be sure to check back to www.refuge2020.info for updates.
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’s 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’s 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’s 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.