Meet avian friends at Woodard Bay

What: Winter birding and hiking at Woodard Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area.

Where: Woodard Bay is minutes from downtown Olympia on Henderson Inlet.

To do: The Loop Trail is a winding, up-and-down journey through mature stands of Douglas fir, cedar and salal. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old. This loop is perfect for finding woodland birds, such as pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, warblers and other songbirds. Chickadees, ruby-crowned warblers, spotted towhees and northern flickers were flying around Tuesday afternoon. An owl hooted, but it was never spotted.

Another short trail takes hikers and birds to the old Weyerhaeuser Co. log landing and pier. This trail, which is actually a scenic road, has great views of Woodard Bay and Chapman Bay - and many different kinds of water birds and ducks. This trail will keep hikers and birders busy for an a hour - or an entire afternoon. More than a dozen great blue herons huddled together on the old pier and pilings. Ducks of all kinds swam around and dove for food. Barrow's goldeneyes rafted up together, while hooded mergansers left trails of bubbles as they hunted for food underwater. Try to arrive at high tide to see lots of water birds.

Both hikes are easy - with moderate grades. Birders should stop, look and listen a lot anyway.

Each hikes is a perfect antidote to the cooped-up winter blues. The area is lush and alive, even on a cold, snowy afternoon.

To see: Watch for the big trees. Stop when you're in a stand of cedar or fir and look up into the sky and branches. Seals can be spotted from the trail from time to time.

You will see more seals and birds if you visit during a rising or high tide. Birds will flit all around you if you stop and stand still while in wooded areas.

As you walk along both trails, look for downed trees - some of them still have exposed root balls. At one part of the woodland loop trail, sections of an old cedar log show how this tree often becomes hollow with age. Weathered cedar stumps are near the trail in many sections.

Look at the recently cut ends of logs that fell across the trail. It's fun to count the growth rings on these logs.

Birders can spot trees with hundreds of woodpecker holes or old cedar stumps with the telltale cuts from long-ago logger springboards.

Hike details: The loop trail goes through rolling terrain and winds through the forest. Boardwalks take hikers through most marshy sections, but there a few muddy spots on the trail. Watch for tree roots - they trip the careless walker!

Don't forget to take the short spur trail to an overlook of Chapman Bay. There are stairs on some parts of the trail. The trail to the old log landing has lots of interpretive signs with details about the wildlife and history of the area.

There are short stretches of pebble beach at the end of the trail.

Equipment: Rain gear, good hiking shoes, warm clothes, water, snacks, binoculars and a camera.

Restroom: There is a restroom near the old log pier.

Directions: From downtown Olympia, take East Bay Drive toward Boston Harbor. The name of the road changes to Boston Harbor Road somewhere around Priest Point Park. Continue on Boston Harbor Road to where it forks with Woodard Bay Road. Bear right onto Woodard Bay Road. Woodard Bay Road merges onto Libby Road for a short distance, but then watch for a right-hand turn that puts you back on Woodard Bay Road.

The state Woodard Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area parking lot will be on your left after a short downhill grade.

Parking: There is space for several vehicles at Woodard Bay.

Safety: Keep kids close, as there are no railings on many of the boardwalks. Some of the boardwalk steps can be slippery during the winter. Don't try this hike in windy weather, as falling tree branches can be a hazard. Don't try to get around the fence to explore the crumbling pier - it's very dangerous!

Rules: No camping, alcohol, dogs or bicycles.

For more information: Call the state Department of Natural Resources at 360-902-1600 or go to www.dnr.wa.gov.

Outdoors columnist Chester Allen can be reached at callen@theolympian.com.