There's more than mud in estuaries

Historically speaking, the term "mudflat" was used to describe areas we now refer to as estuaries. They often are unattractive if you are searching for a pleasant beach to enjoy, but the more we learn about them, the more attractive they are. They are nature's bread basket and supermarkets for the wildlife dependent on them. One of the most productive estuaries in Puget Sound exists where the Nisqually River flows into saltwater. This area makes up the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, and it is a jewel.

In the summer of 2008, a major project involving the Refuge began. It will alter the area’s look in a major way, but it will benefit the wildlife it supports. The National Wildlife Refuge system was created for the purpose of providing habitat that sustains wildlife populations. Sometimes these areas are managed for the enjoyment of humans, and changes are undertaken or allowed that degrade them.

Birders love our wildlife refuges. After all, that’s often where large numbers of birds can be found. When our access to these places is restricted, we tell ourselves it’s best for the birds. Just the same, when trails we once hiked are closed or taken away permanently, the complaining is hard to suppress. There are several miles of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge that have been closed permanently. In the long run, there will probably be more birds to see. They will have better foraging, and they will feel safe because they can’t be disturbed as easily.

Estuaries are areas where fresh water and saltwater mix. The result is a rich food supply for fish, birds and other wildlife. Not only does the Nisqually River flow along one side of the Refuge, but on the other side McAllister Creek wends its way to the Sound. Sited in between these two freshwater sources that flow into the saltwater, the refuge plays a major role in the area’s ecosystem. Restoring areas that were degraded by extensive diking will undoubtedly produce long-range benefits that can only be described as exciting.

Winter is the time when millions of waterbirds call the Northwest home. Once spring arrives, they leave the area and head to their nesting grounds, the major portion of which are in the far north. The weather might not be the greatest in January and February, but the birding can be. This is an excellent time to explore some of our refuges, and the Nisqually, because of the major changes taking place, would make a great winter field trip. Dikes have been removed. New ones have been constructed. Changes also have taken place in the trails.

A trip to this refuge begins with a stop at refuge headquarters. This will bring you up-to-date on accessibility to the different areas on the refuge. There is a $3 entrance fee, unless you have a pass. Dress not only for the weather, but for trails that might be wet. There is an excellent Web site that provides information on the work taking place on the refuge: www.fws.gov/nisqually. You can also contact the headquarters by phone: 360-753-9467. If a live person doesn’t answer, a recorded message will provide needed information. The refuge is reached from I-5 by taking Exit 114 south of Tacoma and following the signs to the refuge headquarters.

Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply.