Wood Duck

Conboy Lake is a great place to work on your Big Year. (Hint: It's a movie.)

Conboy Lake NWR was established under the authorities of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act for the purpose of restoring former wetland habitat and to stabilize spring and summer water levels in managed impoundments to insure greater waterfowl nesting. Conboy Lake is an important breeding area for Canada geese, with as many as 200,000 individuals recorded over the spring season. Emergent marsh, other wetlands, agricultural pastures, wet prairies and upland meadow areas all provide habitat for Canada geese. Several species of ducks also breed on the refuge. As many as 5,000 geese, 4,000 ducks and 500 tundra swans have been present at the refuge at a time during annual migrations in the spring and fall. The refuge also supports numerous other waterfowl.

But while waterfowl are why Conboy Lake NWR exists, its most enigmatic visitor is the greater Sandhill crane. Conboy Lake NWR is one of the two confirmed nesting places for Sandhill cranes in Washington. Although the Sandhill crane is the most abundant crane worldwide, it is an endangered species in Washington. The small population of the Sandhill cranes that breed in Washington are members of the greater Sandhill crane subspecies, which numbers only 70-80,000 birds throughout its entire range. Greater Sandhill cranes need isolated, open, wet meadows, or shallow marshes on the edges of rivers or lakes. Open meadows allow them to see predators from a distance, but there is some indication they select nest sites near interspersed groves, perhaps for wind and storm protection. Each family may actively protect as much as 250 acres.

For centuries the Conboy Lake region has provided homes for cranes, but early settlers found it ideal for farming and cattle. To increase hay production, they partially drained Conboy Lake. Loss of habitat to such activities, along with hunting, took its toll on wildlife. By the end of the 19th century, journal entries indicate a scarcity of game—ducks, geese and swans—in this area. Easily disturbed, cranes did not tolerate the increasing human population. Eventually, nesting pairs could not find suitable habitat. In 1964, Conboy Lake Refuge was established to preserve and restore this key habitat. Ironically, the refuge was not created for cranes. Yet, in 1972 one pair returned, and nesting was confirmed in 1976. Today there are 26-26 pairs and around 80 birds total.

So, Conboy Lake is a great place to see waterfowl. What about other, less-showy birds? There are plenty of those, as well. The Cascade Mountains form a natural travel corridor for a wide range of species migrating to and from breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada. Landbirds can be found in all habitats of the refuge. Each habitat type has value to some species, and the mosaic of habitats provides important transitional and edge habitats that can be important foraging areas for many species. A total of 198 bird species have been recorded at Conboy Lake. Of these, 140 are landbirds, including 14 diurnal raptors, four gallinaceous birds (pheasant, grouse, turkey and quail), pigeons and doves, seven owls, nighthawks, Vaux’s swifts, three hummingbird species, belted kingfishers, nine woodpeckers, horned larks and 98 perching birds (passerines). A total of 80 landbird species are known to breed at Conboy Lake.

For the complete list of birds found on Conboy Lake NWR, please see our Bird List.