Seasons of Wildlife
In early spring, the loud calls of Canada geese echo over the landscape as skeins of them fly overhead. What are they constantly talking about as they fly?
In winter, large numbers of waterfowl roost and loaf on the typically open waters of Royal, Upper Hampton and Lower Hampton Lakes—that is, when they're not feeding in nearby agricultural fields. When the area has cold weather and the ponds and wetlands are iced over, waterfowl numbers are low. However, when conditions allow for open water, numbers can climb dramatically. Monthly aerial survey data from 2001 through 2011 for the refuge indicate that during November the average number of waterfowl that use the refuge is 14,051, with a high count of 24,361. During the month of December, the average waterfowl number on the refuge is 15,050, with a high of 18,215. January has an average of 8,734 waterfowl winter, with a high of 27,264.
As winter turns to spring and frozen lakes begin to thaw, additional waterfowl return in great numbers. The largest concentrations of ducks, geese and lesser Sandhill cranes arrive on the refuge in March and April, at times numbering over 75,000 individuals. Refuge farm fields are popular viewing sites; Marsh Unit 1 provides day-time viewing opportunities. Canada geese, mallards, gadwalls, cinnamon teals, redheads and ruddy ducks nest on the refuge in small numbers. The American coot, a duck look-alike but with lobed rather than webbed feet and a pointed bill, is an abundant nester throughout the refuge. The pugnacious behavior of nesting coots and the antics of their brightly colored red and black chicks will liven the summer marsh.
Wetlands also host breeding American avocets, American bitterns, Virginia rails and pied-billed grebe, to name but a few species. In thegrasslands you will find nesting western meadowlarks, grasshopper and lark sparrows, horned larks and long-billed curlews. Many other birds are attracted by the complex of the basalt cliffs; the ledges, cracks and holes provide important nesting habitat and shelter for red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, American kestrels, barn owls, common ravens, rock and canyon wrens and northern flickers. Cliff swallows—who attach their nests to vertical rock surfaces—sometimes form large colonies, while violet-green swallows nest out of sight in the crevices. Coyotes and mule deer are relatively abundant and are occasionally seen by visitors. Muskrats, with laterally flattened tails to act as rudders, are common wetland inhabitants. Beavers use cattail and bulrush instead of tree branches to build their dams and lodges on the refuge. Bobcats, badgers, otters and mink, though scarce, are also found on the refuge. One of the more interesting mammals is the yellow-bellied marmot, whose alarm call carries a great distance from cliff or talus slope. Also living in the cliffs is the nocturnal bushy-tailed woodrat, which deposits a white secretion on rocks to mark its territory. The secretion is rich in nitrogen and influences the species of lichen growing around it. The Washington ground squirrel, a candidate for the Endangered Species List, is rarely encountered but closely monitored by refuge staff.
As the cool winds of autumn begin to blow, the migration process is repeated in reverse, as northern waterfowl begin to drift south. Then, much of the refuge closes to all public entry to provide critical undisturbed sanctuary for birds during the stressful winter season.
Spring & Fall Migration
Approximately 30 percent of the refuge is classified as waterfowl habitat, including areas of water, cropland and grassland, much of which is aimed at providing habitat during migration, rather than waterfowl production. During migration, 19 species of ducks use the area; generally, the mallard is the most common, followed by wigeon, green-wing teal, pintail, ring-necked duck, scaup, bufflehead, ruddy duck, common merganser, canvasback, redhead, shoveler, gadwall, hooded merganser and wood duck. Columbia NWR is a great place to practice your duck identification skills.
Columbia NWR supports a great many species, from the cute and cuddly Washington ground squirrel and yellow-belled marmot to the scary western Pacific rattlesnake to the colorful mountain bluebird. However, it's the Sandhill cranes following their ancient migration routes that are the stars of the show.
Of the 650,000 Sandhill cranes worldwide, lesser Sandhill cranes—the cranes on Columbia NWR—are the most numerous subspecies, with a population of approximately 450-500,000. Most of those can be found in the Mid-Continent population, which winters in New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. Those are the cranes that famously congregate by the thousands along the Platte River in Nebraska as they head north to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and eastern Siberia.
Around 35,000 lesser Sandhill cranes follow the Pacific Flyway, coming through eastern Washington during their spring and fall migrations, stopping over on Columbia NWR and the Hanford Reach National Monument. These cranes winter in the southern portion of California's Central Valley and pass through on their way to nesting sites in the Matanuska River Valley and Bristol Bay areas of south-central Alaska.