Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region

Wildlife & Habitat

Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is located in and near Willapa Bay and preserves a number of unique ecosystems including salt marshes, muddy tideflats, rain drenched old growth forests, freshwater marshes, grasslands, and dynamic coastal dunes and beaches. Willapa Bay is one of the most pristine estuaries in the United States and is the second largest estuary on the Pacific Coast.

Estuaries are among the most productive natural systems on earth due to the mixing of nutrients from land and sea. Coastal areas, including estuaries, comprise less than 10% of the nation’s land area yet support a significant number of wildlife species, including 75% of migratory birds, nearly 80% of fish and shellfish, and about half of all threatened and endangered species.

Visitors to the Refuge can enjoy viewing a diversity of wildlife, such as Roosevelt elk, black bear, shorebirds, and spawning salmon. The refuge is home to several threatened species including the Western snowy plover and marbled murrelet. Other birds that are frequently spotted in the refuge include bald eagles, great blue herons, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, marsh wrens, and golden-crowned kinglets.

Learm more about refuge wildlife:

Western Snowy Plover Western Brook Lamprey
Marbled Murrelet Oregon Silverspot Butterfly
Western Pearlshell Mussel Species Lists


Willapa Bay/Photo courtesy of Curt Stephens

Western Snowy Ploversnowy plover

The western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) is a small shorebird distinguished from other plovers (family Charadriidae) by its small size, pale brown upper parts, dark patches on either side of the upper breast, and dark gray to blackish legs. During the breeding season (March through September),  plovers can be seen nesting along the shores, peninsulas, offshore islands, bays, estuaries, and rivers of the United States' Pacific Coast. Plover nests usually contain three tiny eggs, which look like sand and are barely visible to even the most well-trained eye. Plover nests are simple depressions in the sand and may be next to kelp, shells, driftwood and rocks.

Snowy plovers have natural predators such as falcons, raccoons,  coyotes, and owls. There are also predators that humans have introduced or whose populations they have helped to increase, including crows, ravens, red fox and domestic dogs. Humans can be thought of as predators too. People drive vehicles, ride bikes, fly kites and bring their dogs to beaches where the Western Snowy Plover lives and breeds. All of these activities can frighten or harm plovers during their breeding season.

Energy is very important to this small bird. Every time humans, dogs, or other predators, cause the birds to take flight or run away, they lose precious energy. Often, when a Plover parent is disturbed, it will abandon its nest, which increases the chance of a predator finding the eggs, sand blowing over and covering the nest, or the eggs getting cold. This can decrease the number of chicks that hatch in a particular year. The Western snowy plover has been living on the Pacific Coast for thousands of years, but was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened in 1993 due to low population and decreased habitat. Click here to read more about refuge efforts to help the western snowy plover.

For more information about how you can share the beach with Western snowy plovers, click here (634 KB).

For more information, please go to US Fish & Wildlife species profile.


Marbled Murrelet

Nesting high up in the old-growth conifers of the Pacific Coast, these small seabirds were one of the last North American birds to have their nests discovered. Marbled Murrelets are strongly tied to a narrow strip of land and water along the West Coast, usually nesting within 30 miles of the ocean and foraging at sea within three miles of the coastline. These birds face a variety of threats--logging, gill-net mortality, nest predation and oil spills--and have experienced dramatic recent population declines.

Marbled Murrelets are small, puffin-like birds with short bills, long wings, and short tails. Adults in breeding plumage are brown overall, with the head and upperparts darker brown and the underparts mottled lighter brown. In contrast, adults in non-breeding plumage are a mixture of black, white, and gray with black heads, white collars, white underparts, grayish backs, extensive white on the sides of the rump, and black wings.

Marbled Murrelets are strictly birds of the Pacific Coast of North America. These birds nest in a narrow range along the Pacific Ocean, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska south through British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, to central California. Marbled Murrelets are generally found in nearshore waters (within about three miles of shore) near their nesting sites on a year-round basis, although in certain places in Alaska and British Columbia, birds move to more protected waters during the winter. This species can also be found wintering south of its breeding range, along the coast of southern California to extreme northwestern Baja California.

NEW! Mysterious Marble Murrelet video.


Lamprey - Living Links to the Past

Something strange lurks in the fresh water streams of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Scaleless and cartilaginous (lacking boney jaws, backbone or ribs), lamprey are specialized survivors whose ancestry dates back to 450 million years ago. Lampreys may look like eels, but the resemblance stops there. Lampreys have a circular shaped mouth in place of jaws and they use it to hold onto rocks and prey. Like the famous salmon, most lamprey species are anadromous; meaning they spend their adulthood in the ocean and return to the freshwater stream where they were born to spawn.

The Lamprey of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge: Three species of lamprey have been documented in Bear River Pacific lamprey, river lamprey and the western brook lamprey. The western brook lamprey is small compared to its relatives, ranging from 5-7 inches in length. Unlike the Pacific lamprey (up to 30 inches long) and the river lamprey (average of 12 inches long), the western brook lamprey is not a parasite and does not have an ocean-going phase in its lifecycle. Western brook lampreys only have small, non-functional teeth as adults. The other lamprey species found at the refuge use sharp teeth to feed on several species of fish while living in the ocean. Scars from the Pacific lamprey have even been found on whales!

Forever Young - The Quirky Lifestyle of the Western Brook Lamprey: Western brook lampreys spend most of their lives as blind teenagers and only live a few, short months as adults; so short that the adults don't eat at all. During the months of April, May and June, adult western brook lampreys seek shallow water with a bottom of coarse gravel and pebbles and a moderate current to build a nest. Males and females pair, then they use their sucker-like mouths to grasp and move sediments creating a depression, or nest, 4-5 inches in diameter in which the female lays her eggs. It is not uncommon for large groups of western brook lamprey to spawn together in a tight cluster. Refuge staff has counted as many as 12 adults together over one nest.

A Lot of Lamprey: As many as 3,700 eggs may be produced by a single female western brook lamprey. These tiny oval eggs are adhesive which helps prevent them from being washed downstream. Eyeless larval lampreys, called ammocoetes, hatch after approximately 10 days. These baby western brook lamprey drift downstream and burrow into the stream sediments of backwater areas or quiet eddies. Ammocoetes are filter feeders, using a hood-like extension of their oral disc to take in and filter mud and water. Through this filtering process they collect and consume microorganisms and detritus (decaying plant and animal matter). As many as 170 ammocoetes per square meter have been documented in coastal streams. Western brook lamprey may stay in this teenage form for up to 5 years before they change into eyed adults and seek mates.

Discover about what the refuge is doing to help lampreys.

Learn about the USFWS Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative & follow Luna the Lamprey's return from the ocean.

Adult western brook lamprey rests on the gravel bottom of a refuge stream.
The adult western brook lamprey has no functional teeth and does not eat.
Western brook lamprey often spawn in large groups.
Juvenile western brook lamprey are eyeless and called ammocoetes.

Oregon Silverspot Butterfly - Finicky Eater with a Taste for Rare Violets

The refuge plans to reintroduce Oregon silverspot butterflies to the Long Beach Peninsula.  

The Oregon silverspot butterfly is a finicky eater. As a caterpillar it only feeds on the leaves of the early blue violet, a once abundant, now rare coastal plant. As an adult, it feeds on the nectar of coastal grassland plants.

Where Have All the Butterflies Gone?
Not long ago, visitors to coastal Washington, Oregon and Northern California may have spotted this mid-sized orange, black and brown butterfly with the silver spots. With pressures from human activities and invasions of non-native plant species, there are few remaining native coastal grasslands with early-blue violets. Last seen on the Long Beach Peninsula in 1990, this butterfly is now found only at four sites in Oregon. It was listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1980.

Plant It and They Will Come
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is working to restore high-quality butterfly habitat on the Long Beach Peninsula with the help of many partners, including the Oregon Zoo. Invasive plants are removed to make room for violets, sedges and other native coastal plants. These native plants get a hand from refuge biologists who monitor their progress. In the fall of 2012, volunteers will help plant thousands of early blue violets at refuge restoration sites. The long-term goals are to restore coastal meadows and to reintroduce Oregon silverspot butterflies.

Learn more about Oregon silverspot butterfly recovery

Western pearlshell mussels live in refuge streams/Marie Fernandez USFWS

Western Pearlshell Mussel

Freshwater mussels have a unique lifecycle. Eggs incubate and hatch into microscopic mussel infants – called glochidia – which need to attach themselves to the gills or fins of a passing host fish.  In Willapa Bay tributaries, that’s apt to be Coho salmon, cutthroat trout or a related species.  The time the glochidia stay attached varies from several weeks to several months, and may be influenced by water temperatures. Once they drop from the fish, they’ll burrow into the gravel bed and sediment of the river or lake the fish has reached.

Of the two types most commonly found here, the western pearlshell mussels have an average life span of 60 or 70 years, although some can reach 100. However, their populations are thought to be dropping rapidly. The genus Anodonta, commonly known as floaters, grows faster and become larger, but their thinner shells make them an easy food source for predators like muskrats and raccoons.  The pearlshells grow to about five inches in length and can be mistaken for rocks in the streambeds.

To the refuge staff, the mussels have a “canary in a coal mine” role, serving as a warning of changes in environmental conditions. One of the staff’s major activities is to monitor habitats and populations of wildlife in the area. Decreases in mussel numbers can indicate problems for other species as well. Some species are already extinct and freshwater mussels are considered to be the most endangered group of animals in North America.

To check on the mussel population, refuge biologists walk the streams, sometimes using a long tube viewer called an aquascope that allows them to see through the clear waters to the sediment where mussels live.

The major problems influencing the local mussel population, refuge staff members say, are the same as those that affect the salmon population: water clarity and general stream quality. Freshwater mussels are vulnerable to water level fluctuation and can be adversely impacted by sedimentation. Both mussels and fish need clean, cold streams and rivers, biologists say.

Recently-retired refuge biologist Marie Fernandez conducted a pilot project five years ago to transfer 100 pearlshell mussels from large mussel beds on Bear River to three suitable streams within the refuge where their survival could be monitored. Each mussel was weighed, measured, photographed and marked with a numbered tag.  The locations of their new “homes” were noted so that they could be observed in later surveys. Once burrowed in the streambed, mussels seldom move more than a few yards in their lifetimes, unless dislodged and carried downstream by high water flows.

After the initial project in 2007, more mussels were transferred from off-refuge sites annually through 2010. According to Fernandez, the new transplants were shown to be spawning in 2008 and again in a recent 2012 survey. More surveys are needed to determine whether the resulting mussel glochidia were successfully finding hosts and new homes.

Feshwater mussels at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge/USFWS Photo

Species Lists

Bird List

Mammal List

Amphibians and Reptiles List

Back to Top

Last updated: March 12, 2013