Last year was one of the least active years of my life. Where it used to be common for me to load a backpack with 30 pounds of gear and trek for miles in pursuit of that next photo, I now feel slightly sore after a long grocery shopping trip. At best, that’s a little funny, but the reality is it’s concerning, concerning enough to begin nudging me outside again in spite of the way 2020 reframed my world.
The trails I choose rarely are about a destination. It’s all about the journey. Every strange insect, every busy bird or tiny plant along the path is my destination.
Curiosity about this amazing planet is my active therapy. It compels me out of my funks and creates some breathing room in an often claustrophobic mind.
When it takes me three hours to hike 1 mile, it’s difficult to find a hiking partner. I am so easily distracted. All of those bugs and birds and plants on the way catch my eye. I want to stop and look at them, photograph them and just marvel at the diversity.
Next thing you know, it’s been three hours, and I’m not that far down the trail.
Fortunately, my girlfriend, Tracy, is a kindred spirit. Our greatest sense of joy and connection comes in those moments we find something amazing and say, “Hey! Come look at this!” A recent trip to McNary National Wildlife Refuge was no different.
The short days of winter with a strong urge to hibernate late into the morning make many of our usual trips out of reach.
But within a short drive of Walla Walla are some great places in the Valley to visit.
So we headed to one of our favorite nearby spots, the McNary refuge. The visitor center near Burbank is a little less than an hour away.
Easy parking, easy paved trails and immediate immersion into nature make this accessible to most anyone.
The groggiest of winter minds can be coaxed into making this level of effort.
We aren’t even parked yet, and we both exclaim, “Look at that!” On this winter day, the Burbank slough looks like a drift of giant cotton balls has blown into a protected corner.
Resting and foraging in the water are thousands of snow geese, here harboring from northern locations with much harsher winter weather. As we park and hurriedly find a vantage point, something stirs the flock, and they all take to the sky. Wave after wave. Dizzying numbers of snow-white bodies with distinguishing black wing tips crisscross the horizon. I’ve witnessed this before, but it will always excite me. These annual visitors stop here on a 5,000-mile journey between the arctic tundra and as far south as Mexico. We are fortunate to spend a little time with them on their amazing journey.
After the flurry of snow geese settles back on the water, we head down the trail at the visitor center toward the bird blind.
Afloat on the still water are seemingly countless ducks: mostly mallards but mixed in are the shy and stunning wood ducks, among other species.
With the tall ravenna grass and cattails lining the shore, the scene looks straight out of a hunting catalog. It’s no wonder that during certain times of the year, the sounds of nature here are punctuated by not-too-distant shotgun blasts.
An easy walk from the visitor center is the newly built bird blind. It’s completely enclosed and has windows that can open for clear views with binoculars and cameras.
The blind is handicap accessible as is the entire mile-long paved trail that meanders along the slough.
It’s hit or miss as to whether the birds will cooperate and be near the blind.
Today, few venture near, but in the past, we’ve enjoyed close views of birds and other wildlife.
On warmer days, you can watch turtles sunning on anchored logs. Marks on trees and shrubs also show evidence of local beavers.
A park ranger has erected fencing likely trying to stop the beavers’ bucktooth shenanigans. I think the beavers are winning this one.
Partway down the trail from the blind, a flock of blackbirds come up out of a corn field. This corn is planted here for any hungry critter that needs it.
This isn’t just any hungry flock, though, it’s more like a cloud.
Red-wing and yellow-headed blackbirds.
So many it’s hard to guess a number. Thousands? Tens of thousands?
I don’t understand how birders can count them and log entries such as, “Today I saw 7,352 blackbirds.” There are so many moving in unison, it looks more like a single organism. It’s mesmerizing watching a murmuration.
Tracy and I stand there a while. Silently listening to the flock’s noise blocking out all the other noise of humanity. It’s a peaceful feeling.
The rest of the hike is much like the start. Lots and lots of birds. I can’t say this enough. Lots! Winter migration at the refuge is a must see.
McNary National Wildlife Refuge has so much to offer. This has just been a slice of it.
Their visitor center includes a natural history exhibit and community education programs (but check to make sure they’re open and what their pandemic restrictions are before making the trip), and there are other regions with trails, sloughs, and boat launches.
If you want to learn more, visit fws.gov/refuge/McNary.