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RVing for the Birds

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

It’s high tide in late April, and we are at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in
Washington state during the Shorebird Festival. Tens of thousands of dunlins, dowitchers,
sandpipers, plovers and a dozen other Arctic-bound shorebird species have gathered here on
the estuarine mud flat to rest and fuel up for the final leg of their 7,500-mile journey
north. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow anticipants on the boardwalk viewing deck.
At this motley optics convention, all kinds of scopes, cameras, video cameras, telephoto
lenses and binoculars point at the mud flat. The tide works its magic, the birds close in
on us, and the show begins. A frantic sea of feeding shorebirds spreads before us, a comedy
of nodding heads and scurrying feet. With the arrival of a hawk, the feathered sea lifts as
a cloud. Then, in synchrony, the birds change direction, showing first their dark backs,
then their light bellies, flashing a giant wink at the crowd. Although many birds are no
bigger than a teacup, the unison of wings is thunderous; the pin-drop silence of the
spectators is the applause. Such scenes commonly play out at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service’s National Wildlife Refuges (NWR). Because birding and RVing are a natural pairing,
refuges are prime destinations. Sure, you’ll have to make some concessions when traveling
in your motorhome, but the rewards are worth it. With this year marking the NWR System
centennial, there’s even more incentive to load up the binoculars and bird-identification
guidebooks and head out. Water bodies are central to most refuges, but the terrains are
diverse, ranging from tundra to tropics, with desert, woodland, swamp, prairie, coast and
valley habitats in between. With more than 500 units, some in every state, how can you
miss? Although camping is generally incompatible with the refuge purpose of conserving
habitat for migrating birds and endangered species, public and private campgrounds
typically are within easy reach. Where refuge campgrounds do exist, the conditions are
rustic, and you can expect dusty, sometimes washboard, roads. Auto-tour routes, trails and
boardwalks, viewing blinds, observation towers, boat ramps and canoe and bicycle routes are
among the ways to explore the refuges. Because many auto-tour routes travel narrow dikes,
when you set out to refugehop, you’ll likely want your dinghy vehicle in tow. Several of
the refuges have visitor centers; a few have boat, van or tram shuttles or tours. In the
case of Southern California’s Sweetwater Marsh NWR, a trolley bus conveys visitors from the
parking area to the Chula Vista Nature Center and marsh. Before heading out, call the
intended refuge to find out what’s available to you and to your motorhome. Ask about
special events, tours, pet regulations (many refuges prohibit pets), road conditions and
camping opportunities in the area. For RV campgrounds, of course, consult your trusty 2003
Trailer Life Directory. When packing for a refuge outing, binoculars and
guidebooks are a must, but insect repellent can be your best friend at times. Just remind
yourself that those annoying insects are food for the birds. A full gas tank, food and
water are also advisable, and be sure to carry enough film. Wildlife moments seldom repeat
themselves. Refuges generally offer yearround viewing, dawn to dusk. Wintering and seasonal
migrations can swell both the variety and numbers of species. Nesting closures can restrict
travel. Several refuges house big animals: bison, antelope, elk, deer, moose and
alligators. Occasionally the exotic can bemuse. Who’d believe I saw a Chilean flamingo in
Idaho? Certainly not my husband until he seized the binoculars to see for himself. (His
and-hers binoculars are a good idea.) We were at Camas NWR, and this was Pink Floyd.
Escaped from a Utah aviary, he has been living wild in the West since his breakout and has
been seen in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Montana (where he summers). The U.S. government’s
2001 recreation survey shows that 33 percent of all adults actively bird-watch. Seventy
million people can’t be wrong! Choose a refuge and go. The seven listed here only brush the
possibilities of the NWR System. Southeast of Newburyport, this refuge occupies the
southern two-thirds of Plum Island, a rare natural barrier beach along the Northeast
coastline. Emerson Rock, which hosts harbor seals in winter, sits offshore, and wild plum
dresses the island, adding its blossoms in spring and its fruit in fall. The wide linear
route into the refuge accesses the multiple beach parking areas and unfolds views of the
woodland, dune and marsh habitats. Dune boardwalks (always use these developed crossings),
the beach, short hiking trails and a blind allow for a closer inspection and the discovery
of inhabitants. A tower provides an overview. Birding opportunities vary with habitat and
season; more than 80 species nest within the refuge. Discover snowy owls
(December-February), shorebirds such as the protected piping plover(March-mid-May),
warblers (migration peaks mid May), snowy egrets (July-August, coinciding with the mosquito
and greenhead-fly annoyance), and black ducks and monarch butterflies (October- December).
In order to protect the threatened piping plover, which nests and feeds on the beach, the
entire 6.3 miles of refuge beach is closed to the public beginning April 1. Unused beach
sections reopen beginning July 1, with the beach fully accessible by mid-August. During
summer, it’s best to leave the motorhome at the campground and take your dinghy. Plan to
arrive early. When parking lots fill, access is denied until departures create openings.
This vast bog with trembling peat deposits sits southwest of Folkston and has four
entrances: Kingfisher Landing off U.S. Highway 1, the East (main) Entrance off U.S. Highway
121, the North Entrance off State Highway 1, and Stephen Foster State Park, the West
Entrance, north off State Route 177 at Fargo. Camping is available at Stephen Foster, (912)
637-5274. The Suwannee River, which flows past this park, is the main outlet of Okefenokee
Swamp. Because the refuge covers 650 square miles, you might want to plan a couple of days
for seeing it. Canoe and boat rentals, guided boat tours, the nine-mile self-guided Swamp
Island Drive (motorhomes OK), boardwalks, trails, observation towers and historic Chesser
Homestead, which shows swamp pioneer life, all await. The swamp enjoys a mottled terrain
with cypress forest, islands, lakes, scrublands and wet prairies. Birding opportunities
exist year-round, with species from warbler to sandhill crane, including the endangered
red-cockaded woodpecker. During our canoe trip, we frequently pulled in our oars and crept
forward on the remaining momentum to sit below the framing cypress trees spangled in scores
of white and glossy ibis. At wet Chesser Prairie, we saw sandhill cranes, and where we
plied the swamp canal and side waters, alligators and turtles often drew our stares.
Midweek and off-season canoe trips offer the greatest calm for birding. Evening and morning
hours are best for walking the trails. On Sanibel Island, a subtropical barrier island in
the Gulf of Mexico, one of the premier wildlife refuges in the country attracts an
international audience. The refuge is named for the nationally syndicated editorial
cartoonist who brought environmental issues to the general public in an appetizing format.
Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling headed the Biological Survey that predated the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, initiated the federal duck-stamp program and designed the flying
blue-goose emblem used by the refuge system. In the Environmental Education Center, you
will find a fine tribute to Darling. This refuge is ideal for slow touring, with its
four-mile Wildlife Drive (motorhomes OK), guided tram tours, bicycle trail, canoe trail,
hiking trails, fishing piers and splendid birding and nature-observation opportunities.
Osprey, bald eagle, roseate spoonbill, wood stork, anhinga and a wide variety of herons and
egrets busied our binoculars, and the film went fast. Bayshore inlets, mangrove swamps,
hardwood hammocks, the drier uplands (critical to migrating songbirds), and freshwater and
brackish wetlands vary discovery. Beware: Alligators can move faster than you think; keep
back when photographing them. Incoming tides can push the wildlife to you. East of Fort
Calhoun, which is minutes north of Omaha, this refuge occupies a generous bend of the
Missouri River where 2.5-mile-long Boyer Chute shortcuts the river’s course, creating an
island of grass and woods. The landscape is being restored to traditional habitat, seeded
with prairie grasses and forbs (non-grass herbaceous plants). Over the years, the Missouri
River ecosystem has lost more than 500,000 acres of natural wildlife habitat. From the main
gate, routes parallel Boyer Chute north and south to the Missouri River. Along them, find
fishing accesses and piers that also provide birding opportunities. Eagles and ospreys nest
along the river. From the main day-use parking, a bridge over the chute leads to a pair of
barrier- free nature trails and two covered picnic shelters. Here, you can either walk and
discover the wildlife or wait for it to come to you. Woodpeckers, cardinals, orioles,
meadowlarks and other delightful songbirds are among the players. Deer and coyote can
surprise morning visitors. Even when birds are quiet, the whisper of the tall-grass prairie
engages. At the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, along the Rio Grande River on Old
State Highway 1 about 20 miles south of Socorro, sits this acclaimed refuge. Each autumn,
tens of thousands of wintering birds arrive: sandhill cranes, snow geese, Canada geese,
Ross’ geese, dabbler ducks and others (some 20 species in all). Bald eagles are present for
the gathering. In spring and fall, attention turns to the migrations of warblers,
flycatchers and shorebirds. To help guide your searches, the refuge visitor center is open
yearround. Or, you can simply sit in the building’s shade and wait for hummingbirds.
Auto-tour routes (Marsh Loop, 7 miles, and Farm Loop, 7.5 miles) and hiking trails take you
to the birds. The Rio Grande flood plain and the arid canyons, mesas and foothills vary
discovery. Our late-April visit found egrets, vultures, ibises, pheasants, songbirds,
stilts and avocets, to name a few. As in most wildlife areas, but particularly in the
desert, dawn and dusk offer the greatest chance for wildlife sightings. Carry plenty of
drinking water on your searches. The dramatic symbol of the American West is the primary
reason visitors come to this Montana outback, which is administered as part of the NWR
System, but birders, too, find discovery. Mountain bluebirds, redshafted flickers, pileated
woodpeckers, golden eagles, gray partridge, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain chickadee and more
entertain birders. The site’s Red Sleep Mountain Drive is not recommended for vehicles more
than 30 feet long. You can park your motorhome in the visitor center’s lot while touring in
your dinghy. Be aware that motorcycles and bicycles are prohibited. The scenic drive twists
its way through the refuge hinterlands, combining fabulous wildlife discovery with
breathtaking prairiehill scenery. Besides the woolly-headed bison, look for elk, deer,
antelope, bighorn sheep and coyote. Shorter auto routes travel the lower refuge, and short
trails lead to overlooks. Wildflowers dress the landscape in May and June. South of
Olympia, off Interstate 5 at exit 114, this refuge represents an ideal en-route stop. Here,
boardwalks and footpaths explore the valley mosaic along the Nisqually River and McAllister
Creek, both of which flow north into Puget Sound. Estuaries, marshes, woods, grasslands and
croplands create suitable habitat for a variety of birds. The headquarters area may detain
you with an osprey or eagle sighting. Goldfinch, warblers, woodpeckers, wood ducks, hawks
and great blue herons add to the roster. In fall and winter, the duck contingency swells to
20,000 paddlers, and short-eared owls search the field for mice. A new visitors center
houses educational exhibits.

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