Columbia Wetlands, birders retreat

Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Never mind paying top dollar for that Zen or yoga retreat that promises peace and clarity. Instead spend a day alone in the Columbia Wetlands, with only your binoculars and maybe a field guide, for company. The results may exceed expectations.

Some people prefer a water experience and spend their time in the wetlands in a canoe or kayak.  But my special place is accessible by foot. Moberley marsh, or Burgess Gadsen Provincial Park is a small part of the larger Columbia Wetlands Wildlife Management Area, that has a higher level of protection, enhanced by the fact that one cannot drive into the park.

Leave the car, just off the access road to the private property. Walk around the gate, remembering that you are here at the owners generosity and stay on the road, until it ends at the entrance to the dikes that crisscross the park.

These dikes, constructed by Ducks Unlimited in the early 1970s, allow the happy birder to access many different wetland habitats and a beautiful stretch of the Columbia River.

My first foray will be as soon as the snow melts, leaving the dike pockmarked by elk hooves and wolf tracks and scat of these and other resident large mammals. The first birds returning north will join me; song sparrows singing from the tops of every other shrub their lilt that is supposed to translate, “Maids, maids, maids, put on the tea kettle, kettle, kettle,”

Pileated woodpeckers and Northern flickers will call from the many old growth cottonwoods riddled with their previous excavations.  Bald Eagles will soar overhead while rafts of Common mergansers, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye will dot the river. Canada Geese will be everywhere and with luck the rattle of the Kingfisher will herald the flash of iridescent flight.

Well-defined beaver trails will lead me down to the wide beaches along the river in early Spring when the water levels are low and here I will sit, absent of thoughts, as long as I want, hoping the sun will peep out from behind the clouds and make me a little more comfortable. But comfort isn’t the priority, not when I can sit here and contemplate the sweet curve of the Columbia as it heads north out of view, as placid and reflective as a still pool. 

If I am lucky, on the way back, this first visit of the season, I will hear the never forgotten song of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, an early harbinger of spring songbirds with an amazingly large melody for such a tiny bird.

Later in the spring, the shrubs lining the dike will be alive with many varieties of warblers, sparrows, vireos, catbirds, lazuli buntings, and even Northern orioles, and many other songbirds, The channels along the dikes will shelter the first broods of goslings and ducklings.

Moberley marsh is a small rich corner of the Columbia wetlands but for a birder wishing as much privacy as the mountains can offer while still within sight of the TransCanada Highway, this is the place. Or I should say, this is my place, but I’ll share.