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Oregon wildlife refuges popular with birders

SALEM — Come the beginning of April, there's one place longtime bird-watcher Tim Johnson wants to visit.

The Salem Audubon Society trip leader sets his binoculars on Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge and the chance to explore its wetlands, fields and forest in search of rare birds.

He'll look for the speckled coat of a black-bellied plover, the curved break of a whimbrel, or the tiny brown-and-white body of a solitary sandpiper.

"Every once in a while, you'll see something rare," Johnson said. "There's a mass migration of shorebirds in spring that's pretty cool. Some of the birds aren't down for long, but it's really neat to see them stopping over."

That migration, as luck would have it, coincides with the spring opening of the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the destinations of Ankeny, Basket Slough and William L. Finley.

Closed in large part since late autumn to provide a winter sanctuary for migrating birds — including the endangered dusky Canada geese— all three opened to the public in full April 1.

"The vast majority of interior areas open up for almost unrestricted walking," said Jock Beall, refuge biologist at the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"The birds become a lot more tolerant of people in the spring. People can get a lot closer to wildlife."

Close opportunities are music to the ears of photographers such as Salem's Jim Leonard.

"The blue herons and great egrets can be territorial for habitat and breeding, and will attack and chase each other, which makes for fun action photography," Leonard said. "Getting a good picture of a bird flying is challenging and fun, and it's always satisfying to get a photo of a new variety of bird."

While birds play the starring role, the refuges also feature wildflowers, roaming elk and trails to spectacular Willamette Valley views.

Endangered blue butterflies, oak forest, wildflowers and meadowlarks are just a few of the starring attractions at the this wildlife refuge in the Willamette Valley.

Located west of Salem off Highway 22, Basket Slough National Wildlife Refuge is just 15 miles and 22 minutes from the Capital City and home to what's probably the most popular trail in the entire complex.

The Baskett Butte Loop begins from a parking area off Coville Road and follows a trail system through lowlands before heading into oak forest (beware of poison oak) to viewing decks and upland prairies on a trail of 1.5 miles.

"The view is spectacular, going all the way to Mount Jefferson on a nice day," Beall said. "The upper prairies of Baskett Butte should be blooming with prairie flowers from now until June, and there are concentrations of the endangered Fender's blue butterfly — found only in the Willamette Valley."

The trail continues to Morgan Lake, passing prime birding habitat home to meadowlarks, redwing blackbirds and scores of other birds.

Leonard mentioned that Coville Road offers a number of good places to shoot (with a camera) birds from the road.

Directions: From Salem, cross the Marion Street Bridge and take Highway 22 west 13 miles to Rickreall. Turn north on Highway 99W for 1.9 miles and turn left on gravel Coville Road 1.5 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the right.

There have been 233 different species of birds observed at this one refuge south of Salem off Interstate 5, according to Johnson.

Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge offers two easy-access boardwalk routes: Rail Trail and the Pintail and Egret Marsh Boardwalk. Both offer easy hiking, along with the chance to extend the trip into deeper interior ponds.

"The greatest potential for birds is at Pintail Marsh," Johnson said.

"It takes you back to some ponds that shorebirds really seem to like."

Directions: From Salem, take Interstate 5 south for 10 miles. Take exit 243 and follow Wintel Road south around a bend and keep your eye out for the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge sign and a parking area on your left and right for each trail.

Rolling prairies of wildflowers, multiple ponds and roaming elk are attractions at this wildlife area about an hour's drive from Salem.

"There are a ton of places to poke into when it opens up," Beall said. "The elk move around throughout the day, but the best time to see them is early morning or evening."

Finley National Wildlife Refuge is home to a headquarter station, where information and maps can be had.

Woodpecker Loop is 1.2 miles and traverses grass fields, Douglas fir and oak forest to an overlook that takes in views to the Cascade Mountains.

The three-mile loops of Mill Hill and Beaver Pond are more robust hiking options.

Directions: From Corvallis, drive 10 miles south on Highway 99W to milepost 93. Turn west on Finley Refuge Road.

Watch for the refuge entrance sign on the west side of the road. Follow refuge signs for two miles to the refuge headquarters.