Wildlife Watching at Nisqually, Olympia Washington


The 762 acres of tidal estuary where the glacier-fed Nisqually River meets Puget Sound is an important habitat for birds, reptiles and mammals. The marshy estuary would be inhospitable to human visitors if it weren’t for the miles of raised boardwalk that allows a close-up view of the refuge’s ecosystems and the wildlife that call it home. Welcome to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

The delta, in its past life as a dairy farm, was protected from the sea by a ring of dikes. When the property was acquired and transformed into a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, those dikes remained, and the wildlife habitats were a mix of tidal marsh, forest and pasturelands. In 2009, the dikes were removed, allowing the sea to reclaim the Nisqually estuary, greatly expanding the habitat for waterfowl and other marsh-dwelling animals. As this restoration has allowed the freshwater of the Nisqually River to combine with the saltwater of Puget Sound, it has created a nutrient-rich estuary that supports multiple forms of sea life.

This biologically diverse refuge is a haven for hikers, wildlife watchers, birders, photographers, botanists and artists. In early spring, people come to the refuge to spot nesting bald eagles as well as birds that use the refuge as a layover spot on their northward migration.

In late April and May, thousands of shorebirds, such as western sandpipers and dunlins, find sustenance on the estuary’s mudflats during northward migration, and many species of songbirds come to nest and feed their young on newly hatched insects. In May, more species appear, specifically species of nesting ground birds.

The second Saturday in May is always a big day at the refuge: It’s International Migratory Bird Day. Throughout the season, the refuge hosts scheduled interpretive programs, a terrific way for visitors to learn about the ecosystem and its inhabitants. These take the form of self-guided walks and ranger-led programs.

The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Interstate 5 about 53 miles south of Seattle. Washington’s capital city of Olympia is the nearest city, an excellent place to grab a meal or find overnight lodging; learn more about visiting Olympia at experienceolympia.com.