"Hidden Gem for Bird Life" Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge by glabah

Decades ago, Conboy Lake was mostly drained in order to create more farmland in the mountain valley here. Over the years, what was once a rich habitat for birds became less and less interesting to them, and eventually their numbers declined to the point where even local residents were concerned about this.

Thus, in 1964, the Conboy Lake National Wildlife refuge was formed. It includes several scattered sections of flat fields and forest land that is dedicated to preserving a small section of this once wildlife rich valley for the wildlife that once called it home.

The refuge was never set aside specifically for sandhill cranes, but there was once a thriving colony of them in this valley. They disappeared slowly as they were unable to find good nesting and feeding locations. In 1979 a single pair returned to the area, after the refuge had given the ecosystems some 15 years to recover. The cranes continue to slowly return to the area, and are regularly seen in the spring. While the refuge literature does not say they can be seen here in the fall migration it is possible, as I have seen them here in September. Indeed, on September 17, 2011 I saw two of them investigating the area around the refuge headquarters. Later in the day, four of them were seen of in a field next to some cattle.

Also present in the area are several types of frog, including the Oregon spotted frog that is extremely rare in this area of Washington. It is only known to survive in four areas of the state today. Most likely, however, you will instead see the Pacific tree frog. These may be any of various colors, but the green ones show up very easily on the brown handrails and tree trunks. They are nearly invisible when they get into the green grass or leaves, however.

The refuge includes a loop trail that goes mostly through forested land. However, about half of the trail runs next to an open marshland (spring) or low field (summer and early autumn) where the grassland and marshland birds like to spend time. The trail loop is approximately 2 miles in length. It is flat its entire length, but it is rough and rocky in places so it isn't something that would be good to do if you can't handle trails with some rough spots in them.

In late 2011, a new trail segment was officially opened to the public. This is a short loop trail that runs next to the water course near the refuge office and the historic cabin near the refuge headquarters.

There is an elevated viewing platform on the trail that overlooks this area, and also offers views of Mount Adams, which is almost directly north of the refuge and looks nearly close enough to touch on a clear day. The viewing platform isn't huge, but it does have two small benches on it to allow visitors to watch for birds out in the flatlands. Also, in my experience, this platform is very popular with the local tree frogs on wet days. Please be very careful where you step, as these frogs are very small (about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch - 12 mm to 20 mm) and may not be that easy to see. Especially check the corners of the handrails where there is a small crack they can back into and hide. However, they may be found anywhere on the wood, and please don't step on them!

The other recreational activity on the refuge is hunting, but it is only allowed in one section of the refuge, which is relatively far from the trail so that bird watchers and hunters don't wind up causing conflicting uses (walkers / bird watchers scaring the birds away from hunters, or hunters shooting the hikers / bird watchers).

While it is not on the list of recreational activities on the refuge, it should be pointed out that there are a number of gravel and paved roads that wander around the area surrounding the refuge. You may see some interesting wildlife, especially bird life, by visiting some of these less traveled roads.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Good place to watch birds during certain seasons. Refuge far from large population centers, and therefore reasonably quiet.
  • Cons:Refuge broken up into small preserved areas, so not a huge amount of bird life stays here long term. There are times when there is almost nothing here. Limited viewing opportunities due to limited refuge lands and limited areas of accessibility.
  • In a nutshell:Good place to visit if you happen to want to see seasonal wildlife, and happen by at the right time.
  • Last visit to Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge: Sep 2011
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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