by Bill Shelmerdine

revised by Kathy Slettebak, Arn Slettebak, and Denis DeSilvis

A unique (and shrinking) ecosystem of grasslands, oaks, and conifer woodlands stretches westward across Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), southwest of Tacoma, to Littlerock, south of Olympia, marking the southern edge of the Puget Lobe of the last glaciation. Between about 14,000 and 13,200 BP, the ice sheet gradually withdrew. Dammed by the retreating glacier and hemmed in east and west by the Cascades and the Olympics, meltwaters formed a huge lake. Runoff was directed westward from the lake’s south end into the Chehalis River, depositing gravelly, excessively drained, nutrient-poor soils in plains, channels, and terraces. The prairies that later developed on the glacial outwash occupy the driest spots within the Puget Sound Douglas-fir vegetation zone that surrounds them. The suggested birding route follows the glacial meltwater drainage plain from east to west, through excellent examples of these native prairies.

This Woodland/Prairie Mosaic zone has several habitat types. The dry, treeless grasslands are blanketed with clumps of Idaho Fescue separated by a tight layer of moss and other low herbaceous plants. Bordering forest stands include Lodgepole Pine, Western White Pine, and relict Ponderosa Pine, but are mostly of Douglas-fir and Garry Oak. Salal, Common Snowberry, Indian-plum, and Western Serviceberry are typical of the understory. Numerous swamp and bog communities exist in spots where drainage is poor. Oregon Ash and Garry Oak dominate the riparian areas.

Bird species resident within the South Sound Prairies, but uncommon or highly local elsewhere in Western Washington, include Northern Bobwhite (introduced), Mourning Dove, Common Nighthawk, Horned Lark, House Wren, Western Bluebird, Chipping and Vesper Sparrows, Lazuli Bunting, and Western Meadowlark. Distinctive races of several butterflies are near-endemic to this zone, among them Great Spangled and Zerene Fritillaries, the state-endangered Mardon Skipper, and Edith’s Checkerspot. These glacial outwash prairies are also home to the state-threatened Western Gray Squirrel and the seriously declining Mazama Pocket Gopher.

About 4,000 acres of grasslands remain of an estimated 150,000 acres historically. Agriculture and suburban sprawl account for most of the loss. Garry Oak and Douglas-fir are encroaching on much of the rest—an unintended consequence of fire suppression. Prior to white settlement, openings were maintained by fires, including deliberate burning by Native Americans. Modern management interventions such as controlled burns, brush clearing, and selective logging take place periodically on some of the remaining portions.


Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) Range Complex, a U.S. military training facility, offers several prairie sites worth birding. JBLM is a closed installation. To get access to JBLM, go to the Visitor Center for JBLM-Lewis Main and Lewis North at Exit 120 off I-5 near the Liberty Gate. Hours are 5AM to 10PM daily. You will need your driver’s license, current vehicle registration, and proof of insurance in order to obtain a visitor vehicle pass. After you get your vehicle pass, you will need to obtain an area access permit—good for 24 months—and map issued by Range Control. The Area Access office is located in Building 4074 at the intersection of Stryker and Kaufman Avenues, JBLM Main (253-967-6371). JBLM has numerous training areas, each designated by a number (indicated here by TA and then the number). Areas where training is occurring are closed to the public. To avoid disappointment, call ahead for closure information (253-967-6277). The web site is at Make sure you know the numbers of the areas you want to visit. Hunting (especially for upland birds) is a popular activity in many areas, so use caution.

JBLM birding is best in May. Prairie wildflowers are at their peak then, too, among them Henderson’s Shooting Star, Common Camas, Chocolate Lily, Blue-eyed Grass, and Puget Balsamroot. Dry Douglas-fir forest edges are particularly good in spring for a variety of bird species favoring lowland conifer forests. In the early 1980s, JBLM began a bluebird nest-box program. There are now about 160 nesting pairs of Western Bluebirds scattered about the training and range areas. In winter, things are usually pretty quiet; Northern Shrike can often be found, and Short-eared Owl, Merlin, and other raptors less reliably.

Armed with a valid area-access permit and current access information, drive east on SR-512 from I-5 Exit 127. In about two miles, turn right (south) onto SR-7, and, at the fork in 5.1 miles, stay right onto SR-507. Two excellent areas—Johnson Marsh (TA 10) and Chambers Lake (TA 12)—are well worth visiting if they are open. Travel 3.9 miles on SR-507 and turn right at the light onto East Gate Road. Just past a small outlet creek, go right at 1.0 mile onto an unmarked gravel road (small yellow sign) that runs through Douglas-fir forest along the west side of Johnson Marsh for well over a mile, with many vistas and access points. The zone where the forest meets the marsh supports a great diversity of passerines, including flycatchers, four species of wrens (House, Pacific, Marsh, Bewick’s), and warblers. Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, and Purple Martin nest at Johnson Marsh, which is also one of the few places in Western Washington where Yellow-headed Blackbird occurs occasionally (has nested).

Return to East Gate Road, turn right (west), and continue another 1.0 mile west on East Gate Road. Turn left onto the first asphalt road at the Roy Gate road sign just before the railroad crossing. This road runs south along the west edge of a large prairie with scattered Ponderosa Pines to a closed gate on the northern outskirts of Roy. A good graded road turns off to the left in 0.4 mile, crossing the north end of the tract. Look and listen for House Wren, Western Bluebird, and Chipping Sparrows. Six-tenths of a mile south of this intersection, another paved road branches off to the southeast, crosses the prairie, and runs along the west side of Chambers Lake, which is fringed with brush and open stands of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas-fir, and Garry Oak—good for passerines. The lake itself may have Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup among other ducks, and Virginia Rail. After the lake, the pavement ends and the dirt road swings back north through the forested eastern part of the area.

To access TA 4 and TA 5, two of the best birding areas on JBLM, go back to East Gate Road, turn left, cross the railroad tracks, and continue past the gun ranges. At 2.2 miles turn left onto a paved road. Travel 0.6 mile and take the right fork. TA 5 is on the right. On the left is an artillery impact area, the 91st Division Prairie, which is the largest prairie in western Washington. This is a restricted area. Watch for bluebird boxes along the road. At 2.1 miles from the fork, just before the OP 8 sign, make a right turn uphill to an overlook of this huge prairie. MacGillivray’s Warbler and Lazuli Bunting have nested in the immediate area, and American Kestrel, and Yellow and other warblers, nearby.

Return to the main road and turn right (west). At 1.6 miles from the overlook, bear right (north) at the fork. TA 5 is on the right and TA 4 is on the left. Good birding areas are accessible at various pullouts on either side of this road. The area along the tree line to the west (TA 4) is a migrant trap, especially for warblers in the spring. Various flycatchers, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Western Tanager, and Purple Finch may be found here regularly.

Retrace your route to East Gate Road. Turn right and cross SR-507. Continue east 2.0 miles to the intersection with Eighth Avenue S, and turn right. Thirteenth Division Prairie (only TA 13 is accessible)—a vast prairie bordered by open, dry Douglas-fir forest and a few scrubby clearcuts—begins just south of Rice Kandle Road S, 2.5 miles from the SR-507 intersection (about half a mile south of East Gate Road). Turn off to the west and drive Rice Kandle Road (dirt road) to likely habitat. TA 13 is west of the first major dirt road that goes south from Rice Kandle Road. Muck Creek runs through the site in a corridor of Oregon Ash. Short-eared Owl, Common Nighthawk, Western Kingbird, Horned Lark, and Vesper Sparrow are among the birds seen at least occasionally. The vegetation along the creek can be good for migrant passerines and riparian species.

Travel south on Eighth Avenue S. Once you cross 288th Street S (2.5 miles from Rice Kandle Road S) you are off the military reservation. Continue 4.0 miles south and turn right onto SR-702. Weir Prairie (TA 21; Tenalquot Prairie on some maps), near Rainier, can be reached by turning left (south) on SR-507 in McKenna. Continue to Yelm and take a left onto First Street to follow SR-507 to Rainier. In Rainier, take the first right turn after Centre Street onto Minnesota Street, unsigned. The road bends left, then right, becoming 138th Street SE and finally Rainier Road SE. In 2.1 miles, turn right (northeast) onto Military Road SE, which in 0.6 mile bends right (east) onto 123rd Avenue SE. Where the road bends, take an immediate sharp left turn and then a quick right into the access road for Weir Prairie (TA 21), which is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. This is normally a good place for Western Bluebird and Western Meadowlark. In early spring, look also for Mountain Bluebird (rare). Unusual birds, including Acorn Woodpecker, have been found here in recent years. The Garry Oaks along much of the west edge of the prairie are a good place to search for passerines, including House Wren.

Go back to Rainier Road SE and turn right (northwest). This stretch of Rainier Road bisects Lower Weir Prairie, with well-maintained gravel roads leading off in several directions. The prairie has Northern Bobwhite, Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, and Western Meadowlark. For one reasonably consistent location for Northern Bobwhite, go right from Rainier Road onto a road at the northwest edge of the prairie (0.6 mile from the Military Road intersection); follow this paved-though-potholed road 0.8 mile to an intersection with a gravel road. Park here and walk southeastward (right) toward some snags, a rise (glacial terrace edge), and shrubby cover in the center of the prairie. House Wren and Western Bluebird are here as well. Roadside forest edges may hold Hammond’s Flycatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Western Tanager, and several others.



Return to the town of Rainier and turn right (southwest) onto SR-507, continuing to Tenino (city limits sign 6.8 miles). If you explore side streets and residential areas north from the main drag, you should be able to find Western Scrub-Jay on phone lines or other perches. At the other edge of Tenino (about two miles), turn right (west) onto Pacific Highway SE (Old Highway 99), then bear right (west) onto 183rd Avenue SW (5.2 miles). Soon after crossing over I-5, turn right onto Guava Street (0.4 mile) and continue straight to the large gravel parking lot near the end, on the left (Discover Pass required). This is the main entrance to Scatter Creek Wildlife Area at the north edge of Mound Prairie. The site is popular with upland bird hunters and dog trainers and should be avoided in the hunting season, which is not a hardship since the best period for birding is late April though early June. (Game bird releases occur—don’t assume California Quail, Northern Bobwhite, or Ring-necked Pheasant are wild or established, and certainly the occasional Chukar is not part of the countable avifauna.)

This is a great place for an early morning walk in spring. Take the trail westward from the parking lot, between the barn and the creek—and for the more ambitious, all the way around the oak grove, fields, edges, and overgrown areas to the west and south. There is a fine riparian area of Oregon Ash with surrounding Garry Oak and understory shrubs. Across the creek are conifers of the typical lowland Douglas-fir association. These varied habitats will produce an excellent list of Western Washington lowland species, in addition to many of the local prairie specialties. When restoration efforts have kept the invasive Scot’s Broom at bay, Scatter Creek can be a fabulous spot for prairie wildflowers from May into the summer.

From the parking lot at Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, go back south to 183rd Avenue SW, turn right, and travel west 1.6 miles to Sargent Road SW. Go right (north) to the intersection with Littlerock Road SW in 2.0 miles, and turn right again. The road follows the Black River, on the left, which flows south into the Chehalis. The valley’s breadth is a reminder of the tremendous volume of glacial meltwater that coursed through this area for centuries, as the last ice age came to an end. There is not much river access on foot, but birding is excellent from a canoe or kayak. A gravel pullout 2.2 miles ahead is a good place to launch. To reach other access points, drive north to Littlerock (4.3 miles from Sargent Road), jog right onto 128th Avenue SW, then left, continuing north on Littlerock Road for another 0.5 mile. Turn left onto 123rd Avenue SW to a river crossing. An open wetland here has resident waterfowl, rails, and other marsh birds, and a few shorebirds in migration. Turn right 0.2 mile past the bridge and go north on Endicott Road SW. Mima Prairie is on your left. Watch for Elk. In 1.3 miles from 123rd, the road turns right and becomes 110th Avenue SW.

Another canoe launch is located near the river bridge (0.7 mile). A five-mile stretch of the river upstream from Littlerock to the south end of Black Lake, near Olympia, is the backbone of the Black River unit managed by Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The slow-flowing river and dense riparian vegetation, with Oregon Ash, Black Cottonwood, Red-osier Dogwood, willows, and other trees, has been described as having a character reminiscent of rivers in the southeastern United States. Expect Green Heron (common), Bullock’s Oriole, and other typical riparian species, including a few small concentrations of Red-eyed Vireos.



Birders should not miss visiting the nearby Mima (pronounced MY-muh) Prairie, west and south of Littlerock, to ponder the elusive origins of the strange mounded surface of the ground. Interpretive displays at the 445-acre Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve will help get you started with some of the explanations that have been proposed. Prehistoric pocket gophers are among the more intriguing hypotheses. From the intersection with Littlerock Road in Littlerock, go west on 128th Avenue SW. At the intersection in 0.8 mile, go right (north) onto Waddell Creek Road SW. Proceed 0.8 mile and turn left into the entrance to Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve (brown sign). Continue to the parking and picnic area, where nature trails lead from conifer woods to the prairie edge. Western Meadowlarks are common on the grasslands. Return to Waddell Creek Road. A left turn brings you in 1.6 miles to the Waddell Creek Entrance to the Capitol State Forest (page 211).

Backtrack on Waddell Creek Road SW until it becomes Mima Road SW at the junction with 128th Avenue SW. Continue south for 0.9 mile, where the forest edge thins. This part of the preserve can be viewed from Mima Road SW on the east, Bordeaux Road SW on the south, and Marksman Road SW on the west (map on page 192). Pullouts are few and traffic presents a hazard. One wide pullout with a sign noting prairie restoration efforts is located a quarter-mile down Bordeaux Road SW. This area is actively managed to control Scot’s Broom and other invasives. Species abundance and distribution, and ease of birding, shift with the vegetation.

Return to 128th Avenue SW and turn right (east) to I-5 Exit 95 in 3.7 miles. Take I-5 northbound for Olympia (page 208), or southbound to Centralia, Chehalis, and birding sites of Southwestern Washington (page 226). Or continue down Mima Road to Gate Road SW, then left onto Moon Road SW to reach US-12 (about eight miles).