by Wilson Cady

revised by Wilson Cady

The Columbia River bottomlands north and east of Vancouver, though mostly diked, offer vast freshwater marshes, grasslands, shallow lakes, and some of the densest remaining high-quality floodplain forest in Washington. The mile-wide Columbia is tidal here, and the shoreline is just a few feet above sea level, conveying an estuarine feeling. The most important sites are the Lewis River delta, near Woodland; alluvial deposits from the outwash of the Willamette River, near Vancouver; and the mouth of the Columbia Gorge, near Washougal. Birders come here principally to find waterfowl, raptors, Sandhill Cranes, and gulls, in migration and winter. Birding is also good for typical passerines in all seasons, and the area has had its share of rarities.



The Woodland Bottoms are a diked remnant of the former floodplain at the confluence of the Columbia and Lewis Rivers. Nearly all of the land inside the dike has been converted to agricultural use; crops are rotated yearly. In migration and winter, geese, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes move from field to field depending on what foods are available. The best way to bird this area is by scanning the fields as you drive the road on top of the encircling  dike,  looking  for signs  of  bird  activity. When you see something interesting, drive the crossroads to get closer. The dike road also gives access to riparian forest, beaches, and sandbars along the Columbia River. Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, and other raptors can be plentiful here, feeding on birds or on salmon and smelt in the Lewis River. In years when there is a smelt run, loons, grebes, and thousands of gulls gather at the river’s mouth in March.

Take Exit 22 west from I-5, go around two round-abouts and onto Dike Access Road, and continue for 1.6 miles to the dike. To the right, Dike Road dead-ends in 1.3 miles after paralleling a shallow slough bordered by an extensive willow forest on the far shore. Shorebirds and wading birds use the mudflats exposed when water levels are low. Purple Martins sit on the power lines around the pumping station.

Return to the intersection with Dike Access Road and continue south on Dike Road for 0.7 mile to the WDFW Access Area at Martin Bar, on the Columbia River. (A daily fee or Discover Pass required; the Port of Woodland owns the surrounding land and is seeking to buy the WDFW site; a port pass will be required if the sale occurs.) The wave-protected waters around the offshore sandbars here and for the next four miles harbor loons, grebes, and waterfowl, while geese and gulls roost on the sandbars.

In 4.7 miles from Martin Bar, the dike-top road makes a 90-degree turn to the east, following the Lewis River. Check for birds on the pilings. Barrow’s Goldeneyes winter near the railroad bridge (1.0 mile). From here, drive north on Kuhnis Road 1.6 miles to an intersection. Turn right on Whalen Road, then bear left on South Pekin Road (which will become Fifth Street as it enters Woodland), skirting Horseshoe Lake and reaching Davidson Avenue in 1.3 miles. Turn right and follow the main road through Woodland to I-5 Exit 21 in 0.6 mile.



This 5,150-acre refuge was created in 1965 to protect the Dusky Canada Goose, a dark-breasted subspecies that nests mainly on the Copper River delta in south central Alaska. A daily fee or an America the Beautiful Pass is required and is good at both units of the refuge that are open to the public. Oak woodland, extensive areas of marsh, and wet fields attract a great diversity of other bird species, including Sandhill Cranes. Much of the refuge is closed to provide sanctuary for Bald Eagles and other nesting species. Two units that are open to the public can be reached by taking Exit 14 from I-5 and driving west on SR-501 (Pioneer Street). Turn left at S Ninth Avenue in Ridgefield (2.5 miles) and drive 0.6 mile to the entrance to the River “S” Unit, on the right. The entrance road goes steeply down through a ravine forested with Douglas-fir, Western Redcedar, and Bigleaf Maple where you may find Hutton’s Vireo, Varied Thrush (winter), and other passerines. Across Lake River, the refuge is diked and managed through agricultural practices to provide winter food and resting areas for up to 25,000 geese and 40,000 ducks. Tundra Swans are abundant from fall to mid-March.

Between October 1 and April 30, you must remain in your vehicle as you travel the 4.0-mile auto tour route. The only exceptions are the entrance parking lot and the observation blind at Rest Lake. Birds become accustomed to vehicles and remain close to the roads without flushing, allowing observation and photography. During the rest of the year you may get out and walk anywhere along the tour route. Wheelchair-accessible Kiwa Trail, just past the observation blind, loops through wetlands with nesting rails. Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest in cattail patches on several of the lakes along the auto tour.

The water level of the many lakes on this unit is controlled to optimize the growth of aquatic plants upon which the waterfowl feed. American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, and Soras are common in these habitats. Recently, Black Phoebes have nested and wintered here and may be encountered along the Auto Tour Route. In late summer some of the lakes become mudflats, attracting up to a dozen species of shorebirds. The stands of Oregon Ash, Black Cottonwood, and willows on both this and the Carty Unit are the best place in the state to look for Red-shouldered Hawks, which have wintered here annually for more than two decades.

To visit the Carty Unit return to Ridgefield and turn left onto Pioneer Street, then right in 0.4 mile onto Main Avenue, which leaves town and drops down to cross Gee Creek (brush and trees worth checking for winter sparrow flocks) on its way to the refuge entrance, on the left (1.0 mile). This undiked, non-hunting unit—open year round—preserves a Columbia River floodplain in much the same condition as in 1806, when Lewis and Clark visited the Chinook village of Cathlapotle and its 900 inhabitants near this spot. A cedar plankhouse has been built here with help from the Chinooks to provide visitors with information about the people and their connection to the land.

Two trails await you on the other side of the footbridge spanning the railroad tracks. The one to the left goes down a hill and along an old road skirting Carty Lake, through cottonwood and willow stands. In winter, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons prey on ducks, snipe, and other birds in the open meadows. The Oaks to Wetlands Trail, to the right, is a nearly-level, two-mile loop that starts under majestic Garry Oaks. Western Scrub-Jays are common here. The hardwood forests of Clark County are perhaps the only place in the state where one can still reliably see White-breasted Nuthatches of the subspecies aculeata, which once nested fairly commonly from the Vancouver Lowlands north to the Fort Lewis Prairies. This coastal form is still widespread in western Oregon, but the Washington population is close to extirpation. The trail continues over basalt outcroppings forested with Oregon Ash, Garry Oak, and Douglas-fir, with places where you have good views of ponds and wetlands. Many bird species use these mixed habitats.



A diked remnant of the vast floodplain at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, west of the city of Vancouver, the Vancouver Lowlands attract many of the same species as the adjacent Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to the north. Birding is best here from early fall through late spring, when wintering species congregate. The large flocks of Cackling and Canada Geese may contain five or more subspecies and should be carefully checked for other geese—Greater White-fronted, Emperor (casual), Snow, Ross’s (rare), and Brant.

Take Exit 1D from I-5 and drive west on Fourth Plain Boulevard (SR-501). In 1.5 miles, at the Fruit Valley Road intersection, stay straight ahead onto NW Lower River Road.

Continue west, checking the ponds and fields for geese, ducks, Great Egrets, and Sandhill Cranes. In 3.3 miles, stop on the right at the parking lot for the flushing channel that brings water from the Columbia River into Vancouver Lake. The influx of fresh water attracts fish and the birds that feed on them. Loons, Western Grebes, and Double-crested Cormorants winter here. Occasionally a Red-necked or Clark’s Grebe can be spotted among them. During late summer and at low tide, mudflats in a bay on the right (south) side of the flushing channel attract shorebirds. With a surface area of 2,800 acres, Vancouver Lake was less than three feet deep until it was dredged and the flushing channel constructed. The dredge spoils were used to make an island in the center of the lake that serves as a night-time roost for over 5,000 gulls during the winter months. Check them when they depart at dawn, or at dusk as they are returning.

Just ahead is an intersection where NW Lower River Road turns left. Stay straight ahead onto SR-501 Spur/Erwin O. Rieger Memorial Highway and continue 0.6 mile to the entrance to Vancouver Lake County Park, on the right. Ornamental trees and thick plantings of shrubs throughout the park attract migrant and wintering passerines. At the north end of the park is a trail lined with roses and other thick brush that harbors many sparrows. The trail leads to an Oregon Ash forest that may produce roosting owls or hawks.

Turn right from the park entrance and continue north. For the next 1.7 miles, until it ends, the road parallels the shore of Vancouver Lake. The land on the right side of the road is owned by Clark County Parks, and access to the lake is available in several spots. On the left side, the road follows one edge of the Shillapoo Wildlife Area (WDFW permit or Discover Pass required to park), approximately 1,000 acres of grasslands and wetlands around the bed of a seasonal lake used as a pheasant-release site for hunting purposes. In winter, Short-eared Owls are found in the open fields. Geese, Tundra Swans, and Sandhill Cranes can be numerous here when hunters are not present.

Return to Lower River Road and turn right (west). The fields on both sides of the road in 1.5 miles are one of the better spots in the lowlands to find Sandhill Cranes and goose flocks. Opposite the entrance to Frenchman’s Bar Park (0.3 mile) is a Great Blue Heron rookery. Continue scanning the fields and ponds as you drive to Post Office Lake (4.5 miles), in the south section of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The fields and lake here, which are closed to hunting, are often swarming with geese and ducks in winter. From the parking lot at the end of Lower River Road you can walk the old road on top of the failing dike for about a mile. (Note: There is a plan to close the road 1.3 miles short of Post Office Lake that could take effect in 2016 or 2017. If the road is closed, try nearby Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park, which has trails and access to the river.)

Return toward Vancouver and turn left (north) onto NW Fruit Valley Road. In 0.4 mile, at the intersection with La Frambois Road, check the Fruit Valley Sewage Treatment Plant ponds for diving ducks—mostly Ring-neckeds and Lesser Scaup, with some Canvasbacks and Ruddies. With a spotting scope you may be able to find a few Greater Scaup and possibly a Redhead or even a Tufted Duck (casual). La Frambois Road continues north to a parking area and boat launch in the Vancouver Lake Wildlife Area—some 500 acres of brush and fields and a stretch of shoreline at the south end of the lake (Discover Pass required). During hunting season, when the fields are a pheasant-release site and the boat launch is used by duck hunters, bird from the road.


Upriver from Vancouver, a productive stretch of Columbia River bottomland—now diked and drained—extends eastward for about four miles from the town of Washougal to Point Vancouver, at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge. This is a migration crossroads, as birds following along the Cascade foothills or traveling through the gorge stop to use the ponds, marshes, pastures, riparian woodlands, river beaches, and offshore waters. Over 200 species have been recorded here, including numerous unusual species such as Tufted Duck, Surf Scoter, White-faced Ibis, White-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Gyrfalcon, Gray Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Sage Thrasher, and Palm Warbler. A substantial part of these lands is within the 1,049-acre Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1984 and featuring a walking trail opened to the public in 2009.

Take Exit 1A from I-5 (or Exit 27 from I-205), drive east on SR-14 to Washougal, and at the stoplight at 15th Street turn right to Steamboat Landing Park (10 miles east of I-205). From the floating fishing dock, scan the Columbia River for diving ducks, loons, and grebes over the rocky reef just downstream. The park is the west access to the dike separating the Columbia from its former floodplain around Steigerwald Lake. The Columbia River Dike Trail extends east for about 3.5 miles; do not cross any fences onto refuge or private property.

To shorten the walk to the best birding places, return to SR-14 and drive east to the S 32nd Street entrance to the Port Industrial Area, on the right (1.0 mile). Just after turning off, stop at a pullout on the right side of S 32nd Street that affords views of a remnant channel of Gibbons Creek. To the west, the creek is lined with trees and brush, good for Wood Ducks and Green Herons. East across the road, the creek goes through a large marsh where bitterns and rails are common.

Continue south on S 32nd Street to Index Street and the Captain William Clark Park parking lot by the dike (0.5 mile). A trail over the dike leads to sandy Cottonwood Beach through an extensive riparian forest of cottonwood, ash, and willow—excellent in migration for passerines. Bullock’s Oriole is a conspicuous nester here.

If you plan on walking the dike, use the parking lots farther east on Index Street. From there, a path leads into the forest at Cottonwood Beach farther away from most beach activities, and the Columbia River Dike Trail, which is open to jogging, bicycling, horseback riding and dog walking. Note Reed Island out in the Columbia River, the southernmost spot in the state and accessible only by boat. This undeveloped state park has a Great Blue Heron rookery. Check the shallow, protected waters between the island and the dike for diving ducks, loons, and grebes, and the open fields for geese, raptors, and cranes. There is a series of Purple Martin nesting colonies along the dike, and some Purple Martins nest in the cottonwood snags on the refuge.

Along the dike, note the white posts with mileage marks. The barns at mile 1.25 often have wintering sparrows around them. Shallow Red-tail Lake, just past these barns, at the refuge boundary, is good for wintering waterfowl and nesting American Bitterns. Here one can access the Steigerwald Lake NWR via the south end of the Gibbons Creek Art Trail, and walk the trail north two miles to the visitor parking lot on SR-14.

At mile 2.0 is the Gibbons Creek fish ladder, installed to allow salmon and Steelhead to return to the creek after a 20-year absence. Long rows of cottonwoods parallel to the river mark what were the tops of sandbars when this area flooded annually, before construction of the dike. Here you may find nesting White-breasted Nuthatches (the declining Westside race), House Wrens, and Lazuli Buntings. And here is the east entrance to the Gibbons Creek Art Trail; this segment of the trail is closed from 1 October to 1 May to protect a wintering wildlife feeding area. Before walking back to your vehicle, you can continue out the Dike Trail for another half-mile to where a fence marking private property crosses the dike.

Go back to S 32nd Street. Drive north to SR-14, turn right, and drive east. On the right in 0.5 mile, the Washougal Sewage Lagoons are viewable from the entrance road or from the highway shoulder a few yards ahead. Wood Ducks are numerous here in spring and summer.

As you travel east you can safely stop on the wide, paved highway shoulder to view the refuge. A pullout on the right, at the entry to the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, marks the entrance to the Steigerwald Lake NWR visitor parking lot (0.5 mile). From here a 2.75 mile round-trip trail leads through the wetlands and cottonwood forest and connects to the Columbia River Dike Trail. The plantings around this parking lot attract many birds including nesting Lazuli Buntings. This trail forms a loop, but one section of the trail is closed between October 1 and May 1, to prevent disturbance to wintering waterfowl. During that time, you will need to return on the same trail you walked out. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has enlarged what remained of the lake, and volunteers have planted native shrubs, ash and willow trees along the creek and wetlands. Cattail patches have reappeared and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a species that formerly nested here, are being seen again. Thousands of geese and ducks use these fields and the ponds during winter. After returning to SR-14 and turning right, you will need a spotting scope at the last viewing spot, just past the railroad overpass (0.6 mile).