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2016 Best of Olympia: Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

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The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife preserve operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on the Nisqually River Delta near Puget Sound in northeastern Thurston County. File photo

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I'm not a birder. In theory I should be. I mean, I love nature, animals, seeing animals in their world, any reason to get outside and any excuse to travel. Being a birder would facilitate all of these things, but nothing seems more boring to me. Looking through binoculars at a tiny bird that is far away, then trying to identify it by looking at an encyclopedia is not my idea of a good time. No offense to the avid bird watchers I know, it's just not my cup of coffee.

This is why I had never been to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The estuary was restored in 2009 by removing dikes and reconnecting 762 acres with Puget Sound. It's an important habitat for many critters, but the big attraction is the birds. Located just north of Lacey, everyone passes it on I-5. But I'm here to tell you that it is about so much more than the birds.

Historical farms built dikes to take advantage of the rich soil, creating a separation from the salt water of Puget Sound. But while other estuaries were filled, dredged or developed, the rural nature of this property kept it intact. In 1974, the land was set aside as the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, ensuring its protection from future development. Through partnerships with the Nisqually Tribe and federal support, the refuge underwent a massive restoration in 2009, removing the historical barrier to the mixing of salt and fresh water. Today, it serves as a crucial migration stop and year round home for over 300 species of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

A wooden boardwalk leads into the foliage and I was instantly struck by the variety of loud bird calls. I have no idea who makes what sound but I can appreciate the variety of species I heard singing, squawking and calling during the course of the day. I've never heard such a diversity of noises that were so calming. The next thing I noticed was how the path seemed to keep revealing surprises. At one point I had a view of the open wetlands, and only a few steps later, I was looking at the Nisqually River. The wooden boardwalk forms a one-mile loop trail through a variety of habitats. The railings are dotted with informational placards describing birds and other animals you might see. About halfway through is a lovely picnic spot by the historical barns and a connection to a gravel path that leads out into the estuary. This gravel path connects to several excellent observation points, and if you did the complete walk, it adds up to more than four miles.

I may not be a birder, but I was delighted by the birds. I saw little gray birds, little striped birds, big red robins, heard a woodpecker going to town, and saw the ever present Canadian Geese in a setting that actually suited them. It was delightful. The old barns made me feel a little like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I felt like I could hear everything - from birds calling to a critter rooting around in the grass. It was a surreal escape considering it was just three minutes off I-5.

It's important to keep in mind that the refuge is there to serve wildlife, not people. This is the animals' house. No jogging, bike riding or dog walking allowed. This isn't a place for rambunctious games of tag or raucous family reunions, but if you or your kids enjoy experiencing a place where you are a guest of the animals, this is the place for you.

The refuge and trails are open daily from sunrise to sunset (gates close and lock at sunset). The Visitor Center and Gift Shop are open Wednesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Daily fee is $3 for up to four adults. Kids 16 and younger are free. Pay at the self-pay kiosk in front of the Visitor Center.

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is located at 100 Brown Farm Road in Nisqually.

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