Between Corvallis and Monroe off of Highway 99W sits the William L. Finely National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in the 1960s, primarily to provide wintering habitat for dusky Canada geese. As an added bonus, it now gives protected habitat to many endangered plants and songbirds making it a great place to visit year round.
For many, many years, the Refuge has been on my list of places to see. This winter, after seeing some great photos taken by a friend, I decided to make it a priority. Consequently, earlier this week, as we were taking a trip to Corvallis, we left home a few hours early so we could explore the Refuge.
It was a cold, grey day as headed up Highway 99W. After we drove through the small town of Monroe, we began looking for signs directing us to the Refuge. I pointed at a cloud of birds circling in the sky and said “it’s probably over there.” Indeed, it was. When we entered the Refuge off of Bruce Road, we were under a cloud of thousands of swirling, honking, Canada geese.
Why create a refuge to protect habitat for Canada geese – which we see everywhere throughout the Willamette Valley? As it turns out, there are many different types of Canada geese, and the Dusky which are smaller and have a darker breast, have limited ranges. They spend their summers in the Copper River Delta in Alaska and winter exclusively in the Willamette Valley. The Finley Wildlife Refuge, along with the Ankeny and Baskett Slough Refuges (all located in the mid-Willamette Valley), provides the birds with much needed habitat, and at the same time, protects the surrounding agricultural land.
Right off Highway 99W on Bruce Road is the parking area for McFadden’s Marsh Trail — a .14 mile trail along McFadden’s Marsh which ends in an observation blind. Getting out of the car here, we heard thousands of birds on the marsh chattering to each other and moving about on the water. Occasionally, a huge flock would take off or land. We learned that along with all the honking, you can hear their wings beating as they fly just over your head.
While the refuge was designed with dusky Canada geese in mind, there are tons of other birds here. We loved seeing the large white tundra swans and the pintail ducks. And we were very fortunate to see two golden eagles enjoying a lunch feast. Pictures taken with my pocket camera – especially on such a grey day – do not do the Refuge or the birds any favors. It was amazing, and even more so with a good pair of binoculars.
Many of the trails within the Refuge are closed in the winter to protect wildlife and provide them with sanctuary (and all trails are closed year-round to jogging, biking, and pets). Two trails are open in the winter — Woodpecker Loop Trail and Mill Hill Loop Trail. We had planned to hike one of these during our visit; however, we were at the first observation blind for so long that we didn’t have enough time. Besides, it was a grey, overcast day and while talking to a birder who frequents the park, she mentioned that the longer hikes wouldn’t be that exciting because the views into the Willamette Valley would be obscured. Another birder suggested that we were able to see so many birds on the Marsh in the afternoon because it was overcast – when it is sunny the birds move off the marsh in the afternoon. She also noted that because our water levels are so low this winter (due to the lack of rain) the birds are more concentrated than they usually are.
In the end, we drove the Auto Tour Route (a road that loops through the Refuge) and also stopped at the Homer Campbell Board walk to visit another observation blind. This .4 mile trail is all via a raised boardwalk which winds through a riparian area. The observation blind looks out over Cabell Marsh.
Now that we’ve been to the Finley National Wildlife Refuge, it will not take so long for us to go back. I’d love to see it on a sunny winter day; with the leaves still off the trees the views from the trails should be striking. In the late spring I’d love to go back to see the wildflowers and the spring song bird migration. Summer would be awesome for seeing the families of the water fowl that nest here. And of course in the fall, the song birds will migrate back through and the wintering waterfowl will begin arriving.
At 5,325 acres, The Finley Wildlife Refuge is the biggest of the three mid-Willamette Valley refuges, providing more habitat than Ankeny and Baskett Slough combined. When you come here, you’ll find a mixture of habitats that have all but disappeared from the Willamette Valley, including oak savannas, wet prairies, and bottom-land ash forest. There are over 12 miles of hiking trails, several historic buildings, and the auto tour route. Whether you like to see your nature from the car (which, by the way, makes a great traveling nature blind) or like to get out for hikes of varying lengths, the Refuge has lots to offer.
William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge can be reached off of Highway 99W just 4 miles north of Monroe, in all about an hour drive from Cottage Grove. Signs are limited. Look for Bruce Road on your left, just before the RFP Family Store.