RIDGEFIELD NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — Black Phoebe, a plump gray-and-white songbird, is somewhere up in a tree. Roger Windemuth can’t spot it, but he recognizes its quick little chirp.
The Audubon Field Guide map of the Black Phoebe’s range extends from the southwestern tip of Oregon down through coastal California and Mexico. But Windemuth, a dedicated and longtime volunteer for Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, knows better: He’s been tracking the growth of a little Black Phoebe community at the refuge for over a decade now, he said.
Most Wednesdays for the past 17 years, Windemuth has made long, patient rounds of the refuge’s River S Unit. He typically spends five hours or longer driving the 4-mile, one-way road at a snail’s pace, with frequent pauses to deploy his sighting scope, his camera and his patience.
“I’ve enjoyed birding for most of my life,” he said. “I enjoy the peace. I enjoy being in nature.”
While Windemuth likes the solitude, he said other birders are his motivation to diligently collect and compile a weekly sighting list that includes every species he can identify during a given visit. Depending on the season, he said, the list can grow to 60 birds. (Black Phoebe is footnoted on the list as “uncommon.”)
Windemuth said he hopes his list will serve as an inspiration to other birders, especially beginners.
“My purpose in starting the list, back in 2007, was so people coming here could see what’s possible,” he said.
BirdFest & Bluegrass
You can put Windemuth’s expertise to use Saturday, as the Friends and the city of Ridgefield stage BirdFest & Bluegrass, an annual celebration of the refuge and downtown’s down-home scene. Refuge access usually costs $3, but from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday it’ll be entirely free — both to drive the River S Unit (where Audubon volunteers will share spotting scopes), which is just south of downtown, and to hike and to explore the Carty Unit, which is just north. Activities at the Carty Unit will include hourly guided walks and family arts and crafts. A Chinook tribal blessing will launch Carty’s activities at 10 a.m.
Meanwhile, downtown will host vendors, bluegrass performances and friendly jamming that’s open to all. A guided 5K walk leaving downtown at 11 a.m. will tour the refuge while raising funds for a future Community Nature Center onsite.
This year’s event mascot, by the way, is the American kestrel, a colorful little raptor featured on Friends’ latest $5 fundraising button, which is available at the event.
Markers, not meetings
Windemuth taught school in the San Francisco area (where he learned birding from a friend) and then in Medford, Ore., before moving to Hockinson. He was principal of Meadow Glade Elementary School until he retired. At that point, he said, he knew just what he wanted to do.
“The week after I retired, I started volunteering here,” said Windemuth, 81, who still lives in Hockinson.
The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, consists of 5,200 acres of wetlands, meadows and forests alongside the Columbia River. The site was designated a refuge in 1965 to provide habitat for wintering waterfowl, but it’s been popular with birds since time immemorial.
“I could not Sleep for the noise kept by the Swans, Geese, white & black brant, Ducks … & Sand hill Crane, they were emensely numerous and their noise horrid,” explorer William Clark famously complained about the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s November 1805 overnight stay at Post Office Lake, a section of today’s refuge that’s still open to wildlife but closed to people.
Today’s refuge is still known for fall stopovers by ear-splitting masses of geese and swans, as well as rare sandhill cranes. Many other bird and wildlife species call the refuge home year-round, including owls, eagles, foxes, porcupines and coyotes.
The complex web of life at the refuge makes it a serene yet busy place, and Windemuth never found any shortage of ways to volunteer, he said. In addition to his weekly bird-sighting list, which has been going strong since 2007, he also initiated and judged a refuge photo contest; worked on the River S auto tour CD and podcast that drivers can listen to as they inch along; penned Roger’s Ramblings, his own personal newsletter about the refuge; and served on the Friends board of directors for three years, which reminded him why he retired, he added with a chuckle.
“I don’t like meetings,” Windemuth said.
Of all these projects and accomplishments, the one that makes Windemuth proudest is the series of 14 numbered posts set at intervals along the River S drive. These markers, which he conceived and installed with fellow refuge volunteer and buddy Al Larrabee, provide handier landmarks than “that tree” or “that bend in the road” for birders tipping one another off about sightings, Windemuth said. He said markers are referenced in the audio auto tour, too, because they’re useful for locating the drive’s hottest birding spots.
Listen, look, list
Windemuth eased his truck to the side of the road, rolled open his window and plopped a big beanbag onto the window opening. There, he rested a long-lensed sighting scope comfortably and stably.
Then, he waited.
“When I first get to a particular area, I’m patient,” Windemuth said. Arriving, even slowly, in a noisy motorized beast can drive off anything nearby. Stopping the sounds and motion invites their peaceful return, eventually.
“I might just stay half an hour, and just listen and look,” he said.
Anything Windemuth can see from refuge land is fair game for his bird sighting list, he said, whether it’s perched in a nearby tree or flying far overhead. Occasionally Windemuth is known to connect an external speaker to his phone and deploy an app called eBird. It not only provides handy information for identifying birds and sharing sightings with other users, it even broadcasts recorded bird calls that can be used to trick nearby birds into singsong conversations. That can help birders figure out who and where they are, Windemuth said.
The eBird app has become crucial to Windemuth’s weekly bird list. Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the free app allows birders to check their sightings against a massive and growing online database. When he’s done with an outing, Windemuth forwards his report to eBird for use by scientists and others in the field, all around the globe. He also posts it online (ridgefieldfriends.org/bird-sightings-species-list/weekly-bird-sightings) and in the glass cabinet at the visitor station at the start of the River S Unit.
Windemuth may enjoy solitude, but he gets plenty of social interaction at the refuge.
Stopping by the visitor station on a recent Friday, he shook hands with fellow volunteer Brent Waddell, who was staying warm inside the tiny one-room office while encouraging passersby to borrow a free CD or podcast for the journey (and to pay the $3 entry fee). Down the road, Windemuth shared photography and sighting tips with a couple of strangers he bumped into at a bird blind beside the driving route. Later still he spotted refuge wildlife biologist Alex Chmielewski nearly waist-deep in a pond as he opened up underwater culvert doors to let water flow into basins that were still dry in late September.
“In a few weeks this will be crowded and loud,” Windemuth said.
That underlined an aspect of the refuge that most visitors miss: this landscape may seem natural, but it’s been redesigned, rebuilt and intensively managed for decades. The water coming into the ponds is pumped from the Columbia River. Chmielewski said he monitors pond waters to ensure that plentiful plant food can grow and that big crowds of migrating waterfowl have adequate space to spread out.
It may not be natural to pick favorites, but Windemuth had no problem coming up with the bird species he likes least and best.
He said his least favorite is the starling, a small passerine that can crowd out other birds and damage crops. The starling was imported from Europe in the 1870s and is still considered invasive today. (Even one bird-loving Audubon columnist refers to the starling as “destructive, loud and annoying.”)
Windemuth’s favorite bird? Probably the red-breasted nuthatch, a fast, fearless, energetic and acrobatic little forager.
“It’s feisty,” Windemuth said. “I like its spirit.”