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A day among nature

Tualatin River Bird Festival attracts 1,000 visitors to wildlife refuge


by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Scott Salzwedel, an Audubon Society of Portland volunteer, holds a raven on display during the Tualatin River Bird Festival put on by the Friends of the Refuge, at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.An archery instructor squatted down next to a little girl and showed her how to take aim. The multi-colored target, big but low to the ground, sat about 20 feet ahead. The girl pulled back and released, sending the blunt-tipped arrow somewhere into the grass below.

After the girl’s turn was over, the volunteer stood up and faced the line of children and parents that had formed.

“Are you next?” she asked, directing her question to the first boy in line. He stood there, unresponsive, along with the other children. Archery is scary.

A new event at this year’s Tualatin River Bird Festival, archery was one of the more popular (and nerve-wracking) events for the kids on this family-friendly day. Taking place on Saturday, the festival was the biggest event of the year for the Friends of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, hosting more than 1,000 visitors with the help of more than 100 volunteers.by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Cecile Valastro, an Audubon Society of Portland volunteer, instructs visitors about a vulture on display during the Tualatin River Bird Festival.

Since it began 18 years ago, the event has changed quite a bit. Today, the festival features luxury shuttle buses (since the refuge can’t accommodate hundreds of cars), activities starting at 5:30 a.m., a visitor’s center and a live bird show. Then, it was a four-hour event at a different location in an old barn with school buses as shuttles.

“It was nice because people didn’t have access to the refuge at that point in time,” said Friends of the Refuge Board President Cheryl Hart. “(The festival) was the only opportunity people had to get onto refuge land.”

The first festival came only four years after the refuge earned its credentials as a way to bring people in and let them know the protected land existed. Currently, it still follows a similar formula. Completely free (with the hope of a small donation) and open to the public, the Tualatin River Bird Festival is a way to engage the community with nature regardless of whether visitors spot an eagle or a salamander.

“My favorite thing every year is just seeing families here enjoying the outdoors,” said Hart. “And being comfortable there.”

Growing up in rural Idaho, Hart has always been more comfortable in the country than in the city. This remained the case when she moved to Oregon. With her home’s windows facing the wetlands, Hart said the refuge is, quite literally, her backyard. Right away, she became a member of the Friends group, before there was anything to show except a trail. She worked her way through the ranks, first as a regular volunteer, then as chair on the bookstore committee, which led to secretary, until finally she became president nine years ago.

For Hart, being in nature is what feels natural, but she knows that not everyone feels this way and enjoys being able to share this experience with refuge visitors.

“I didn’t know that people could be afraid of nature, but a lot of people who grew up in more urban settings think nature is icky,” Hart said. “I love people out there learning that nature is fun and interesting and that it’s always new and exciting.”

On Saturday afternoon, families walked around the festival wearing hats and backpacks, listening to presentations from volunteers on the trail and learning how to cast fishing rods in the grass. A new event this year, hay rides were offered every 30 minutes so visitors could ride down a three-mile trail through the wetlands. Hart was especially excited about this because prior to the wagons, visitors with small children or mobility restraints weren’t able to see as much of the refuge as they liked.by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Visitors got to see a vulture on display at Saturday's Tualatin River Bird Festival at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Even after 22 years of the refuge’s existence, the festival still draws people from across the region who’ve never been before. The Friends also focus on reaching out to people from diverse backgrounds so that as many cultures as possible can experience wildlife that call the refuge home.

Christie Ekerson, who lives in Dundee but works in Tualatin, said the festival was the perfect way to get her back to the refuge. Even though she drives by it twice a day on her way to and from work, she hadn’t visited the refuge in years. Knowing that her mother would enjoy spending the day out there, Ekerson made sure to attend the festival.

The is part of the festival’s mission: to remind the public that the refuge is theirs for the using. Encompassing land along the Tualatin River, enough trails wind throughout that visitors will have fun and learn about nature even on activity-free days.

“If you’re interested in nature and conservation, it feels good,” said Friends of the Refuge volunteer Carolyn Uyemura. “It’s a natural connection, (and) it seems like the place to be.”

By this fall, plans for the 2015 Tualatin River Bird Festival will already be in the works, a continuous step in the Friends’ mission to serve the refuge and maintain its varied habitats.

“Nature is such a healing and refreshing place,” said Hart. “I think it’s part of human nature that nurtures our soul.”

The visitor’s center is located at 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway in Sherwood. To learn more about Friends of the Refuge, visit friendsoftualatinrefuge.org. by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Birds and other wildlife can oftern be spotted at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in Sherwood.  by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Dolores Weisbaum, an Audubon Society of Portland volunteer, displays a spotted owl during the Tualatin River Bird Festival at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.
by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Visitors are treated to a hay ride during the Tualatin River Bird Festival.
by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Sherie Salzwedel, an Audubon Society of Portland volunteer, shows off an American kestrel at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.
by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Cecile Valastro, Deanna Sawtelle and Sherie Salzwedel teach guests about American kestrels during the Tualatin River Bird Festival.
by: TIMES PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Guests learned about the spotted owl and other native birds at the Tualatin River Bird Festival.



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