Searching for spring migrants

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About 15 trumpeter swans take advantage of the open water at Pine Lake on the refuge.

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Signs and markers indicate a number of recreational trails at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

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A fisheye lens gives a wide angle view at the Black Horse boardwalk.

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Impressive winter scenes may be common at the refuge in February.

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Informational signs help visitors understand the environment at the refuge.

We entered Cheney on the Spangle-Cheney Road for an early lunch. I stopped at the main drag and looked both ways.

Then, I remembered the nearby Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

"If you're not really hungry, we could hold lunch and visit the refuge," I said. "And I'll take Nora for a walk."

"Well, OK," Darlene said.

She sighed.

So we went.

After a short jog west, I turned left onto the Plaza-Cheney Road. A sign said four miles to the refuge.

"The ponds will be frozen," Darlene said.

She sighed again.

Nora sat in Darlene's lap and fogged the window.

I stopped to pay $3 at the refuge entrance. A sign said no fee from November through February.

"It's leap year," Darlene said.

We drove to the headquarters, but the visitor center had closed for remodeling.

We turned back to the five-mile motor route. A narrow gravel unpaved road with snowy spots curved among meadows, wetlands and a pine forest. It passed several short hikes and interpretive sites.

Spring migrants usually arrive with the March thaw. Up to 208 bird species visit the more-than 200 wetlands on the refuge.

Mammal lists include 44 species.

And the bloom of abundant wildflowers peaks in mid May.

Anyway, as we toured the motor loop, we peered across the stark winter terrain with its dark trees, twisted brown grasses, patches of inch-deep snow and frozen ponds.

The February scene highlighted the gray slumber of winter before the vibrant awakening of spring.

We tooled slowly along the lonesome road. Darlene held the big lens, and we scanned both sides for any critters or songbirds that pushed the season.

We saw nary a one.

I stopped at the Kepple (frozen) Lake Overlook sign (foot traffic only) and snapped a leash to Nora's collar. I took the big lens and a wide-angle lens.

Nora, out at last, jerked the leash taught.

Then, at the top of the overlook, I let her loose and she cavorted with glee.

Unexpectedly, a man loomed among the trees 30 yards away. Nora spotted him, and started to him.

I stayed her with my bossy "Hey!"

She skidded to a stiff-legged stop.

"That's OK. I like dogs," the man called.

"This way," I said, and Nora raced to stand against him as he sat on a stump.

The man recently retired as a member of a special-crimes unit after 25 years on a police force in Vermont. He visited with his brother in Cheney.

He often walked from the headquarters area to the overlook, smoked a cigar, and walked back.

"For exercise," he said.

Eventually, Nora and I meandered past the overlook and back to the truck without seeing a mammal.

We paused again at the Kepple Peninsula Interpretive Trail, a.44-mile path through the four habitats found on the refuge: grassland, Ponderosa pine, riparian and wetland.

Usually a variety of plants and animals may be seen along the trail.

Nora and I doodled along without seeing even a squirrel.

Nora, however, mixed paw prints with coyote tracks.

We had been on the refuge a couple of hours when we stopped at the Black Horse Lake Boardwalk, for about 43 minutes, and I focused the fisheye lens. A few birds fluttered, but the scene mainly remained winter-brown.

From there, I drove back to park near the headquarters and the large informational kiosk. I heard Canada geese honking and saw open water at nearby lakes.

I took the big lens and Nora to check out the geese.

Darlene opened Harry Potter again.

At a pair of high-powered posted telescopes, I saw white swans way off on open water.

As we hurried along the path, geese and ducks rose. I watched as some circled wide and landed again.

We strolled slowly toward the swans and crossed an iron bridge between open waters. Screened by a double-outhouse-sized rock, we slipped closer.

Fearing the swans would fly or swim away, I stopped and took photos. The swans calmly sailed along, back and forth, looking graceful and majestic.

One yawned.

We eventually moved around the lake to get the scant light over my shoulder, and I took more photos.

The truck's dashboard clock said 3:19 p.m. when Nora and I returned to the truck.

So much for lunch.

I asked Darlene if we should go back to Cheney or head home and stop at Colfax.

She chose Colfax, more than an hour away.

We dined at Taco Time there, fetched coffee at an espresso shop on Main Street and reached home well before 8 p.m.

Nora, of course, slept all the way and wanted to play before going to bed.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

If You Go

To reach the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, take Highway 12 north of Walla Walla to the Pomeroy Junction (54 miles); continue north on Highway 127 to Colfax (45 miles, 99 total); continue north on Highway 197 to the Plaza turnoff (32 miles, 131 total).

At Plaza, take Plaza-Cheney Road to the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge entrance on the right, (18 miles, 149 miles total, five miles shy of Cheney).

For more refuge information, visit www.fws.gov/turnbull.

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