Agreat blue heron stands erect in the murky, ankle deep water of the saltwater marsh. The prehistoric-looking creature’s modified sixth cervical vertebra allows the bird to contort its neck into an S-shape, triggering its potent beak against any unfortunate frog or fish that crosses its path. In the adjacent freshwater marsh, a male belted kingfisher presents a small bass to his mate perched atop an alder snag. Near a moss-draped spruce, an aggressive pair of male rufous hummingbirds whiz by one another at 60 miles an hour, their iridescent throats flash red against the slate gray sky.
From Three Capes Scenic Loop road, the 375-acre Sitka Sedge Natural Area, Oregon’s newest wildlife refuge, is easy to miss, yet despite its modest size, the marshes, forests and coastline here provides a home for an extraordinary diversity of animals, some of those animals, like the snowy plover, are rare elsewhere in the state and in the world.
If two Seattle executives would have had their way in 2007, Sitka Sedge would today be Pacific Gailes Country Club, a Scottish links-style golf course complete with restaurants and a luxury hotel. With the cash for a $35,000 membership fee, you too could have been a member of the Gailes, however the resort was never meant to be. Opposition from Tillamook County commissioners and local citizens frustrated development plans and persuaded the land owner to sell his property to the Portland-based conservation group Ecotrust in 2014. Ecotrust then sold the property at cost to the state, which designated the property a wildlife refuge. Sitka Sedge was opened to the public in June 2018.
Your excursion through the refuge begins in the gravel parking lot on the west-side of the road. The parking area has a kiosk with refuge information, three picnic tables, a restroom, bicycle racks and even a maintenance station for bicycles, including an air pump. The first mile of the trail sits atop an elevated dyke that is wheelchair-accessible and provides visitors with ample waterfowl-viewing opportunities. In early March, buffleheads, mallards, pintails, mergansers, herons, gulls, egrets and even a mature bald eagle were all easily visible from the trail. Before going to the refuge, I purchased a reasonably priced pair of Bushnell binoculars from Bi-Mart. The binoculars enhanced my viewing experience exponentially as they did the large group of children visiting the marsh who were passing around a set of binoculars enthusiastically yelling out the names of birds. “That’s a bufflehead!”
Where the marsh gives way to the forest of gnarled spruce and pine, a hummingbird, who did not appreciate my proximity to her nest, dive-bombed me several times. Venturing deeper into the green tangle, I saw, and more often heard, boisterous chickadees, industrious thrushes and ground-scouring juncos. Talon marks just off the trail and the furry remains of a vole signified that I had entered the lair of an owl. The forest trails here are a little narrower and have more ups and downs than the marsh path does but overall there is very little elevation gain or potentially hazardous trail roots to trip over.
Where the shore pines thin and the beach grass takes hold, the roar of the surf envelopes you. To the north, Cape Lookout rises from the mist and to the south, Haystack Rock basks in sunshine. Snowy plovers, always one step ahead of the surf-line, scurry about on the beach, frantically searching for invertebrates. Because the plovers make their nests on the beach sand, making their camouflaged eggs vulnerable to wayward sneakers and rambunctious canines, sensitive beach habitat is closed to hikers between March 15 and September 15. Signs let visitors know where and when they can stroll out onto the sand. From the shore of Sand Lake, you might see a couple of bulldozers parked on the dunes. When the snowy plovers aren’t laying their eggs, these machines remove invasive European beach grass which increases snowy plover nesting habitat.
In my three trips to Sitka Sedge I have seen kayakers with their dogs, birders, both walking and in wheelchairs, photographers, elementary and high school student groups, clammers, joggers, people seated at the reserve’s benches, families and parents pushing baby strollers through the reserve. Sitka Sedge sees an ample number of visitors, yet compared to other points of interest along the Oregon Coast, it is not crowded. If you seek relative silence, a walk that does not include sweat and ibuprofen, and an outing that will disconnect your children or grandchildren from digital paralysis and introduce them to wonders of the natural world, then Sitka Sedge is the ideal destination for you.
Sitka Sedge State Natural Area is located two miles north of Pacific City, just off Sandlake Road.