Group plans bird identification signs for Lake Sacajawea
Group plans bird identification signs for Lake Sacajawea

Just about everyone can tell a duck from a goose or a seagull from a crow. But what about the other 100-or-so species of birds that can be seen swimming, wading, roosting and sunning at Longview’s Lake Sacajawea Park? Could you identify a pie-billed grebe, an American coot or a northern flicker?

Hoping to help the public learn more about the lake’s wide variety of birds, and bring more “ecotourists” to the area, the Willapa Hills Audubon Society is raising money to install two bird identification signs at the lake. They would feature paintings of 24 birds by a yet-to-be-chosen local artist.

Rather than the “little dinky birds,” the birds on the signs will be larger species people can spot easily, said Willapa Hills’ program chairwoman, Margaret Green of Longview, who is working on the project with Russ Koppendrayer and Pamela Wright.

“It’s such a great opportunity to teach kids … and to share with the people, and have the people love what’s there,” Green, 59, said last week.

The cost of each sign is estimated to be about $3,400 because of the specialized process required to make it durable and weather proof. The price also includes shipping costs (the signs would be made by a Northeast company that made other interpretive signs posted at Lake Sacajawea), the artist’s fee and the cost of the stand, Green said.

In January, the Longview City Council awarded $500 toward the project in tourism tax dollars, which must be spent on projects that promote tourism. Green also plans to apply for a city Neighborhood Park Grant to fund the project.

Not everyone on the council was enthusiastic about allocating money for bird interpretive signs, which Green hopes to install in a heavily used part of the park, such as Hemlock Plaza.

Councilmen Andy Busack and Chuck Wallace said they thought it was a frivolous expense, given today’s bad economic times. Busack also doubted the signs would be a “tremendous draw to the community.”

But birding, as bird watching is commonly called, is bigger in Cowlitz County and Southwest Washington than many might realize.

Lake Sacajawea is one of five bird-watching spots within Cowlitz County highlighted on the Great Washington State Birding Trail — Southwest Loop Map. Another is Coal Creek Slough, comprised of 350 acres of pristine wetlands by the Columbia River.

Some of the sites on the map might seem remote, but in an effort to add to their “life list” of birds they’ve seen, birders sometimes will travel all over the country, and sometimes the world, Green said.

The birders will put out e-mail alerts about rare sightings on an online network called “Tweeters.” In the last year, there have been “a ton” of Tweeters for the wetlands mitigation area at Longview’s Mint Farm Industrial Park, and a few Tweeters for Lake Sacajawea, she said. The Tweeters have generated much interest in the Longview area, including Willow Grove and Mint Valley, she said.

“We’ve had a lot of folks come to see some things that were first sightings” for Cowlitz County, Green said. “We have pockets all around that are fabulous birding.”

Some recent first-sightings for the county include a semipalmated sandpiper at the Mint Farm and Surf Scoter at Lake Sacajawea, she said.

Green, who frequently leads bird watching outings with her husband, John, once e-mailed a friend the day she saw a red-shouldered hawk at the Woodland Bottoms.

“He wrote me back within a few hours and said, ‘Well, I went and saw it, and it was my county first, and I put it on Tweeters.’ Can you believe it? It’s crazy. That’s the kind of people that will come up from Alabama and say, ‘Where’s the Southwest Loop Map?’ … Some of these people start in September and just go for six months. It can be really addicting,” said Green, who has been birding since taking a Parks and Recreation class on bird watching 10 years ago in Los Angeles, where she and her husband worked for a major garment importing company.

Other things that will likely attract birders here: The National Geographic Society and the Washington State Tourism board are in the midst of taking nominations for a high-quality, themed geotourism map of Washington and Oregon. Lake Sacajawea has been nominated for the map. (See accompanying story to learn how to make nominations).

In September, the Washington Ornithological Society is holding its annual conference at Kelso’s Red Lion Inn. According to Green, the society chose Kelso over Vancouver, Centralia and Chehalis because of this area’s wealth of wildlife habitats within a 30-minute drive.

The conference will bring between 80 and 125 “hard-core birders” to the Longview-Kelso area for five days, in which they’ll go on bird-watching outings, eat local food and sleep in a local hotel. Green thinks it would be neat if the interpretive bird signs were installed at the lake in time for the conference, even though Orinthological Society people “don’t need to know what a great blue heron looks like,” she said.

Barbara Doran, assistant manager of the Quality Inn & Suites in Longview, learned about the popularity of bird watching after seeing Green’s presentation in December about the sign project to the Longview Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, of which Doran is a member.

Following the presentation, Doran e-mailed information about local bird watching sites to Audubon Society chapters around the state, hoping to draw more visitors to the area. She also has a stack of Washington State Birding Trail - Southwest Loop maps available for guests, although no one’s requested one yet.

Bird watching, she said, “is something we haven’t really tapped into for a source of revenue coming into the Longview-Kelso area. It may or may not pan out. … More people and more people are becoming ecologically minded.”

Green said she came up with the idea for the signs when Willapa Bay began receiving donations in memory of one of the chapter’s founders, Ruth Deery, who died last March at age 84. Deery, the chapter’s conservation chairwoman and wetlands specialist, was a retired Longview teacher who was named the 1991 Environmental Citizen of the Year for her efforts to protect local wildlife habitat.

“She would have loved to have known that something was going to be there for children to learn. It’s for her, too,” Green said. “I had such respect for her. What a great woman.”

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