The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is a quiet respite where visitors can observe the geological record, watch native bird species soar over and spend some time on the water. Within the refuge are the Seep Lakes that provide a habitat in which wildlife thrives. One of them, Soda Lake, is a prime location to birdwatch, hit the water with a kayak or fishing boat and study lava formations all in one trip.
Soda Lake is immediately south of Potholes Reservoir, just below O’Sullivan Dam. It is the first of many lakes created by canals flowing out of the reservoir. The man-made lake provides a habitat for both native and non-native bird species. Whether viewing from the covered shelters atop the cliffs overlooking the lake or from the water, the birdwatching is fantastic. The 145-acre lake, the largest and deepest in the refuge, attracts numerous birds as it is a bit of an oasis in arid Eastern Washington, a shrub-steppe environment.
One species found is the lesser sandhill crane. Farm fields and increased water in the Seep Lakes create a hospitable environment. About 35,000 of them pass through Eastern Washington on what is known as the Fly Way as they migrate to winter in California and travel to Alaska. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates they are endangered in this state. The birds like the expanse of water at Soda Lake and the wetlands that spring up in the refuge. They blend into the grey tones of the surrounding rock, especially if standing near vertical basalt columns. Sandhills have a loud, throaty bellow and may call out as they fly. Before the increase in water and farming, the sandhill only briefly stopped along their southern migration, but leftover farm grains, available lakes and wetlands now allow them to stay for weeks.
The presence of the Seep Lakes is traced back to the Columbia Basin Project and the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Finished in 1942, the dam provides irrigation for farmland as well as hydroelectric power. The irrigation runoff from agriculture gathers in Potholes Reservoir and is released through a canal at O’Sullivan Dam. This canal runs into Soda Lake, which is dammed at its southern end, and releases water yet again through another canal. The geology surrounding the lakes existed long before the dams and farming. During the last ice age, a broad sheet of ice formed over lowland Washington dammed up the water and ice flows from higher elevations. When the dams broke, floodwaters unleashed, carving coulees and dislodging weaker and more brittle sediments, leaving behind dramatic geological features.
Now a protected area, the refuge is a place for birds to thrive. Even the basalt columns around Soda Lake are home to cliff swallows. The small cinnamon and dark blue birds are common in spring and summer, and their nests are visible on the rock face along the western shore. The swallows collect mud from up to a half-mile away and stick it to the rocks, stuffing it into a gourd-like shape over a one- or two-week period. They begin to take residence once it is half-built and continue to line the inside with grass and feathers. The Soda Lake nests are best observed from the water directly below the rocks but may also be seen through a good set of binoculars from the park shelters.
A recreational water excursion is the best way to view birds at Soda Lake. There is a paved boat launch at the northern end where the camping sites, shelters and portable restrooms are. Beware of canals at the extreme ends of the lake and the dam, as currents are reported to be strong. A small boat or kayak float will take visitors along shorelines where the lesser sandhill cranes stand.
If the water level is low, small, rocky islands protrude and are dominated by gulls. California and ring billed gulls are the two most common at the refuge. Perhaps a curious sight in an arid inland environment, but their presence can be explained.
“It is my understanding gulls moved inland in response to increased food sources,” says Washington Fish and Wildlife biologist Ella Rowan, “such as garbage dumps and human waste dropped in every parking lot. They are also able to avoid many predators by nesting on roof-tops and on or near other human structures. Some gull species and colonies are now well-adapted to living inland and never go back to the coast. Others may make a return visit to the coast every year.” To distinguish between the two gull species, look for the lighter tones of grey and fainter spots on the heads of the ring billed gull.
Soda Lake can be accessed near the southeastern end of the O’Sullivan Dam via gravel roads inside the refuge. Whether on the water or viewing birds from the park shelters, the silence and simplicity of the terrain are mesmerizingly peaceful. Visitors will enjoy an area with rich geological scenery, birds to watch and quiet to be found.