Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

The Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge website lists among their 45 species of mammals elk, deer, moose, badgers, river otters, porcupines, beavers, bobcats, and cougars. I set my alarm for the following morning.

Fog hung in the mountain valleys highlighting the ridges and trees as I departed for the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge 75 minutes away. The entrance road was lined with dewy wildflowers and grasses.

Pine Lake Loop

My first stop was at the Pine Lake Loop Trail, a one-and-a-quarter-mile trail circling and traversing the Pine Lakes and surrounding wetlands. The conk-le-ree of red-winged blackbirds fills the air. They chatter and escort me along, protecting their nests hidden in the cattails. Red-winged blackbirds have a reputation for vigorously defending their nests.

The whole place smells like pines. It’s a smell that always takes me back to summer vacations in northern Wisconsin when I was a kid. I breathe it in deeply.

The cacophony of blackbirds is occasionally accented by the identifying gurgle of a calling bittern. Bitterns are in the heron family and camouflage so well that they are rarely seen. As the trail turns closer to the water’s edge, obscured by thick cattails and reeds, marsh wrens chatter and flit about, constantly one step ahead of me. The bittern startles into the air cackling her displeasure as she leaves. A pair of lesser scaups dabble on a pond. He’s a cautious sentry on guard and seems concerned about me. She trusts his protection and just keeps feeding.

I’m struck by the amount of coyote scat on this paved trail. Nearly every ten feet is another pile. I wonder if this marsh, so close to the road with its human activity and accessible path, is a safer place for coyotes than the backwoods where the mountain lions live? Curving through a woodland, I stop to photograph a small, thick cluster of lupine. Their leaves hold water droplets like delicate crystals.

Focused on the flowers, I was shaken by a loud, sudden crashing through the underbrush just six feet away. My heart raced. A mallard hen flushed into the air. Relief washes over me. She must’ve been on a nest, and the duration of my proximity was too much for her. Having some experience with nesting mallards, I know she’ll be back soon. I carefully looked into the grasses, found her clutch of eggs, grabbed a quick photo, and moved on.

At the next pond crossing, a pair of cinnamon teal feed not far from me. The scaups, blue-winged teal, widgeons, and mallards swam further from the shore, distancing themselves from me. The confidant cinnamon teals share none of their concern, even coming closer to me.

Channeled Scablands

The Turnbull habitat is unique among all of the National Wildlife Refuges. It preserves 20,000 acres of channeled scablands giving it a broad diversity of plants and animals. The refuge includes thirty marshes, wetlands, and lakes comprising about 3,000 acres. The channeled scablands were formed by the scouring of floodwaters in the Ice Age 15,000 years ago. The diversity of habitat is characteristic of the scablands, from rich wetlands to ponderosa pine forests where the soil is only centimeters thick to steppe (grasslands) interspersed with riparian woodlands, all in such close proximity.

At the visitor’s center, I photographed a taxidermied porcupine, not wanting to pass up what might be my only opportunity. Then I drove the five-and-a-half-mile one-way, gravel auto loop.  

Auto Loop

The first stop is the bluebird trail. I will come back to hike part of this later. Right now, it’s still early, and the light is good. I’m anxious to hurry and be everywhere at once for this perfect moment and have to tell myself to relax and let nature come my way. I can always come back another day with good light once I’ve scouted the area.

I slow to watch a pair of western bluebirds when a northern flicker lands on a snag. She’s nosing around a hole, and I think she’s feeding. I’m pulling closer as she shimmies herself into the hole and disappears. It’s a nest cavity! I turned the car off and sat for a while waiting in vain for her to reappear, listening to the sounds of the refuge, photographing wildflowers, and watching the bluebirds – who have their own nest in a cavity in the next tree. There are hundreds of dead-standing trees with these holes in them. How many have nests inside?!?

At the 30 Acre Lake, red-winged blackbirds are in dogged pursuit of a northern harrier. He soars over the marsh, unable to shake them, and alights on a treetop. There he gets relief, and they leave, finally allowing him to fly off in peace.

Northern Harrier


The wildflowers here are a wonderful surprise. Some are familiar (phlox, prairie smoke, wild geranium), and others are new to me (hound’s tongue, camas lily, balsamroot, and tripletlily). A song sparrow flits among them.

At Kepple Lake, I hiked a short trail to an overlook. An eastern kingbird stalks insects from a dried stalk, and a yellow-headed blackbird perches on a cattail.


The lake is quiet. No waterfowl to be seen here. On the way back, a dark shape in the trees catches my eyes. I halt and backstep to see through the woods. Pulling my binoculars to my eyes, I’m ecstatic to see a porcupine feeding on aspen leaves!

Porcupines, on account of having a butt full of quills, are pretty tolerant animals. Knowing this, I hiked into the woods through hip-deep, dewy grasses and shrubs draped with small spider webs. Big spiders would have given me pause, but wading through these small guys was totally worth it. I meandered, staying behind trees as much as possible, avoiding a rude, direct approach. I got close enough to stand behind a thick ponderosa pine to take some nice pictures and watch this guy for a while. Everywhere I’ve gone in Idaho, I’ve looked to the trees, searching for a moment like this.


In the center of Kepple lake, a pair of swans (probably trumpeter swans) preened and napped. At the last trail, a boardwalk took me toward Blackhorse Lake, where red-headed ducks congregated, and a flotilla of Canada geese kept their distance.

In all, I spent five hours here today. I saw birds and flowers that I’d never seen before. And more flickers than I’ve seen in my entire life!

I found my first northwest porcupine! I learned that early mornings in June are good for spotting elk and moose calves. I still haven’t seen a wild badger or a (distant) mountain lion. I’ll definitely be back.

I found my first inland northwest porcupine!  I learned that early mornings in June are good for spotting elk and moose calves. And I still haven't seen a wild badger.  I'll definitely be back.
Lion head

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4 Replies to “Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge”

  1. What a wonderful Wildlife Refuge now available for you to visit and scour around to your content over and over. Wonder how soon your new ‘friends’ there will be welcoming you back each visit. I look forward to an array of many different animals over time.

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