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A little bit of country

All kinds of creatures find a haven at Smith and Bybee Lakes

James Davis, a naturalist for Metro, is instructing a dozen third- and fourth-graders on the finer points of poop.

'Do you see the berry seeds? That tells us that this isn't dog poop Ñ it's more than likely coyote scat,' Davis says to the mesmerized audience that's gathered around the discovery on the walkway that winds through Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area.

Having examined the coyote's contribution to the day's findings, the students move on to watch an egret spear a fish, touch animal pelts and consider a wormhole.

In addition to being a popular field trip destination, the wildlife sanctuary has the distinction of being the largest urban wetland in the United States.

Davis explains the significance of what is one of the region's best-kept secrets, located only minutes from downtown Portland.

'Certainly one of the things that makes Smith and Bybee Lakes so awesome is that it's big Ñ almost 2,000 acres Ñ and in the midst of an urban environment,' Davis says. 'This means that there's enough habitat to support permanent populations of beaver, muskrat, river otter, mink, coyote and black-tailed deer Ñ mammals you just don't expect to find in an area with port terminals, factories and even an old garbage dump.'

It's these industrial landmarks that make the existence Ñ and accessibility Ñ of the sanctuary so impressive, a contrast illustrated by the sight of a warehouse located across the street from the wetland's entrance.

A 1 1/2-mile asphalt footpath leads into the sanctuary, where dense foliage and arcing branches immediately muffle the sounds of traffic and offer the sweet smell of rain-washed vegetation.

After a few hundred yards, the wooded canopy suddenly opens up to a dramatic expanse of sky and the grassy wetland below, which surrounds the large lakes. The effect of venturing into this panoramic scene is that of having been transported to a timeless, beautiful savanna.

The looping path leads to two viewing platforms near the lakes, allowing a better view of the more than 100 species of birds that have been recorded in the area, including great blue herons, osprey and red-tailed hawks. The best bird-watching occurs at dusk and dawn.

Walking isn't the only way to soak in the atmosphere at Smith and Bybee Lakes. Bicycling, canoeing and fishing from nonmotorized boats also are allowed in the pristine wildlife area. The lakes contain a variety of non-native fish, such as largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and carp. Musical interludes are provided by the Pacific chorus frog and the non-native bullfrog.

Davis says the sanctuary is more than simply a relaxing, midday foray from the office or a minivacation on an autumn weekend. The wetland also is a richly diverse testimony to what he calls 'the persistence of life.'

'Smith and Bybee Lakes shows us that despite all the problems that wildlife face these days, there are many animals that are very adaptable and can survive if they have enough habitat Ñ and are basically left alone,' Davis says.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..