Whether you’re craning your neck to see sandhill cranes or hoofing it down the trail for a rough-legged hawk, there are several ways and places to go bird watching close to Clark County this fall.
Joe Liebezeit, a staff scientist with Portland Audubon, said several species of birds spend their winter in the Portland-Vancouver area, which is on the Pacific Flyway migration route. This fall, bird watchers will be to see migrating snow geese, sandhill cranes, rough-legged hawks and several duck species, to name a few, all here to spend a season at their favorite winter watering holes.
“I think it’s exciting and exotic for people to think about how these birds are literally going all over the world and coming back for at least some of their lives to spend here in Oregon,” Liebezeit said.
The birds may settle down in neighborhood wetlands or parks, he said, but the many wildlife refuges and preserves around the area offer a more robust habitat that can keep them well-fed throughout the winter.
Bird watchers need only warm clothing and a decent pair of binoculars to enjoy the experience. Most refuges offer easy hiking trails with bird blinds or viewpoints to observe. And unlike looking for early-morning songbirds in the spring, wintering waterfowl can be seen any time of day, as they spend most of their time foraging in the wetlands.
It’s a great hobby for folks looking to get outside in the fall and winter, especially during the coronavirus pandemic that has canceled so many other activities. Bird watching is also a good way to stay connected to the natural world, Liebezeit said, especially as the climate continues to change.
“The birds themselves are kind of an indicator of how well our world is doing,” Liebezeit said. “If the birds are not doing well, we need to question how we’re treating the earth itself and the habitat they need to depend on.”
Celebrating our local wildlife refuges is important, he said, but we may soon need to identify new ways to protect the birds that live among us.
For those who want to get outside and start bird watching, or for the experienced birders just looking for new places to go, here are 10 of the best bird watching destinations around the Portland metropolitan area.
1. Portland Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary
Portland Audubon’s 172-acre Wildlife Sanctuary is located on the edge of Forest Park, where visitors can walk more than four miles of trails through an area dedicated as a safe haven for plants and animals. Because of the pandemic, most trails are now one-way loops. The sanctuary’s Nature Store is closed to visitors, and there are no public restrooms or drinking water.
The sanctuary trails are open dawn to dusk, daily; located at 5151 N.W. Cornell Road, Portland; call Portland Audubon at 503-292-6855 for more information.
2. Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
A 168-acre wildlife preserve located only a few miles from downtown Portland, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge proves that the natural and urban worlds can peacefully coexist. The short Bluff Trail leads along the eastern side of the wetland, from which hikers can watch birds and get a good dose of nature in the city.
The refuge is open 5 a.m. to midnight, daily; located at Southeast Seventh Avenue and Sellwood Boulevard, Portland; call Portland Parks and Recreation at 503-823-7529 for more information.
3. Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
With about 5,300 acres in all, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a large, lush habitat along the Columbia River north of Vancouver. A mixture of wetland, grassland and forest, visitors can expect to see wintering waterfowl, songbirds and dozens of other species. The refuge has some seasonal closures, from October through April, to protect migrating birds: The Kiwa and Carty Trails are both closed, and the Auto Tour Route is restricted to cars only, all set to reopen May 1.
The refuge is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily ; located at 28908 N.W. Main Ave., Ridgefield; entrance fee is $3 per vehicle; call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 360-887-4106 for more information.
4. Sauvie Island
Originally established in 1947, the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area has grown over the decades and now consists of 11,643 acres that encompasses the entire northern tip of the island. Anyone who’s hiked to Warrior Point, along Oak Island or on any of the other trails on the island has most likely been through part of the refuge. It’s home to many species of birds, including large flocks of waterfowl as well as bald eagles.
The wildlife area is open 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily, though several units are closed seasonally from October 1 to April 15; trailheads are located throughout Sauvie Island; $10 parking permits required at all wildlife areas (sold at convenience stores on the island); call the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at 503-621-3488 for more information.
5. Smith and Bybee Wetlands
Considered one of America’s largest urban wetlands, the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area is found near Kelley Point in North Portland, an area otherwise known for its busy industrial and shipping traffic. Visitors can tour two miles of paved trails around the edge of the wetlands, home of painted turtles, bald eagles, herons and more.
The wetlands are open from sunrise to sunset, daily; located at 5300 N. Marine Dr., Portland; call Metro at 503-797-1545 for more information.
6. Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge
Found in the suburbs southwest of Portland, the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is home to nearly 200 species of birds and 50 species of mammals, as well as many kinds of reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants. The refuge’s Wildlife Center, office and restrooms are closed due to the pandemic.
The refuge is open dawn to dusk, daily; located at 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway, Sherwood; call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 503-625-5944 for more information.
7. Cooper Mountain Nature Park
With 230 acres and more than three miles of trails, Cooper Mountain is a natural playground in the suburbs, overlooking the Tualatin River Valley on the outskirts of Beaverton. Managed by the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, the nature park is dedicated to educating visitors about wildlife and protecting the animals that call it home.
The nature park is open dawn to dusk, daily; located at 18895 S.W. Kemmer Road, Beaverton; call the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District at 503-619-3933 for more information.
8. Fernhill Wetlands
The Fernhill Wetlands are a water treatment system that utilizes nature to help clean wastewater. Hikers can walk a little more than 2 miles on trails around the wetlands, which are known as a premier bird watching spot along the Pacific Flyway. Look for herons, pelicans, songbirds and osprey.
The wetlands trails are open dawn to dusk, daily; located at 1399 S.W. Fern Hill Road, Forest Grove; call Clean Water Services at 503-681-3600 for more information.
9. Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve
Though it has a colorful history that includes fights over cannery pollution and a sewage farm, today the Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve is a quiet place to observe cackling geese, northern pintail ducks, hawks, eagles and other birds.
The preserve is open dawn to dusk, daily; located at 2600 S.W. Hillsboro Highway, Hillsboro; call Hillsboro Parks and Recreation at 503-681-6206 for more information.
10. Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge
NOTE: The refuge will be closed through spring 2022 for restoration work.
Located at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge east of Washougal, the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge has some beautiful views from its 1,049 acres of wetland, pasture and woodland. Several miles of trails wind through the refuge, where visitors can see several species of birds and other wildlife, the paths eventually connecting to the Captain William Clark Park Trail that leads to the Washougal riverfront. The refuge trails are closed to all public access through spring 2022 for the Steigerwald Reconnection Project.