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Flight of Passage

Under the Pacific Flyway, Oregon and its neighbors are treated to a spectacle each fall when thousands of migratory birds—from sandhill cranes to snow geese—mingle with the local flocks.

a flock of birds taking off at sunrise, image
Photo caption
Birds travel the Pacific Flyway in fall, heading to warmer places for winter.

Perhaps you’ve never seen a sandhill crane—a bird taller than your children. If not, you can view them up close and personal on a small pastoral island in Oregon’s Willamette River, before or after you load your car with fresh tomatoes, zucchini, and beans from the local farm stands.

If you have never seen a hundred hawks at once, jostling for airspace with eagles, falcons, and owls, go to the foothills of the Cascade Mountain range in Oregon and Washington, and watch raptors sail south, helped along by billowing pillows of warm air called thermals.

If you wish to peer at pecks of plovers and pipers and petrels—the latter a bird that usually only sailors and polar explorers see—you might plan a driving expedition to the annual Oregon Shorebird Festival in Coos Bay in September, just as the shore is awash with feathered migrants. If the largest and most dramatic migratory birds—geese, herons, egrets, cranes—are your hobby, make tracks for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon’s southeast corner, or Tule Lake in Northern California. And finally, if you are like me—a raptorophile of the first order, which is to say a human being utterly entranced by birds of prey—head for southwestern Idaho, where the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area harbors the highest concentration of nesting birds of prey in North America.

The happy problem for people interested in seeing migratory birds in the Northwest is, as Owen Schmidt says, that in the fall "there’s no place that’s notgood for something at some point." Fall, for birders, begins in August, especially east of the Cascades where migratory birds are usually seen earlier than on the western side of the mountains. Schmidt, long the editor of Oregon Birdsmagazine, says "we’ve seen good fall records from nearly every place birders go"—records here meaning both healthy counts of expected birds passing through the state and surprise visits by rare birds, sightings of which send passionate birders into fits of joy and set the Oregon Field Ornithologists’ Rare Bird Phone Network ringing from Astoria to Ashland

Those interested in seeing some of the most riveting lords of the air, while vacationing in the dry, clear weather of the Northwest’s early fall, might plot trips of any length around the edges of Oregon, and stop at destinations such as:

Cape Arago and Coos Bay Perhaps the best place to see migratory shorebirds in the Northwest this fall is also easily the most entertaining: the annual Oregon Shorebird Festival on Cape Arago, in the center of Oregon’s Pacific coast. Sponsored by the local Audubon Society chapter, the September 10–12 festival includes field trips to the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, to Coos Bay, and out into the ocean on charter boats. Birders taking the mudflat and estuary trips can see dozens of shorebirds: whimbrels, tattlers, plovers, turnstones, grebes, loons, and oystercatchers, the last easily recognized by the long red-orange beak with which they pry open shellfish. Ocean-going birders may see birds rarely if ever seen from land—albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters, storm petrels, jaegers, and skuas, as well as the more common terns, murres, murrelets, phalaropes, and auklets. Information on the festival, local lodging, and boat trips: Cape Arago Audubon Society, (541) 267-7208 or (541) 756-5688. Or for lodging, call the Coos Bay Chamber of Commerce, (800) 824-8486.

The Columbia River From the south jetty of the river’s mouth, near Astoria, east along the Columbia Gorge Highway all the way to the riverbank village of Hood River, all sorts of interesting birds are on view in the fall. By the ocean, a sharp-eyed observer armed with good binoculars and a jacket (sea breezes can be brisk) can see a veritable poem of shorebirds: whimbrels, marbled godwits, turnstones, oystercatchers, scoters, grebes, and loons, not to mention seals, sea lions, and gray whales.

As you wind inland along the Columbia, keep an eye peeled for bald eagles and osprey (also called fish hawks), which can sometimes be seen with glistening and very unhappy fish clutched in their talons. Keep a lookout, too, for blue herons, which are common enough in Portland that they are the city’s official bird.

Sauvie Island Near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers is Sauvie Island, noted for its farm stands and famed among birders as a stopover for cranes, egrets, herons, ducks of all sorts, geese, and bald eagles, which habitually fill trees on the island’s northwest side. One of the odder sights on this earth is a Sauvie Island tree sagging with 10 eagles, all peering assiduously into a nearby pond for possible prandial delights. This unusual scene is little more than a stone’s throw from the vibrant City of Roses.

Hawk Haven Southeast of Portland is the Hawk Haven Center, a wildlife rehabilitation and education facility where injured animals—especially eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls—are cared for and exhibited, often to schoolchildren. The center is in Estacada, not far from Mount Hood. Information: (503) 630-7623.

Hood River and Mount Hood From Portland to Hood River is a drive of a couple hours through remarkable vistas and past a series of waterfalls (culminating with Oregon’s largest, Multnomah Falls). Hood River, a friendly little town perched over the river, is now renowned as the wind-surfing capital of the world. The region around Hood River is crammed with apple, pear, and cherry orchards, and the road south from Hood River to Mount Hood is among the most beautiful in the state. Birders wandering along Mount Hood’s many trails and paths will find the rare Clark’s nutcracker (named for Captain William Clark of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery), the friendly and curious gray jay (also called the camp robber for its habit of cheerfully stealing untended food), and loud, unruly gangs of ravens, the largest and most impressive member of the corvid family—the energetic tribe that also contains jays and crows. And birders able and willing to hike into the dense Mount Hood National Forest, below the timberline, might spot the largest member of the woodpecker family: the pileated woodpecker, nearly as large as a raven and armed with an eerie and powerful call that echoes through the woods for miles. For general information: Mount Hood Information Center, (888) 622-4822.

Hells Canyon Birders might make a trip to one of the most dramatic and wild stretches of river in North America: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, on the Idaho/Oregon border. Peregrine falcons and golden eagles nest here, high over a 71-mile length of the 1,000-mile-long Snake River, world-famous among rafters. Perhaps the best (and wettest) way to see falcons is to take a raft or dory trip through the canyon, or arrange a fishing trip and keep your eyes peeled. Information: Baker County Visitor Bureau, (800) 523-1235.

Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area Visitors to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area might also make an easy trip over to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho. Twenty-five miles south of Boise, on 485,000 sage-dotted acres set aside by Congress in 1993, are some 24 species of raptors. Among them are the majestic golden eagle and the blindingly fast prairie and peregrine falcons, which can reach 200 miles an hour as they rocket toward dinner—usually ground squirrels for prairie falcons, which are found here in larger numbers than anywhere else in the world. Information: (208) 384-3300 or bopnca.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Perhaps the most celebrated of all birder destinations in the Northwest, particularly in the spring and fall, is Malheur, in Oregon’s high and dry southeast corner. The refuge follows the winding course of the Donner und Blitzen River, which runs from Steens Mountain (9,733 feet) to Harney and Malheur lakes to the north. Birders might well see a hundred species of birds at Malheur from August through November, among them the extraordinary snow goose, one of the most beautiful animals in the world; sandhill cranes, which resemble nothing so much as skinny ostriches; and bald eagles, which continue to make a remarkable comeback from the near-extinction caused by wide use of the chemical DDT. Oregon Field Ornithologists is sponsoring a guided tour to Malheur September 25 and 26; for information, call (503) 646-7889. Also found at Malheur are thousands of passerines, or songbirds, some of them vagrants straying from their normal eastern or southern breeding range. Among the passerines seen in fall at Malheur are rose-breasted grosbeaks, flycatchers, and wood thrushes (which have the most lovely songs in the bird kingdom), as well as rare warblers like the black-throated blue, which is a tiny burst of energy. Malheur information: (541) 493-2612.

Tule Lake One of six wildlife refuges in southern Oregon and Northern California’s Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges complex, is justly famed for the vast rafts of snow geese that annually use the area as a stopover on their way to warmer climes. Well-equipped birders can also spot, on the 39,116 acres of open water and croplands of Tule Lake, the American bald eagle, golden eagle, American white pelican, white-faced ibis, peregrine falcon, terns, a variety of ducks, and Canada geese. More than 400 species of resident and migratory wildlife have been known to frequent the Klamath Basin—an area made up of open water spaces, grassy meadows, coniferous forests, sagebrush and juniper grasslands, and agricultural land. In fall the snow geese are well accompanied—the basin serves as a migratory stopover for about a million birds, or three-quarters of the Pacific Flyway waterfowl. Information: (530) 667-2231 or klamathnwr

Photography by Ron Sanford

This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.