48 Hours of Birding (and Other Things): Portland, Oregon

Riverside rambles, cool weather, and culinary greatness make Portland an ideal natural hub.

Oregon’s biggest city has won a reputation for natural beauty, stellar food, and quirky locals. The Portlandia sketch “Put a Bird On It” may rib the place for its many avian-themed crafts, but the real birds are just as entertaining. In fact, Portland is a prime spot for seeing western species and migrants along the Pacific Flyway.

Portland sits at the confluence of two rivers—the Columbia and the Willamette—and is surrounded by thousands of acres of riparian habitat, which consists of vegetation that grows along narrow bodies of water. Summer in these idyllic river- or stream-side zones offers breeding songbirds and raptors. Fall and winter in these areas are a pleasure, as well. A wide variety of waterfowl—Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, and more—winters here, as well as other regional specialties, such as Varied Thrushes and Anna’s Hummingbirds. Spring begins the cycle anew with a massive migration.

Portland is an unrivaled home base for birding, especially during summer or early fall, when the sun shines strong and the city comes alive. You will never find yourself feeling hungry, bored, or unwelcome.

Day 1

Breakfast as Religion; 9 a.m.

Begin your day like Lewis and ClarkPortland’s favorite pioneersdid over 200 years ago: with a breakfast sourced from local ingredients. The city is rife with great breakfast spots—often filled with many freelancers, artists, crafters, and dropouts (bonus points for telling the difference)—where vegetarian options and local fare are the norm, not the exception. Try a waffle at The Waffle Window or a salmon scramble anywhere in Southeast or Northeast Portland. Those two quadrants of town are divided by I-84, which is also your route to the first birding hotspot.

Sandy River Delta Park is the quintessential riparian habitat to check out, full of cottonwood trees, marshes, and summer songbirds. With Mount Hood looming over your right shoulder, walk toward the Columbia River looking for Lazuli Buntings, Bullock’s Orioles, and Yellow-breasted Chats.

The Columbia River Gorge; 12 p.m.

A mere 14 miles east is one of the most popular and dramatic sights in the region: Multnomah Falls. This postcard-perfect, 611-foot waterfall creates a cold and wet microclimate in which you might find American Dippers, Wilson’s Warblers, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees.

To see more of the stunning Columbia River Gorge, continue up I-84 another 13 miles to the Bridge of the Gods (a crossing named by Native Americans). Pass over the bridge to the Washington side of the river to visit Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This is another riparian area, well known for its breeding Northern Harriers and American Bitterns.

Self-guided Tour; 4 p.m.

To be a true riparian overachiever, head to the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area back in Northwest Portland. This area is best explored by kayak or canoe, and rentals are readily available, though not on site (Alder Creek or the Portland Kayak Company are close by). If you’re on foot, use the Interlake Trail to hunt for Black-headed Grosbeaks in the woods or American White Pelicans, Greater White-fronted Geese, or Cackling Geese in the water.

The dinner hour is a good chance to explore the city’s dynamic food culture. Try Alberta Street nearby in Northeast Portland, where Vita Cafe’s vegan take on chicken-fried steak (tempeh dipped and fried in batter, then smothered in almond gravy) is a delicious glimpse into the meat-free world. For an even more casual scene, hit The Bye and Bye for artsy cocktails and other creative vegan offerings. (3023 and 1011 NE Alberta St., respectively.)

Day 2

Trapped in the Firs; 9 a.m.

Before plunging into one of Portland’s deep coniferous forests, check another item off your artisanal bucket list with some hand-crafted pastries in Northwest Portland. Blue Star Donuts or Ken’s Artisan Bakery will fortify you with high-caliber and calorie-rich treats before a hike through the Portland Audubon Nature Sanctuary.

Only a few minutes uphill from downtown, this 150-acre sanctuary offers miles of hiking trails, bird feeders, and a wildlife care center. Pacific Slope Flycatchers, Pacific Wrens, Spotted Towhees, and Western Tanagers might flit by as you walk beneath massive firs and pines. Hang around the feeders for Pileated Woodpeckers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

In the same vicinity are two of Portland’s most beloved landmarks: Powell’s Books and the International Rose Test Garden. The first provides a labyrinth of new and used books in an industrial building downtown, while the second offers a lesson on roses you never knew existed. The garden also yields sweeping views of the city and countless Oregon juncos (a subspecies of the Dark-eyed) hopping among the bushes.

Keeping it Cool; 12 p.m.

As you head for your next destination, contemplate how great it is to be in the Pacific Northwest during summer. Most other regions leave you sweating by mid-morning, but in Portland you might start your day with a fleece jacket—or the native hoodie or ironic cardigan—and find yourself still wearing it at the end of the day.

Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, another well-managed riparian zone, is about a dozen miles out on Highway 30. Accessing this area requires a permit (see the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website), but it’s worth the hassle. Its 11,000-plus acres of wildlife and 275 species of birds make it a local favorite for birders. Summer is best for breeding songbirds, while fall is best for waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes, which can be visible by the hundreds.

Volcanoes and Vireos; 4 p.m.

End the day looking out over Southeast Portland. Mount Tabor Park sits on a dormant volcanic vent that rises 600 feet above lovely neighborhoods, shops, and restaurants. Trails filled with pine needles wend between towering conifers that host Hutton’s Vireos, Hammond’s Flycatchers, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. In colder months, look for Golden-crowned Sparrows and Townsend’s Warblers.

A short walk or drive down the hill westward leads you to many culinary options, such as Nuestra Cocina along Division Street. Or try McMenamins Bagdad Theater & Pub, housed in a 1920s movie house on Hawthorne Street, for dinner and a movie. Or simply find a welcoming patio, sit back, enjoy a microbrew, list the birds you’ve seen, and savor the cool Northwestern evening.