By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
It might surprise some to learn that Oregon has recorded the sixth-highest bird species total among the 50 states (or fifth-highest, depending on whose count you use). Like Washington, its neighbor to the north, Oregon benefits from some of the best seabird- and shorebird-watching sites in the country, as well as high-elevation birds of the Cascade Range and a dry, scrubby steppe or semi-desert region in the east.
Several of Oregon’s most renowned birding sites are located along the Pacific coast, such as Fort Stevens State Park in the northwestern corner and locations around Tillamook Bay. The most famous and productive birding spot in Oregon, though, is Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the east-central part of the state. Malheur made headlines when armed occupiers took over the refuge’s headquarters in early 2016, but public access to the refuge itself has since been restored. Malheur is home to an amazing diversity of birds, from waterfowl and cranes to shorebirds and migrant songbirds.
In between the coast and Malheur rise the peaks of the Cascade Range, home to Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Townsend’s Solitaire, Townsend’s Warbler, and Gray-crowned Rosy-finch. If you’d like some guidance in mapping out a route across the state, public and private groups cooperated to create the Oregon Birding Trails, an extremely helpful series of five maps locating the best birding sites.
Oregon Birding Hotspots
One of the most popular birding destinations in the Northwest, Malheur has expansive wetlands that attract hundreds of thousands of waterfowl in migration, as well as lake and marsh habitat for grebes, wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Thousands of American White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes migrate through, and many stay to nest.
The refuge also hosts breeding land birds of the high desert, drawn to habitat augmented by oasis-like wetlands. And it’s a famed “migrant trap,” offering respite to rare species when they stray off track. To maximize your experience, spring and fall are the best times to visit.
It’s saying something that the auto tour route is 42 miles long. Malheur is a big place, and a first-time visitor should stop at the headquarters to ask about current conditions. Waterfowl numbers usually peak in March, while migrant songbirds are most common in May or September (check woodlots around headquarters and other areas). The Blitzen Valley can be the best place to see breeding Trumpeter Swan and Sandhill Crane.
To name just a few of Malheur’s nesting birds: Greater Sage-Grouse, White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, Sora, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Franklin’s Gull, Black Tern, Burrowing Owl, Short-eared Owl, Willow Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Bobolink, and Bullock’s Oriole.
The Fern Ridge area just west of Eugene centers on a reservoir, but includes marsh, woodland, and grassland. So while waterfowl and shorebirds are one point of focus, Fern Ridge is a fine overall site for all kinds of birds, as evidenced by its lengthy species list. Parts of the area may be closed at times to protect waterfowl or for hunting season.
Several parks around the lake itself, such as Perkins Peninsula Park in the south and Orchard Point in the north, provide viewpoints for wintering waterfowl (including Tundra Swan), grebes, and nesting Osprey. Kirk Park, at the western end of the dam on Clear Lake Road, is also very productive.
On the eastern side of the lake, a parking area at the western end of Royal Avenue has trailheads for exploring marsh and scrubby fields. More than 250 species have been recorded in this area alone, including nesting Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Black-necked Stilt, Black Tern, Acorn Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Shorebirds can be abundant in late summer.
Popular trails for land birds can be accessed where Cantrell Road crosses Coyote Creek, about 1.3 miles east of Central Road. Look for Wood Duck, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Swainson’s Thrush, Spotted Towhee, and Black-headed Grosbeak, among others.
Located along Highway 31 in south-central Oregon, Summer Lake boasts a very high bird species list, reflecting a range of habitats from wetlands to sage scrub. You can access many of these via the eight-mile auto tour route.
Geese, swans, and ducks are abundant here in spring and fall, and many duck species nest in the area. Summer Lake can be fantastic for shorebirds in spring and especially in fall when mudflats are exposed. Nesting waterbirds include four species of grebes, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow Rail, Sandhill Crane, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Snowy Plover.
Also nesting here are Osprey, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Summer Lake is a fine spot for raptors, with Golden Eagle and Prairie Falcon among those often seen. Note that because this is a hunting area, birding is not recommended from late fall through January.
Fort Stevens sits on the peninsula where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean—about as far into the northwestern corner of Oregon as you can get. It’s one of the state’s best sites for seabirds and shorebirds from fall through spring. Drive to parking area C, at the South Jerry on Clatsop Spit. A substantial observation tower here provides good viewing of birds passing by in the Pacific.
Birds that can be seen for much of the year include Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Western Grebe, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, and Common Murre. In late summer, especially September, Sooty Shearwater is abundant. Observers search for uncommon to rare species such as Northern Fulmar, jaegers, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, and Rhinoceros Auklet, many of them most likely in fall.
Shorebirds can be abundant in May and late summer. Some sought-after species are Pacific Golden-Plover, Bristle-thighed Curlew (spring), and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (fall). On the rock jetty birders can sometimes see Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper.
This 5,325-acre refuge south of Corvallis was established to aid the “dusky” subspecies of Canada Goose, which breeds in Alaska and winters largely in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Finley protects one of the last large tracts of wet prairie in the valley, along with oak savannah and varied woodland. Many other species benefit from it as well.
More than 20 species of waterfowl winter at the refuge, including Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Trumpeter Swan, and Tundra Swan. Osprey and Bald Eagle nest in the area, and Cinnamon Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, and Marsh Wren breed in wetlands. Shallow water and mudflats are great for shorebirds in spring and fall, with upwards of 20 species recorded.
Other nesting birds on the refuge include Northern Harrier, Band-tailed Pigeon, Rufous Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, Bushtit, Wrentit, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
This large, flat island sits at the intersection of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. The wildlife area that occupies much of it is best known for the masses of waterfowl (up to 200,000 birds) that winter here: geese, swans, and ducks of nearly 30 species.
The two most noted birds of Sauvie Island are Bald Eagle, which both nests and winters in very large numbers (January through March is the peak time), and Sandhill Crane, abundant from spring through fall. Where there are mudflats or shallow water in August and September, shorebirds can be very common. This is also a good area for raptors. Besides nesting Osprey, you might see Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and other species from fall through spring.
Many roads wind around Sauvie Island, and the wildlife area features several viewing platforms at productive sites. This is a popular hunting area, and parts of the wildlife area are closed from October to April.
This small peninsula off Highway 101 is considered the best place on the Oregon coast for seabird watching. What to watch for varies with season, but there’s always something to see—and be sure to scan the distant waves and horizon for rarities.
Species that are present year-round, or primarily from fall through spring, include scoters, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Black-legged Kittiwake.
Summer and fall bring Sooty Shearwater, Brown Pelican, Tufted Puffin, Heermann’s Gull, and Caspian Tern. In winter look for Harlequin Duck, Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater, and Ancient Murrelet.
Birders at Boiler Bay are always hoping to spy rare species such as Black-footed Albatross or Long-tailed Jaeger. Many of these birds are far away from shore and difficult to identify, so a spotting scope and patience are very helpful. Boiler Bay is also a good place to see migrating gray whales in December and March.
For one of Oregon’s top birding destinations, drive about 60 miles west of Portland to Tillamook Bay on the Pacific Coast. Low tide exposes vast areas of mud in the shallow bay, making it a giant delicatessen for waterfowl and shorebirds.
Several access points provide views of bay, marsh, and ocean. In the north, a park in Barview connects to a jetty that can be good for shorebirds, especially “rockpipers” such as Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper. In the town of Tillamook, Goodspeed Road leads west into wetlands that are home to waterfowl, shorebirds, and a variety of land birds.
Highway 131 winds from Highway 101 back north to Bayocean Spit, a long peninsula with Tillamook Bay on one side, the Pacific on the other, and vegetation in the middle. A walk along this often-lonely beach and bayside is most productive at the height of spring and fall migration for shorebirds.
To the south, Cape Meares State Park offers a place to scan the Pacific for scoters, loons, shearwaters, cormorants, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, gulls, and other seabirds.
Truly one of the most spectacular landscapes in North America, Crater Lake lies in the caldera (collapsed interior) of an ancient volcano. It’s the deepest lake in the United States, famous for its rich blue color.
The highest point in Crater Lake National Park is Mount Scott at 8,929 feet. A trip up to the Rim Drive passes through several habitats, eventually reaching coniferous forests of pine, hemlock, and fir. All this makes Crater Lake one of the easiest and most scenic places in Oregon to find high-elevation birds.
There’s a very long list of notable birds here, including Sooty Grouse, Vaux’s Swift, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.
Look for American Dipper along rocky streams, and for Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch atop the park’s highest peaks. Visiting a variety of habitats, such as the lower-elevation Annie Creek Canyon Trail as well as higher points, will yield a longer list of birds.
Located less than six miles northwest of Sisters, just off Highway 20, Indian Ford Campground in Deschutes National Forest is a good place to look for many mountain species. Trails lead into mixed and coniferous woods.
Look here for Sooty Grouse, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Calliope Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Solitaire, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.
Deschutes National Forest has many campgrounds and recreation areas in this vicinity with similar birds, including Cold Springs Campground, 3.5 miles south of Indian Ford, and Camp Sherman Campground, 8 miles north of Indian Ford. Simply driving Forest Service back roads and stopping here and there can lead to good birding—but be sure to bring a map.
The mighty Cascade Range stretches the length of Oregon, from north to south, separating the interior’s arid country from the coast’s rains and lush forests. These mountains are rightly famous as a place of awe-inspiring scenery, from the deepblue Crater Lake to the towering snowcapped Mount Hood. Follow the Oregon Cascades Birding Trail and you will get to enjoy both the amazing scenery and a brilliant bevy of colorful birds. The trail, designed by a consortium of groups including the Audubon Society of Portland, features nearly 200 stops. Some are in the lowlands at the base of the mountains, such as along the edge of the Columbia River, where bald eagles and ospreys are celebrities. But most of the real stars are at higher elevations. Brushy thickets may hold bright golden Wilson’s and MacGillivray’s warblers and the elusive but smartly patterned mountain quail. The tall conifer forests are home to the hermit warbler, a striking bird with its center of distribution in the Oregon Cascades. Up at treeline, you may have to search carefully to find the graycrowned rosy-finch, but the brash, noisy Clark’s nutcracker is more likely to find you. —Kenn Kaufman
This basin straddling the California-Oregon border contains abundant lakes and marshes protected by a network of National Wildlife Refuges. When there's enough water, tens of thousands of waterfowl, including Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, and Redheads, linger through the summer to nest and raise their young. But the ducks are upstaged by Western Grebes performing their crazy high-speed courtship displays across the water surface. Continue on the birding trail and you’ll also find forests haunted by Cassin’s Finches, Fox Sparrows, and Varied Thrushes. The peak is Crater Lake National Park you’ll have to tear yourself away from the vistas to look at Clark’s Nutcrackers and other birds. —K.K.
Winters in coastal Oregon can be cloudy and rainy, but temperatures are mild, and birds are so abundant that they make up for a little wet weather. This trail, divided into four sections, will take you to 150 of the best birding spots. In shady groves of redwoods and Douglas fir, expect to find colorful Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Steller’s Jays in the treetops, while Varied Thrushes and Pacific Wrens lurk in the understory. On coastal points, wintering “rockpipers” such as Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, and Black Oystercatchers clamber about on the boulders. However, much of the action is just offshore, where you might see Common Murres, Brandt’s Cormorants, grebes, scoters, mergansers, gulls, and three species of loon. —K.K.