It’s a good life, Portland. Not only do we have easy access to forests, meadows, mountains and rivers but we also occupy a point on the map that is smack dab in the path of the Pacific Flyway. This migratory route for millions of birds stretches from the tip of South America to the Bering Straight, and each year over 200 species live or pass through the Willamette Valley. Black-headed Grosbeaks, Common Yellowthroats, Swainson’s Thrush, and Bullock’s Orioles to name a few, make the long trek to feed, breed and nest in our temperate climate. Expert birders to novice watchers anticipate their arrival in our fair city and there are several events, such as the Celebration of Migratory Birds, to commemorate the spring event.
Portland is one of several U.S. cities to protect migratory birds and enhance their habitats within the built environment through participation in the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds. In fact, U.S. Fish & Wildlife selected Portland as a pilot project city due to its location in the Pacific Flyway. The Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is the city’s first Migratory Bird Park.
But migratory birds aren’t the only ones worth pursuing with binoculars. Indeed, Portland has a wealth of local year-round residents to admire. In addition to the surrounding forests and wetlands, most city parks and some backyards offer healthy habitats, which means bird watching can happen from the comfort of a Lazy Boy recliner, if it must. Who hasn’t been compelled to shout out “hello, robin redbreast!” upon spotting an American Robin pull a worm from their rain sodden garden, or cheered at the sight of a Northern Flicker or Goldfinch ravaging the bird feeder? Oregon has the fifth highest bird diversity among all North American states and provinces. It’s really a birder's paradise, all one has to do is look around.
Summer Bird Spotting
Steve Engel is the Adult Program Coordinator at the Audubon Society. He says there is a lot of overlap of species within the city. In the summer, the Western Scrub-jay is a common sighting in most residential neighborhoods, as are Bushtits, Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Robins. Wide, open spaces like parking lots on school campuses will reveal White-crowned Sparrows as they hop from ground to shrub and back again.
Forest, oak woodland, grassland, marsh; there are a many different environments surrounding the city to find a wide range of bird species. Forest Park attracts birds that thrive in forested habitats, such as Black-capped Chickadees and Wilson’s Warblers, while rich wetland forests on the banks of the Willamette and Columbia rivers will seduce Bullock’s Orioles.
Venture into Kelly Point Park in North Portland and you may catch sight of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, or Red-winged Blackbird. The Columbia Slough and wetlands in Hillsboro are excellent places to see Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers and Canadian Geese.
Raptor buffs will rejoice in the recent sightings of Bald Eagles in North Portland. This alone is cause for celebration considering they were on the endangered species list until 2007. Red-tailed Hawks can be spotted along most freeway interchanges where they hunt the medians with alarming ease, and gracing the Willamette River near Downtown are a pair of lovely Peregrine Falcons and their young. Engel says the family flies between St. Johns and the Ross Island Bridge.
Enhancing Urban Habitats for the Birds
Four years ago, the Three Rivers Land Conservancy, as part of the West Willamette Restoration Partnership, launched a pilot program in the West Hills modeled after the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Program™ but created specifically for the Portland area. Gaylen Beatty, Director of Backyard Habitat Certification Program headed the effort. “We wanted a local based program to include an invasive weed removal component,” she says. Aggressive and noxious weeds are a considerable problem in the Northwest because of their ability to wreak destruction on native plant and wildlife.
The West Hills pilot program took off and in 2009 Three Rivers Land Conservancy formed a collaborative partnership with the Audubon Society of Portland to expand the Backyard Habitat Certification Program citywide. Their union perfectly balanced expertise—conservation of private natural land in watersheds and knowledge of native wildlife—ensuring the program addressed all aspects of native flora and fauna.
The overarching goal of the program is to help property owners restore native wildlife habitats in their backyards by providing the necessary information, tools and guidance. Technicians from both agencies make a preliminary visit to the site, assess the current conditions and advise homeowners on invasive weed removal, soil improvement options if needed, and the types of plants and trees most suitable to the surrounding context and attractive to wildlife.
“You have to build the foundation of the habitat,” says Beatty. “This includes soil and plants that attract invertebrates, which in turn, invites birds.”
“Native plants attract our native insects, which creates a food source. Birds are looking for food, shelter and water,” says Karen Munday, Urban Wildlife Specialist with the Audubon Society. Munday is also Beatty’s collaborative partner on the program. “Native plants provide more of what birds need. The larger, thick, dense hedgerows and trees offer beneficial shelter. Flowers and seeds are another food source.”
Since the program was launched in January 2009, 500 homeowners have converted their backyards into wildlife-friendly habits. Beatty says their goal is to entice 1000 backyard conversions per year.
“There needs to be connectivity between the surrounding natural areas, and places like Mt. Tabor and Ross Island, and private property,” says Munday. “It’s important that they [private property] also provide habitat for birds to forage and thrive.”
To learn more about the Backyard Habitat Certification Program, visit the Audubon Society website where you can also find out about upcoming bird watching classes and walks. Note: As of July 1, the Backyard Habitat Certification Program will become part of a collaborative effort between the Columbia River Trust and the Audubon Society of Portland.