Near Bend, Oregon. Photo: Rich Hoyer
Oregon is well known for lush ancient forests and a picturesque coastline that teems with waterbirds. This is the Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, where most of the human population resides. Less well known is how radically different the habitat and climate become as one moves south and east. In the rain shadow of the Cascades one finds dry, open conifer forests, desert-like shrub-steppe, and stark vistas of canyons and fault-block mountains, while farther south one experiences warm summers with virtually no rain. It’s this meeting of Pacific, Continental, and Mediterranean climates in astonishingly close proximity that gives the state of Oregon an avian diversity greater than any other area in the world at a similar latitude - especially in woodpeckers and owls. We’ll explore most of this diversity in scenic state parks on the coast, vibrant national wildlife reserves in the Willamette Valley, extensive coniferous forests on both sides of the Cascades and open expanses of sagebrush in the eastern deserts.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6 p.m. in Portland. Night in Portland.
Days 2-3: Driving toward the coast we’ll stop by wetlands where Wood Duck, Cinnamon Teal, American Bittern, Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren are common breeders. We’ll check for any lingering winter visitors, which might include Cackling Goose, Lesser Scaup or Bufflehead before entering the forested coast range for the remainder of the morning. Our stops may reveal Red-breasted Sapsucker (this tour could be called “woodpeckers and owls”; we see at least 11 of the former and seven of the latter most years), Pacific-slope Flycatcher, American Dipper, Hermit Warbler and Rufous Hummingbird before we pass through mossy and ferny grottoes and arrive in the dairy pastures of the coastal lowlands. At the coast we’ll check some productive sewage lagoons and the north jetty of Tillamook Bay before making a short stop at the famous Tillamook Cheese Factory, also renowned for its ice cream.
Our home base is on the Three Capes Scenic Route, and we’ll bird the headlands of Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and the various beaches and bays in between. We’ll carefully scan the sea stacks among multitudes of breeding Western Gulls, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots for the rarer Tufted Puffin, while Rhinoceros Auklet and Marbled Murrelet are more likely to be found on the water. Any exposed tidal rocks could harbour Black Oystercatchers or a late migrant Wandering Tattler or Black Turnstone. The forest-covered headlands are home to the recently split Pacific Wren, Steller’s Jay, Varied Thrush and Hairy Woodpecker. Brush Rabbit and Townsend’s Chipmunk often forage in the open near the headland lighthouses, and the Mustard White butterfly flits along the roadsides even in the typically cool coastal climate. The fine restaurant where we have our dinners is located in sight of Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the largest seabird colonies in the U.S. south of Alaska. Nights in Netarts.
Day 4: On our last morning on the outer coast we’ll bird our way southward along the coast, past places with native North American names such as Kiwanda, Nestucca and Siletz, and stop at a low headland for some light seawatching, where possibilities include Brown Pelican, Sooty Shearwater and scoters. We’ll also include a stop at Yaquina Head, where Miocene lava flows have weathered to create rocks ideal for seabird colonies seemingly within arm’s reach of the historic lighthouse. In the afternoon we’ll drive east over the central Coast Range into the Willamette Valley. Night in Corvallis.
Day 5: Although the Willamette Valley is the most agriculturally productive region in the state (with such diverse crops as wine grapes, irises, berries, filberts, grass seed, peppermint, and Christmas trees), the riverine forests are well protected and three major national wildlife refuges (Baskett Slough, Ankeny and Finley) are within driving distance. California Scrub-Jay, Black-headed Grosbeak, Violet-green Swallow and Vaux’s Swift are examples of common breeding species, and the improved wetlands at the refuges have recently hosted such surprises as Black-necked Stilt, breeding Wilson’s Phalarope, and breeding Black Tern. The large cottonwoods and riparian thickets along the Willamette River are home to Pileated Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher and the sometimes spotless oregonus race of Spotted Towhee. If the weather cooperates we’ll drive to the meadow-capped top of Mary’s Peak, at 4,097 feet the highest point in the Coast Range, where one can often see and even hear the Pacific Ocean 27 miles away. Northern Pygmy-Owl, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Sooty Grouse, and Mountain Quail are common here (though the latter two are sometimes only heard), and we may find something more unusual such as Townsend’s Solitaire or “Oregon” Canada Jay (the dusky obscurus subspecies). The regenerating clearcuts in the foothills can also be surprisingly productive and offer prime habitat for Wrentit, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Lazuli Bunting. An evening outing to some woodlands not far from town could yield Western Screech, Great Horned, Barn, or Barred Owls. Night in Corvallis.
Day 6: Following the South Fork of the Santiam River into the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains we’ll stop to admire the lovely, rushing mountain streams while eyeing the boulders for locally breeding Harlequin Duck,while a higher elevation lake usually hosts breeding Barrow’s Goldeneye. As we climb the higher mountains and cross the divide, the habitat changes abruptly and dramatically, from a dripping, dense fir-hemlock rainforest to Lodgepole Pine on lava flows only a few thousand years old, to a dry, open Ponderosa Pine-Western Juniper woodland punctuated by willow- and aspen-lined streams. In these drier east-side forests we could see Red-naped Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Green-tailed Towhee, and “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow; one site has had reliable Calliope Hummingbird territories for decades. The volcanic peaks of the Three Sisters, Mount Bachelor and Broken Top will provide a breathtaking backdrop as we search for regional specialities such as Cassin’s Finch, Clark’s Nutcracker and a subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch that differs noticeably from the one we may have seen in the western part of the state. A check of recent forest burns often reveals both Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers. Night in Sisters.
Day 7: We’ll have another chance to look for some of the scarcer woodpeckers or other specialities of the pine forest before we head towards Prineville in the search for an active colony of Tricolored Blackbirds. This will be followed by a drive through the picturesque Crooked River gorge where White-throated Swift, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, and Golden Eagle breed. After lunch we’ll drive eastward through ancient Western Juniper woodlands, home to Ash-throated Flycatcher, Pinyon Jay and Gray Flycatcher, and across the sagebrush steppe of the northern Great Basin, following the 10 million-year-old Brothers fault zone, the defining northern edge of the Basin and Range ecoregion. This time of year wildflowers can make a stroll through the normally drab sagebrush flats a delightful treasure hunt. We’ll end the day with a drive through wet meadows filled with waterfowl, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Willets, and Wilson’s Phalarope. Night in Burns/Hines.
Days 8-10: We’ll have three full days to explore the watersheds of the Harney Basin. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses the heart of this landlocked basin as well as the Donner und Blitzen river valley to the south, is located only 30 miles south of Burns. Well-watered meadows and the shores of the Narrows on the way will distract us; Long-billed Curlew, Swainson’s Hawk, and various waterfowl are common roadside birds. Isolated oases of spruce, pine, cottonwood and elm planted around former ranches act as migrant traps and are often alive with recent arrivals. We’ll concentrate on such places, seeing expected migrants such as Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler, and Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos while hoping for the excitement of vagrant landbirds from eastern North America. The patch of trees at the refuge headquarters is one of the best such traps and has been responsible for many first and second state records. Locally breeding Bullock’s Orioles brighten up the treetops while California Quail scurry between the bushes, but much of the magic of Malheur (which doesn’t live up to its name - malheur means “misfortune” in French) lies in the extensive marshes, lakes and wet meadows. Flocks of White-faced Ibis, American White Pelicans, and Franklin’s Gulls pass between feeding and nesting areas on islands. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are numerous in the cattails, while Sora and Virginia Rail are common but more often heard than seen. Sandhill Cranes share moist meadows with Bobolinks in the shadows of Steens Mountain, whose road is usually still snowed-in this time of year. We’ll also check the dry upland habitats for sage and juniper specialities such as Sage Thrasher and Sagebrush Sparrow, and we can always hope for a wandering Sage Grouse on the roadside as we also keep an eye on the cliffs and rimrock for White-throated Swift and Chukar. A drive through the Alvord Basin will be wonderfully scenic, with Oregon’s driest desert stretching below to the right and Steens Mountain rising up 5600 abrupt feet on the left, and it’s the best area in the state to find Black-throated Sparrow.
On the day between trips south to the refuge we’ll venture north into the Silvies River drainage in the superb pine-fir-larch woods of the Ochoco and Blue Mountains. Here we have an excellent chance of finding Williamson’s Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrow, and Dusky Flycatcher, and we’ll make a special attempt for Dusky Grouse. We’ll also make an evening visit north of town to look for Flammulated Owl which, though difficult to see well, can be surprisingly common. Nights in Burns/Hines.
Day 11: Our drive back to Portland will take us west and north along the scenic John Day River, the second longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. Stops along the way may reveal migrants and breeders such as Red Crossbill and Townsend’s Warbler, and we’ll include a short stop in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument for a picnic lunch. Once we reach the freeway east of The Dalles, we’ll head downriver through the rightfully famous Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, where the continent’s second largest river cuts right through the Cascade Mountains and waterfalls (such as Multnomah, the nation’s tallest) and windsurfing opportunities attract many tourists. We’ll stop at Crown Point to enjoy a panoramic view of Lewis and Clark’s route before continuing to Portland. Night in Portland.
Day 12: The trip concludes this morning in Portland.
Updated: 17 November 2020