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'Bird nerds' flock to county hot spots this winter

Oregon's wet months are perfect for local bird watching


Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - This green heron, spotted at Fernhill Wetlands near Forest Grove, is a relatively rare site in the Willamette Valley, but populations are slowly increasing in western Oregon.Most people see yellow birds, blue birds and brown birds.

But Shawneen Finnegan, Vern Beeson, Phil Kahler and other bird watching enthusiasts see American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis), Lazuli Buntings (Passerina amoena) and Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia).

While many people go through their day without noticing overhead chirping, these three stop and listen for mating songs and alarm calls.

They know where to find them, what they eat and how they affect their local ecosystem.

And luckily for those looking to get outside in the colder, wetter months, winter lends itself well to birders and nature lovers looking to spot wildfowl in western Washington County.

Many bird species winter throughout the Willamette Valley, taking advantage of full ponds and flooded fields and wetlands. And unlike in many other parts of the country, these water bodies are not usually iced over, making them more inviting to birds.

“You can see a lot of winter birds anywhere there’s water,” said Finnegan, a self-described bird nerd who teaches classes at the Audubon Society of Portland.

Winter is the time to spot waterfowl, Finnegan said, which are easy to spot, as they’re big and congregate on bodies of water. In addition, birds are more visible in winter with less foliage to hide them and often gather in groups to eat when food resources typical of warmer months are scarce.

Ducks are often tame, too, because they’re only hunted in certain areas.

Some bird watchers are intense, traveling across the nation and world to spot exotic, rare birds with expensive equipment. But birding doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Beeson, a Banks resident, has a more casual, laid-back approach to birding. First inspired by his southern California high school biology teacher who was passionate about bird watching, Beeson tried to pass on the motivation to his students during his 30 years at Banks High School. He taught them about birding in class and even took field trips to the Malheur Field Station in Oregon’s Harney County.

“You don’t have to invest a lot of money or time,” said Beeson, whose equipment list comprises a pair of binoculars and an inexpensive spotting scope. “It should just be enjoyable.”

Bird watching allows many to see nature and wildlife in a new way, Finnegan has seen.

“Have fun and enjoy,” Finnegan said. “Get away from your gadgets; step away from the TV.”

Part of Beeson’s motivation for taking students to the Malheur Field Station, for which Beeson serves on the board, was to open their eyes.

“You get out to eastern Oregon — not Bend, which many kids think is eastern Oregon — and the kids say, ‘There’s nothing out here,’” Beeson recalled. “But sometimes you just have to look more closely to understand it, because the wildlife out there is abundant. I wanted to foster an appreciation for wildlife in general.”

Kahler, a Forest Grove resident, also integrates birding into his curriculum at Tualatin Valley Junior Academy in Hillsboro, where there’s an all-weather bird-watching station behind the school and students participate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology education program for kindergarteners through 12th graders. The program encourages research and trips outdoors, and several of Kahler’s students have gotten their work published in the student journal.

Kahler recommends that beginners grab a basic field guide and a pair of binoculars, then head out to Fernhill Wetlands or Dawson Creek Park in Hillsboro. Dawson Creek is a great place to spot acorn woodpeckers, he said. Pacific University’s Forest Grove campus is also home to these relatively rare woodpeckers (see sidebar). Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Great blue herons, like this one hunting at the shore of one of the ponds at Fernhill Wetlands, eat nearly any animal they can spear with their dagger-like bills.

“Just spend some time learning to identify some birds and learn as you go,” Kahler suggested.

Beeson advises beginners to accompany an experienced birder their first few trips out or to take a guided field trip or class (see sidebar).

“Spending time outside is how I recharge my batteries,” Kahler said. “I like staying in touch with nature and seeing what nature is doing. It can be quite addictive.”

Beeson, who travels around the country in an RV with his wife, likes the hobby because “you can bird watch anywhere you go.”

The way Finnegan sees it, bird watching is an inexpensive, life-long hobby that connects people with nature.

“When bird watching, you learn to observe the natural world,” Finnegan said. “Instead of asking ‘Why bird watching?’ I ask, ‘Why isn’t everyone a birder?’”

Spot acorn woodpeckers on Pacific’s campus

Pacific University’s Forest Grove campus happens to house the Acorn Woodpecker, which is fairly rare in this neck of the woods. In fact, the campus’ white oaks are believed to be the northern most stop on a stretch of trees that houses the woodpeckers and runs down to Mexico, according to Pacific’s Director of Academic Affairs, John Hayes.

In northern Oregon, Acron Woodpeckers are becoming rare as white oaks decline. Most white oaks have been harvested for flooring or have fallen from disease and age.

Pacific’s campus has more than 100 white oaks, Hayes said, and they are replanting at a faster rate than they’re losing the trees.

In the fall, birders can watch the Acorn Woodpeckers collecting and storing acorns they eat throughout the year in the trees, which Hayes says is a special site. But the birds can be seen all year round.

These woodpeckers are noisy, so birders can usually tell if they’re there. Unlike other woodpeckers who usually live solitarily or in pairs, Acorn Woodpeckers are quite social and live in groups that can include up to 15 birds.

Where to go in Washington County:

- Fernhill Wetlands, 1399 S.W. Fern Hill Road in Forest Grove, is a major destination for bird watchers. More than 200 species were counted there at one time. Hummingbirds, pelicans, songbirds, shore birds, ducks and geese can all be found here. Visit fernhillnts.org for more information and a species list.Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: DEBBY DE CARLO - This hooded oriole usually calls Americas southwestern states home, but this little guy was spotted near Gaston.

- Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, 2600 S.W. Hillsboro Highway in Hillsboro, offers about four miles of trails, although currently only about a half mile of the trails are open due to flooding. More than 150 bird species have been found throughout the 635 acres. Every Wednesday at noon, Jackson Bottom staff host “Lunch with the Birds” at a Washington County location that’s good for birding. In February, those lunches will be hosted at Turner Creek Park, 789 S.E. 31st Court in Hillsboro. See jacksonbottom.org or call 503-681-6206 for more information.

- Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway in Sherwood, offers classes and guided strolls through their maintained trails. The refuge boasts an average of 20,000 waterfowl during mid-winter, and in some years more than 50,000 have been observed in a single day. Visit fws.gov/tualatinriver/recreation.html or call for more information.

- Dawson Creek Park, 5435 Dawson Creek in Hillsboro.

- The Banks-Vernonia State Trail starts in Banks on Highway 47 and stretches to Vernonia.

- L.L. Stub Stewart State Park, 30380 N.W. Highway 47 in Buxton

- South Saddle Mountain in the Tillamook Forest

Take a field trip or a class:

- Jackson Bottom and Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge offer educational programs.

- Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District offers many classes and outings. Visit thprd.org/nature/programs/home.cfm or call 503-645-6433 for more information.

- The Audubon Society of Portland offers field trips and classes throughout the Portland Metro Region and even internationally. Visit audubonportland.org or call 503-292-6855 for more information and a schedule.

A few birds to look for this winter:

- Ducks, geese and swans

- Golden-crown sparrow

- Northern pintail duck

- Ring-necked duck

- Cackling goose

- Tundra swan

- Common goldeneye

- Pied-billed grebe

- Eagle nesting

Other resources: Ebird.org and birdingoregon.info

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