Supporters of Fernhill Wetlands hope people will flock to Saturday festival

by: COURTESY PHOTO: SCOTT CARPENTER - Wildlife photographer Scott Carpenter captured these barred owls deep in an Oregon forest. His work wilil be on sale Saturday at the Fernhill Wetlands festival.Professional wildlife photographer Scott Carpenter isn’t the only world-traveling nature lover who regularly treks out to Forest Grove’s Fernhill Wetlands.

“People think they have to go to exotic places to see wildlife. Yet I saw a mink kill a ground squirrel five feet in front of me at Fernhill,” said Carpenter, a southwest Portland resident. “Bald eagles and osprey are common sightings. This year we had three or four pair of spotted sandpipers nesting at Fernhill.”

With the Coast Range looming to its west, volcanic peaks visible to the north and east and birds squawking and splashing in its sparkling pools, the wetlands are Forest Grove’s best-kept secret, said Fernhill Wetlands Council President Eric Brattain.

And that’s the problem, he said.

Brattain hopes Saturday’s Birds and Brew Festival will help draw attention to the watery gem and revitalize the Friends of Fernhill Wetlands group. The free festival will feature food, wildlife art and tours by some heavy hitters in the local environmental community, including a wildlife photographer, a renowned birder and a premier Portland-area naturalist. (See sidebar.)

“I really just stumbled on Fernhill one day when I was walking the dog in the summer of 1998,” recalled Brattain, “My jaw dropped to see this lake in front of me. I’d lived here for years and didn’t know about it.”

As part of the floodplain of the nearby Tualatin River, the 750-acre site just southwest of Forest Grove has been a wetland for thousands of years. It’s been home to mink, fish, otter, beaver, dragonflies and a wide range of birds, from eagles to white pelicans, tundra swans, wood ducks and the Cackling Geese now returning by the thousands to winter here after a long flight from their breeding grounds near the Arctic Circle. Waterfowl of all kinds will join them in the weeks ahead.

Birders have long been aware of the wetlands. Mike Houck, director of the Urban Green Spaces Institute headquartered in Portland and co-author of “Wild in the City,” started coming to Fernhill Wetlands in the early 1980s.

John Rakestraw, author of “Birding Oregon,” lists Fernhill as the top birding destination in Washington County. “It’s got a great diversity of species. It’s easy to see the birds from the paths along the water. And there’s always the chance of seeing an ocean bird, including surf scoter, after a storm,” he said.

It may be a birder’s paradise, but for the last 40 years, Fernhill Wetlands has also been home to a wastewater treatment plant, now run by Clean Water Services.

With a growing customer base, CWS recently needed to upgrade the way it cools treated wastewater before discharging it into the Tualatin River, where higher temperatures could end up killing fish.

One option was an expensive new cooling tower.

CWS chose the other, more cost-effective option: a new wetland, where shade plants and artificial waterfalls aerate and cool the water as it leaves the treatment facility. The new area features bridges, boulders and plants that provide tranquility for visitors of all species.

“The water garden is geared toward healing. It’s meant to be a contemplative place,” said Project Director John Dummer, who credits Deputy General Manager Diane Taniguchi-Dennis with its success.

“It’s win-win,” said Forest Grove City Councilor Victoria Lowe, who also serves on the Fernhill Wetlands Council. “The project will save ratepayers money and create an enhanced wetland for wildlife at the same time.”

Carpenter, the photographer, is thrilled to see the wetlands expanded and enhanced. “Let’s face it. We’re losing wetland habitat left and right,” he said. “I’m a customer of Clean Water Services and when I pay my bill, I think of Fernhill.”

Another photographer, Gary Witt of Hillsboro, routinely brings his camera to Dawson Creek, Jackson Bottom and Fernhill Wetlands. But Fernhill is his favorite spot. “I get better pictures here. There’s more variety. It’s a peaceful place,” he said on a recent sunny day.

Pacific University’s Rich Van Buskirk has long used Fernhill as a teaching site for students in his restoration ecology course. Partnering with Clean Water Services, they’ve been able to design planting plans for Dabbler’s Marsh and organize volunteers to put thousands of trees in the ground.

“I enjoy working to improve the wildlife potential at the site,” he said, “knowing that its importance to migratory waterfowl is enhanced by its proximity to the new Wapato Lake unit of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.”

“It’s quiet and it’s close. It’s calming,” said Forest Grove resident Bob Layton, a land surveyor who visited the site last week. “I bring the grandkids out sometimes. They love it.”

“It’s my escape. I come to recharge my batteries and get in touch with things that are natural and real. I like to watch birds raise their young,” said Phil Kahler, a science teacher who has visited Fernhill for years.

Kara Greer is more of a newcomer. Greer didn’t really discover birds until her dog died four years ago.

Sitting on her balcony near Orenco Station in Hillsboro, “I asked for something to bring joy back into my life,” she remembers. “I looked up just then as a goldfinch landed on the balcony railing. It was so colorful and pretty.”

Soon Greer was seeing birds everywhere. “There was an oak tree right by my apartment with acorn woodpeckers nesting in it. A great horned owl was in the tree next to it.”

She bought one bird feeder, then five. “Watching birds was a huge blessing. It helped me heal. I’d never had a passion for anything before. I went to Portland Audubon and learned about Fernhill and started going there.”

Greer joined the Friends group, where she now coordinates volunteer activities, and even moved to Forest Grove.

Heavily involved in organizing the Birds and Brew festival, Greer sees it as “a beautiful way to connect the community with conservation, water, the natural world. We have this little piece of heaven right here.”

Saturday agenda packed with events

n When: 8 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 12

n Where: Fernhill Wetlands, 1399 S.W. Fern Hill Road, just off Highway 47 in Forest Grove

n Admission: Free

n Food and drink: Fresh coffee from BJ’s Coffee Co. and cinnamon rolls from Maggie’s Buns will be for sale, with proceeds going to The Friends of Fernhill Wetlands

n Photos: Wildlife photography by Scott Carpenter on sale

n Tours: Several will be led by experts in different topics: 8 a.m. Birdwatching with renowned birder John Rakestraw; 9 a.m. Wildlife photography with Carpenter, who will give tips to beginners on up; 10. a.m. General nature walk for all ages — kids welcome — with celebrated urban naturalist Mike Houck; 11 a.m. Clean Water Services tour by Deputy General Manager Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, who will answer questions about the new natural-treatment wetlands and world-class demonstration site for sustainable water resources management.

n Fine print: Dogs and bicycles are prohibited at Fernhill Wetlands

n Info online: Details about the event can be found at or by searching for Friends of Fernhill Wetlands on Facebook

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