The air is getting crisper. On the coast, winds are starting to shift. The days are getting shorter. It may seem like a sad end to the easy days of summer, but fall has incredible nature spectacles you shouldn’t miss. Here are some of them, and how to best enjoy the changing seasons.
Great Gangs of Geese
One of the first signs that summer is starting to slip is that Canada geese start grouping up into their classic V pattern. You’ll start to see this wherever you are, and it’s a sign that the days are getting shorter and the birds are starting to think about migrating. In the winter, some waterfowl head south, and others come down from summering grounds in Alaska and set up shop for the winter in the Northwest’s wetlands. As soon as the rains begin, start looking for big rafts of ducks and geese down from Alaska and Northern Canada.
There’s no more iconic fall ritual than the massive runs of Chinook salmon up the rivers each autumn, where they return from a 5-year stint in the ocean to find the stream of their birth, work their way up it, spawn, and die. The culmination of this life cycle is an incredible thrill, and an ecological wonder. As they die, salmon not only feed other wildlife, but they return nitrogen to the streams, which nurtures the forests that shade and sustain the streams where their children will live.
Where: Almost any stream west of the Cascades; Near Portland you’ll find the Sandy, Clackamas, Santiam, Wind River, or White Salmon.
Every September, a few hundred people gather on a hill above a school in Northwest Portland to…stare at a school building. No, they’re not just hanging out on a random hilltop, they’re gathering to watch thousands of Vaux’s Swifts funnel into the chimney of Chapman School for the night. Swifts—small birds about the size of swallows—spend the summer nesting in Forest Park (and the occasional residential chimney). As summer winds down, they group up in massive gangs before migrating, and every night at sunset, this mass of thousands of swifts funnels into the school chimney in a dramatic vortex. Bring a picnic.
Where: Hillside above Chapman School (in Northwest Portland) in NW Portland
Of all the bird migrations, shorebirds are some of the most impressive; godwits, for instance, will zip from Alaska to New Zealand at the cruising altitude of jetliners. For Oregon’s shorebird migration, head out to the coastal bays with a spotting scope and binoculars to see who’s stopping by to feed on their way south. They’ll use the protected mudflats as a place to chow down before they get moving again. Only good birders can tell a Western sandpiper from a Terek Sandpiper, but it’s a fun challenge either way.
Where: Bayocean Spit, Tillamook Bay, Oregon. Birds will be easier to view at high tide. Bring binoculars and a spotting scope.
The Trees Come to Life
The Pacific Northwest doesn’t have the massive fall color explosion that New England or Michigan does—but in one spot in Eastern Oregon, it does, when the Quaking Aspen in Steens Mountain turn gold in September and October. Nights will be cold, but days will be perfect hiking temperature and the vistas from Wildhorse Point and Kiger Gorge are spectacular any time of year.
Where: Steens Mountain, south of Frenchglen, Oregon
Raptor Rapture on Bonney Butte
If you’re a hawk that wants to migrate south, chances are that the air currents will take you past a few spots where ridges create thermals that make it easier to get a free ride south. These funnel spots are the easiest places for scientists to count hawk populations, band birds, and see whether trends in hawk populations are pointing up or down. One of those funnels is Bonney Butte, on the east side of Mount Hood, where a counting and banding station has been in operation since 1995. Watch the banding station work, watch hawks cruise by, bring libations for the biologists, and take in the views of Mount Hood.
Where: Bonney Butte, east of Bonney Meadow Campground
The Mountains are Empty
The best fall spectacle is what doesn’t happen: crowds at trailheads, full backcountry sites, jockeying for a parking space at your favorite hike, and the traffic coming down from the mountains. Fall is when the air is clear as a bell, there’s a nip in the air, and the fair-weather hikers are gone. Solitude is there for those who grab it.