Long before the winter rains start to give way, the best season of the northwest is on its way. It begins with a series of spectacles around the Northwest—subtle at first, but soon giving way to fields of wildflowers and 40-ton migrating beasts. Here are 7 surefire signs that the sweet season is upon us.
The first sign of spring is usually the opening of the buds of Indian Plum—a common shrub in the lowland forests and wetlands. When I see the leaves starting to unfurl, I know it’s spring.
Best Spots: any urban natural area west of the Cascades, sometime in mid-March.
Living in the Heron Now
The Great Blue Heron is both Portland’s official and unofficial bird. It adorns the City government’s logo, one of Portland’s earliest microbrews, a giant mural, and the weather station at Pioneer Square. Starting in February, Herons gather in big rookeries to build and repair nests in massive colonies atop trees. Kids are generally born in April, and the chattering, feeding, and flying to and fro generally continues until June. Best viewing is in March, before the trees leaf out and block the view. Sometimes the herons share rookeries with their white cousins, Great Egrets.
The Gorge Explodes
There’s no wildflower explosion quite like what happens in the Columbia Gorge in late April and May. The Gorge’s unique georgraphy is as a link between the dry high desert and the damp westside, and it rare flowers found nowhere else in the world. Beginning sometime in mid-to-late April, the bloom works its way from west to east, carpeting massive areas with balsamroot, lupine, lomatium, and a range of other flowers.
Very Large Coastal Traffic
Every year, the entire global population of grey whales trucks its way up the Pacific Coast from the birthing lagoons in Baja to feeding areas in the Bering Sea. Because they feed off the bottom, they hug the coast, and the 40-ton behemoths are easy to spot. Males usually migrate first, followed by the moms and kids a few weeks later. Pick a calm day when the spouts are easier to spot, and go to the end of headland, and watch and wait. The best time is usually late March. The last species commercially hunted during the whaling era, the gray whale population has rebounded to its’ pre-whaling level.
Pacific Northwest rainforests are at their most enchanting when the fog combines with blooming rhododendrons. While you can see a ton of them in gardens in Portland, their better experienced in the wild come May. Pick a shady forest trail.
Newts Go Nuts
Rough Skinned Newts—the most common, cutest, and poisonous amphibian of the Northwest—are everywhere in Oregon, but they’re most visible when they migrate between forests and breeding lakes and ponds in spring. Known for their bright orange bellies and skin toxins (don’t worry, they’re only poisonous if eaten) that allow them to wander around freely in the day, newts work their way back to ponds and lakes to breed in spring. It starts in March in the lowlands, and later in higher elevations. In the ponds, they’ll often form giant balls of mating amphibians.
Best Spots: any pond near the forest. Good spots are Tualatin Hills Nature Park in Beaverton, Bishop’s Close, Wildwood Recreation Site on Mt. Hood, and Lost Lake or Trillium Lake later in the season.
Mayhem at Malheur
May and June at Malheur National Wildlife south of Burns is a source of both birds and humor. The desert oasis attracts a wide range of migrants—from warblers to pelicans and shorebirds—on their way up the Great Basin Flyway. Trees fill with colorful birds, wetlands are awash in waterfowl, and the fields between the Refuge and burns are crowded with birds like cranes, curlew, and whimbrel. It also attracts a lot of very serious birders, who are often seen stalking around Malheur and can sometimes be their own comedy show: I once saw two arguing passionately about the difference between two types of warblers while a hawk grabbed a sparrow out of the air behind them, totally unnoticed.
Best Spots: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Frenchglen, OR