Signs of Spring in the Northwest



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.

Indi­an Plum
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.

Best Spots: Ross Island south of Down­town Port­land, Bybee Lake near the Con­flu­ence of the Colum­bia and Willamette, 185th Avenue near Beaver­ton, and Dis­cov­ery Park in Seattle.


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.

Best spots: Miller Island near Big­gs, Tom McCall Pre­serve near Mosier, Dog Moun­tain, and Cather­ine Creek, WA

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.

Best spots: Cape Look­out, Cape Mear­es, or Yaquina Head, Ore­gon or Cape Dis­ap­point­ment, Wash­ing­ton

Rho­do Root­er
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.

Best Spots; Ramona Falls or the McNeil Point trail on Mount Hood, the Bogachiel or Sole­duc Val­ley on the Olympic Penninsula


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

By Neil Schul­man