I’m sitting on my porch on the first day of spring. Garden flowers are already blooming. Leaf-out is beginning in the wilds. Light is stretching more into the evening. But to really appreciate the explosion of nature that’s happening, watch for these signs that spring is really here and summer is on the way.
Return of the Osprey (early April)
The Camellias in my yard bloom early, but spring isn’t really here until the Osprey shows up. The West’s premier fish-eating raptor, they cruise in from their wintering grounds in South America right around April Fools Day. Osprey are beautiful birds with a loud, piercing call, and they’re not shy around people, so it’s obvious when they return. You’ll see them soaring above rivers and lakes, and building big nests on trees, phone poles, river channel markers and anything else with a good vantage point near water.
The Gorge Explodes in Color (April-May)
The Columbia Gorge is one of the worlds’ most unique landforms and it also hosts one some of the best wildflower explosions in the world. The bloom—which includes several species that occur nowhere else in the world—happens in phases and moves east to west. The first half of May is usually the peak. Hikes combine a workout, spectacular vistas and catching our breath while figuring out the difference between Columbia desert parsley and Slender-fruited desert parsley. Classic hikes are Dog Mountain, Catherine Creek, and Tom McCall Preserve.
The John Day River (May-June)
The pleasures of a desert river are many. The John Day, Oregon’s longest free-flowing river, combines virtually all of them into one trip: currents that whisk you along, camps that combine great river-watching with hikes to vistas above the river, tall cliffs and deep canyons, solitude and raptors and bighorn sheep. And this year, with a decent snowpack, the river will actually have water in it. Service Creek to Clarno Bridge and Clarno Bridge to Cottonwood are the classic runs. The lower run includes Clarno Rapid, the most difficult rapid on the lower John Day, but it can be portaged. Be prepared to get a permit online and pack out human waste.
Life in the Heron Now (April-June)
Ever since it got plopped onto the label of one of Portland’s first craft breweries—Bridgeport’s Blue Heron Ale—the gangly, croaky, photogenic Great Blue Heron has been both the city’s unofficial and official bird (it also appears on the city seal). Herons nest in massive rookeries around the city. The most famous rookery is on the north end of Ross Island, visible via a short paddle from downtown. Herons also nest at the tech campuses on 185th, the aptly named Heron Lakes Golf Course and at Jackson Bottom Wetlands. Cohabitations of herons and egrets can also be visited by canoe on the north shore of Bybee Lake in North Portland, and at Reed Island near Washougal, WA. Watching adults sitting on nests and bringing food to the hungry hordes of cackling young is a Portland tradition.
Urban High Fliers (April – July)
The return of Peregrine Falcons to Portland is a heartwarming story about wildlife in the City. And not just returning: shacking up, raising kids and thriving in the urban environment. After rebounding from the effects of DDT, Peregrine Falcons began nesting on the Fremont Bridge in 1994. They have set up other nests on bridges, skyscrapers, and cliffs in the area. Like humans, birds find that raising kids in the city comes with a set of challenges: traffic, exposure to pollution and interactions with everything from news helicopters to young that stumble into big events at Waterfront Park while they’re learning to fly. Portland Audubon Society’s Peregrine Watch has helped protect nests and young from hazards or urban life. In addition to the Peregrine, a pair of bald eagles has been raising kids on a nest in the Ross Island lagoon. Paddlers should stay 50 feet back from the nest until the middle of July.
Wacky Warblers (May-June)
Warblers are among the most colorful and intriguing birds that pass through during migration. They’re also a challenge for outdoor lovers to learn and identify, but the rewards are worth it. They tend to flit about in the tops of trees, and there are enough of them that it can be hard to tell a Wilson’s warbler from a Hermit Warbler until you learn them—but at least they’re colorful and dramatic-looking. Nerd up on these bright and flighty fowl with Portland Audubon Society’s classes and soon you’ll be a full-fledged twitcher.
When the Varied Go Away (May-June)
In the Willamette Valley lowlands and on the coast, most mornings you’ll hear a dramatic high fluting sound that sounds more like it belongs on the moors of Scotland than the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a Varied Thrush, a cousin of the Robin, first described to modern science by Lewis and Clark. When they leave the Valley it’s a sign that spring is about to turn into full-blown summer. Where do they go? Up. Varied Thrushes are vertical migrants: they leave the lowlands for the fir and hemlock forests of the high cascades, arriving there soon before the snow melts off the hiking trails. It’s a sure sign that you’ll soon be headed for the high country too.
The West Wind Blows (June)
When the west wind starts to blow through up the Columbia from the coast to the Gorge, it’s a sign that you’re in for full-on summer. The result of greater warmth in eastern Oregon than in Portland creates the flow of air through the Gorge, creating the nuclear-force winds that windsurfers, kiteboarders, and rough-water sea kayakers love. The same thing happens on the Lower Columbia further west as the Willamette Valley heats up: air flows from Astoria and the Coast up to the Columbia to Portland. This is great news for the windsurfers at Jones Beach west of Rainier. It’s bad news if you’re completing one of the Northwest’s premier paddle journeys: the Lower Columbia Water Trail from Portland to the sea. That’s a trip for May before the west wind stops your progress downriver.