When Spring Springs in the Northwest

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.

©istockphoto/VladimirKoganReturn 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.

©istockphoto/PDidsayabutraThe 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.

©istockphoto/Sam CampThe 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.

©istockphoto/ AndyworksLife 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.

©istockphoto/FRANKHILDEBRANDUrban 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.

©istockphoto/PaulTessierWacky 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.

©istockphoto/Frank LeungWhen 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.