Signs of Autumn in the PNW and How to Enjoy Them

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.

canadian geeseGreat 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.

Where: Ridge­field Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, Wash­ing­ton / Sauvie Island / Lewis and Clark Nation­al Wildlife Refuge Ore­gon (by boat)

chinook salmonFall Chi­nook
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.

vaux's swiftTiny Birds
Every Sep­tem­ber, a few hun­dred peo­ple gath­ered 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 Portland­bird Migration
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.

Quaking Aspen in Steens MountainThe 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

bonney butte raptorRap­tor 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

mt rainer mountainThe 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.