Refocus: Birding the Tualatin River Floodplain

Just yesterday, I converted. After a long slow burn of mounting interest, my road to Damascus moment arrived in full and feathered splendor. I may take awhile to reach a conclusion, but once decided, I’m all in. So this morning, before dawn, I went to get baptized. Two hours later, the sun is high and I am no less radiant with my new identity. I’m a full-fledged birder.

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Or maybe not full. I’m probably still a fledgeling, in the sense that I understand a new world all around me, but I lack the knowledge necessary to interpret what I suddenly see and hear. I’m noticing those high seet seet calls from the middle reaches of the oaks, but I have no idea who they belong to, and I can’t get a sightline. In a grove of cedars on a slight rise this morning, I followed a distinctive call – familiar, yet I’ve never before asked who makes it – and finally located a jay-sized bird. He called, and I watched, and I tried to make connections: habitat, season, voice, markings. None of the former clicked, and the latter stayed invisible from below, with the new sun streaming into my eyes, and only shadows above. He flew away, and I am none the wiser.

Rather, I have no more knowledge than I did setting out this morning. But I may be something like wiser; at least I have learned a thing. I have learned how much I miss, all the time. I have discovered the existence of another layer.

I used to live down the street from the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a relatively new public access, a restored seasonal floodplain with a variety of interconnected habitats that attract hundreds of species once difficult to find in the area’s farms and suburbs. I walked its few miles of flat trail often – morning, noon, and evening – and I loved the wide open fields, the shimmering water and the sheltering woods, and the muddy Tualatin pumping quiet and sure through the heart of the whole thing.

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I’ve since moved closer to Portland proper, and if I come back often enough to feel the seasonal continuity, still my visits are spaced out enough to note the changes. Today the primary change is in myself. It’s never taken me so long to walk two easy miles.

Once I strode, or I strolled, down these paths. I rarely stopped. I was looking around, to be sure, and confident of what I saw. Abruptly, my glance is different. Every feather flash intrigues, every sound. Where just last week I stood back to enjoy the full effect of an ever-changing masterpiece, now I step up close, collecting unsatisfied questions about the paint composition and brushstrokes.

I learn by doing, which means, in this situation, that I like to take notes, to field-identify. This morning, pre-dawn, accomplishing this while also watching and listening was an enormous, and humbling, amount of work. The sunrise activity of a wetland world I think of as ‘familiar’ overloaded my ability to absorb it. I missed something every time I looked down.

Trying to map this new awareness, and then to bring it together with the scents and the tree names and the plant cycles I usually notice, left me off balance and out of step, totally inadequate to the formerly simple task of paying attention on my morning walk. I noticed this when blind-sided by particularly rich cedar-scent, looking up just then to see the graceful drape of greenery all around.

Of course, I ought to have gone seeking either an unrecorded overview of the local birdlife, or a few specific details to note and photograph. What are the hawks up to in the mornings, for example? Or: which species of waterfowl are present? Like the rookie I am, I ran after everything at once.

I don’t mean to make this sound disappointing. There were frustrated moments, but mostly I floated from glory to glory, eyes alight and mouth perpetually forming a silent “oh!” I’m pleased to have been the first human, by at least an hour, to arrive. There’s nothing like an accidental audience to shove your unconscious childlike wonder right back into your self-conscious adult brain.

***

I couldn’t actually wait. When understanding dawned yesterday, it was not sunrise but mid-afternoon. This did not stop me from setting off immediately. First the library (birds on the printed page!) and then the Refuge.

A Saturday afternoon at the Tualatin River NWR is shockingly crowded, even in winter. This is my western American sense of space, I suppose, my inherited romantic myth of the uncharted wilderness. The Refuge is partially closed from October to May, to protect the breeding and feeding habitat of winter residents. The unfortunate side effect for me is that I’m trapped on the single out-and-back path with children.

They’re having a grand time, all of them – no whining or fighting to be heard. But they are, extremely, audible. I cannot tell if they are careless because unguided, or if their shouting and trampling and throwing of sticks into rivers is a sort of territory marking. I am trying to remember how this played out in my own, very woodsy, childhood. I recall an early injunction to “forest voices,” and a lot of sneaking about, crouching by rivers, reciting the names of plants. My ability to watch and wait was certainly instilled, not instinctive. But I must have shouted and thrown things, too. I spent so much of my outdoor time unsupervised, in company with cousins and friends; it seems inevitable I made plenty of noise. And I don’t remember it dulling my sense of natural wonder. Who is to say these children don’t also know how to observe and be quiet, waiting for a wren to rustle out of hiding? Not me, but I longed for silence all the same.

A distant, dismissable longing, vaguely like nostalgia, and I smiled with it. Enthusiasm is infectious, and what is the alternative? It would hardly do to trample their excitement, and with it, any nascent, invisible wonder. Anyway I can’t have expected much else. The birds were many, if unvaried – geese, everywhere. And the afternoon was beautiful: high, ruffled clouds leaking the low-slung winter sun. We walked together, adults and children chattering like waterfowl around me, in the sort of mellow, silver-gold light that makes it seem sunset all day.

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***

I left the house this morning at 0630. In the dark, through my closed windows, I heard – I’m not making this up – the year’s first robin song. That might sound like a good omen for my first intentional birdwatching expedition, but my relationship with the American robin has been a bit testy since moving to Oregon. To be precise: robins are fine. Except between the months of February and approximately May, when their cheerful pre-dawn lilting causes me to slam my windows shut and burrow beneath my pillow. It’s a lovely song, but it is loud. The rest of the year, spotting these large, pretty thrushes hopping about in shrubs and on lawns, I can’t help but give them the side-eye. It seems no accident that their genus name is Turdus. I imagine a frustrated 19th century taxonomist, grumping downstairs for a cup of tea at four in the morning. Might as well get to work, those turd thrushes won’t be shutting up for hours.

IMG_20160207_071105It’s often foggy in the sunken flatlands of the Tualatin River, but this morning the mist sat high already, drawing back. In the east, a sky the color of shell cupped the blue-shadowed base of Mt. Hood. Before I was out of the car, I saw my first bird: the sunrise silhouette of a hawk in the bare branches of a magnificent old oak.

The Refuge is furnished with a crunchy gravel main path and a pair of creaky bridges that make the traditional approach to birding near-impossible. I can place my feet as carefully as I like, but I’m still rattling the trail with every step. Stream crossings echo with the fanfare of a thunder god. I’ve winced often enough at my own blundering footsteps, and I expected worse results on a bird-specific walk. As far as I can tell, the birds couldn’t care less.

The great blue heron circling in to land in a tree-fringed pond made so much noise herself – long, hoarse cronnnks repeated at some volume for at least a minute – that I doubt she noticed me until I eased into a crouch by the water. She saw me then, swiveling her head, but her attention moved immediately to something else – frog? rival heron? – and something else again.

The GBH, as my family calls it, is a common bird, uncommonly beautiful. No more than 15 feet off, I looked a long time at this one’s fluttering white head-plumes, her elegant navy-streaked gray suit. I’ve watched a few long enough to see them stalk, spear, and swallow their prey, but this one hadn’t settled yet to hunting. She stood about in a distracted sort of way, cocking her head to one side and another, uttering small, introspective croaks. When I moved off, she didn’t startle.

The young oak savanna that first greets the Refuge visitor is another restoration project – a disappearing habitat once common in the Willamette Valley. In the mornings, it is chock-a-block with songbirds. They swirl and shout and flit and flutter too quickly to tag with such a prosaic thing as a name. I know a few – black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco – and even these moved too fast this morning to both name and observe.

Exactly one songbird stood still, and it made up for any frustration I felt about the rest. From the branch of an immature oak, a few feet away and low to the ground, came a song I had heard, jumbled up in the usual morning chorus – this time issued by a skilled soloist. I cannot imitate it in writing – one of the first things I’ve noticed about birding is how poorly humans transliterate avian voices. When I edged around to catch sight of the singer, I not only recognized him, I understood viscerally his scientific designation: Melospiza melodia.

The crowning glory of the Refuge is the wetland viewing platform. You reach it through a small oak and cedar woodland, still dim as the sun swells just below the horizon. Emerging on the other side, a vast expanse of tawny stubble and blue-brown marsh lies golden in the first low sun. It slants in, illuminating the stripped limbs of two tall old trees, the highest points around, long dead but still in use. One holds a dripping mess of sticks, the other a bald eagle: silent, watchful. On the margins, a hunting heron. All around, dabbling ducks too far away to identify, though I can hear their chuckling and splashing, their skidded landings and occasional outbursts. Red-winged blackbirds sing invisibly from the fringing reeds. They’re pushy and territorial, and their song reflects it: aggression flung outward in beautiful, crystalline shapes.

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***

My favorite moments this morning came when the geese took flight. A few are a pleasure, to watch and to hear, but a great sweeping mass of them rising from the water and winging overhead brings something different: a glorious swell of feeling. It’s the moment in church when everyone joins on the chorus of a favorite hymn, the rising anticipation in the stands when the home team approaches the goal. It’s a lifting of the soul: no less.

That moment is when I realized what was happening out here, in here, on my birding baptism day. I walk because I need to, because it settles my body and gives my brain a project. Because I’ve come to enjoy the regular observation of morning and evening and midday, the scents and the sounds of each, and the way the sun moves over water and land. But I had entirely forgotten what it was like to begin walking for pleasure. Granted, I hiked from an early age. But the activity was not part of my identity until I moved to the Northwest, until I began to seek it out, to explore. So there was a first time, as an adult, when I learned how to see the natural world.

Exploration began with no purpose other than itself, but I did discover some. One is at heart a matter of competition, a challenge to do something I can name and rank. How many trails can I hike, how high or how long or how difficult? I’ve lost that one a bit lately, in favor of something else that was growing behind it the whole time. It’s a nebulous purpose created by simply doing: a series of habits of mind and methods of being, bodies of knowledge and a mental map I’ll be unfolding for a long time yet. It’s the anticipated pleasure of what to expect when I head out on a hike. Not what I’ll find, exactly; that’s always a gamble. But I know how to look. I like that.

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Birding is a new way to look. It’s another layer of observation and of knowledge, a series of habits and methods I don’t have. It’s unfamiliar, and it’s exciting, in the first-time-thrill way just walking a new trail was, before.

I hate not to know what I’m doing. This is a great personal weakness. It’s not often I encounter a skill I want to practice without a head start. Here I am, though. Practicing birdwatching instantly shows up the massive gaps in my knowledge. I know almost nothing about migratory patterns or breeding seasons or juvenile development. Flipping through my new Oregon bird guide, I encountered all kind of pictures with captions like “Heering gull, breeding plumage.” Apparently some birds have seasonal wardrobes. Now I have to learn double the patterns.

At a more basic level, I’m utterly unprepared even to start. Did you know you need a spotting scope or binoculars if you hope to positively identify any bird more than a few feet away? You probably did. I didn’t.

And yet I remain undeterred. Which is how I can tell this is a true conversion. It’s a little bit like falling in love, actually. It was coming on so gradually I didn’t notice, and then it just happened, and here I am with this thing that is suddenly important in my life and I just have to learn how it works.

So here we go. Am I going to become one of those crazy people who carries around a bird call and plans weekend getaways around seasonal migrations, who keeps field guides in the car and makes species lists and walks about with a huge pair of binoculars slung around her neck? I mean, maybe. That’s the exciting part: I have no idea where this leads.

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***

The Atfalati Unit of the Tualatin River NWR (the part humans are allowed to access) is located on Highway 99W between Tualatin and Sherwood, Oregon. It’s open dawn to dusk every day. At present there is no fee to park, but a fee station has been constructed and its eventual use is part of the long-term plan. You can also get there on the bus. Walking along 99 is a chore, and not recommended. A very nice interpretive center opened in 2008, and has only improved since. It’s open every day except Mondays, 10am to 4pm. There’s a covered picnic area at the entrance, and the main trail provides very easy, flat, and comfortable walking on gravel. Additional trails open seasonally from May 1 to Sept 30.

***

Identified Species:

Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus

American Robin Turdus migratorius

Red-Tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Black-Capped Chickadee Poecile attricapillus

Dark-Eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

Cackling Goose (?) Branta hutchinsii

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Great-Horned Owl Bubo virginianus

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Mallard Anas platyrhychos

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4 thoughts on “Refocus: Birding the Tualatin River Floodplain

  1. I have missed the TWR. haven’t been for a few years. Terry and I have driven past it, noting it’s presence, in pursuit of other adventures. Sitting or standing on the viewing platform, enjoying the vista, the geese, ducks, bald eagles, great blue herons, calms my soul. Perhaps this autumn…

    Liked by 1 person

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