Willamette Valley Birding
There is an amazing wildlife show for those in the know across three Oregon wildlife refuges. You might consider it three getaways for the price of one visit where you’ll enjoy a front row seat to see the “Winged Wonders of the Willamette Valley” in this “Grant’s Getaway.”
If lawnmowers had feathers, they couldn’t hold a candle to a hungry flock of Canada geese. The big birds fly and soar then land to munch the grass across deep lush pastures at the Baskett Slough Wildlife Refuge near Dallas, Oregon.
Each November, it is a time and place for “goose song” according to refuge manager, John Gahr, who added that little else can be heard when the birds gather by the thousands.
“Well, there’s a bunch that’s for sure – we counted 23,000 last week on a fly-off. It is pretty cool to see all those birds lift off at first light – but you hardly hear anything else but the birds.”
It is a raucous, rowdy chorus that’s for sure, but you cannot blame the birds for doing what comes naturally when they arrive at Baskett Slough from far off arctic nesting grounds. They have come to this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge for the habitat: wetlands and ponds and open grassy fields that are framed by crew-cut stubble fields and towering oak trees that grow across nearby rolling hills.
Baskett Slough is but one of three Willamette Valley wildlife refuges that was established in the 1960’s to protect this sort of habitat for “dusky” Canada Geese; a sub species of goose that’s in serious decline.
“It’s strictly for sanctuary,” noted Gahr. “It’s their winter home so they’re not being lifted off their feeding areas. Our goal is to keep them right here on the refuge, so they don’t venture so much out to surrounding private land.”
There have been recent improvements for the visitor too – including a platform where you can duck in during frequent rain storms – plus, there are spotting scopes to make the viewing easier for the people of all ages. In addition, there are many information boards and kiosks that explain the life history of the geese and the background of the refuge system.
But don’t get too comfy as you enjoy the wildlife show! You’ll want to carve out some time for refuge stop number two that’s just thirty minutes to the east. When you visit Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, I hope you’re lucky enough to cross paths with refuge system biologist, Molly Monroe. She’s the person in charge of the goose counting across all of the valley refuges and she’s a fascinating person to meet. She can explain each and every detail of the honker’s life story and why the refuges are so critical to their long-term survival. She will often park and use binoculars to scan the flocks – she’s counting Dusky geese most of the time – many of them sport bright red collars around their necks. The collars were attached many of the birds in Alaska during the molt period when geese are unable to fly.
“Duskys are a pretty good sized goose with a distinct chocolate color to their chest; a pretty uniformed dark bird overall.”
She added that Dusky Canada Geese – one of seven sub species that travel to or through Oregon – are in trouble: “I think this year’s number was just below 7,000 so they’re not doing very well as far as recruitment and survivability goes. In fact, their numbers are decreasing basically every year – so they’re kind of losing ground.”
That makes their time on the refuges more critical than ever. If you come to hike the refuge grounds, you’ve several trails to choose from. We enjoyed Molly’s favorite called “Pintail.” It’s a broad, wheel chair accessible wooden lane that winds through an oak and ash forest and keeps your feet out of the mud and marsh. At the end of the trail you’ll enjoy a viewing blind that sports a large window that allows you to peer across a marsh and see plenty of ducks, geese and shorebirds – we even spied a rare peregrine falcon! Overhead – a signal as a flight of ducks whistled as they winged their way past us; it was time for us to move on to refuge number three.
The 5,000 acre William Finley Wildlife Refuge offers miles of trails for the visitor to enjoy too. All of the trails have hidden surprises along the way – we watched an eagle rise from his roost and caused an eruption of feathers, goose song and absolute mayhem. US Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, Sallie Gentry told me it’s everyday event – and the eagles are looking for an easy meal by taking the weak or injured goose or duck.
“It’s the old predator-prey game and it happens here all the time – amazing to watch too. Because we’re established for the conservation of the birds, but if we can offer visitors a chance to see the wildlife without disturbing them, then we want to offer that opportunity. Whether it’s driving through in your automobile and looking out on the fields covered in geese, or hiking one of our trails and just taking a leisurely Sunday stroll – bring your camera, bring your kids, it’s a great place.”
Each of the Willamette Valley Refuges is open every day to provide places where visitors can expect an escape from the city rush to enjoy the rush of wild wings. In addition, there are many Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Areas that put on impressive wildlife shows when flocks of geese arrive – be sure to check out Sauvie Island Wildlife Area near Portland and Fern Ridge Wildlife Area near Eugene.
Editor’s Note: Grant’s Getaways is a production of Travel Oregon brought to you in association with Oregon State Parks, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife and Oregon State Marine Board. Episodes air Fridays and Saturdays on KGW Newschannel 8 and Saturdays on Northwest Cable News Network.
about author Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
In this Grant’s Getaway
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