Winter Bird Watching in Oregon

January 3, 2014 (Updated May 16, 2016)

I love travel across Oregon in winter for one particular reason: the unexpected treats that come when waterfowl put on quite a show.

“Waterfowl are distinct, colorful and just the most in-your-face animals that are around us… and the number you can see is just so much higher than other wildlife,” according to Metro Naturalist, James Davis.  James and I met at Raccoon Point – popular site and overlook of Sturgeon Lake at the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. The 12,000 acre state refuge can be a fine place to admire waterfowl from a distance.


That’s especially true for tundra swans, the long distance travelers of the waterfowl world. Few wildlife come close to surpassing the tundra swan’s remarkable journey: some birds make a 10,000 mile round trip migration from the Arctic to Mexico wintering grounds and then back home again.

“Well, for one, they are huge,” said Davis. “Swans are among the biggest flying and heaviest birds in the world. That’s just spectacular to me and then they’re pure white and that is great.”

Flocks of Tundra Swans seem to fill the sky on six-foot-wingspans and then glide in for a well-deserved break. At a distance, they look like so many cotton balls: silent and majestic – floating atop the water at places like ‘Trojan Pond’ near Rainier, Oregon.

Davis was quick to note that their serene appearance is deceiving – for under the water it is all action – to survive.

“Swans don’t dive under the water like many ducks do to get food. They tip over and stretch their long necks down – (over two feet long) to reach any kind of plant material that may be growing in a pond or lake.”

The swans can be seen across the state at the following places: 

Fernhill Wetlands in Washington County is a prime hideout to catch a view to tundra swans.

Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County where the visitor access is easy just off State Highway 22, west of Salem.

Further afield, try the Klamath Wildlife Area in southern Oregon where they swan show is reliable all winter long until the big birds head back to the arctic in March.

At the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, up to 2,000 swans winter across the 12,000 acre site.

Wildlife Area Assistant Manager, Mathew Keenan, noted that the state wildlife area is a fine host for up to 200,000 waterfowl:  “We do attract a lot of wildlife because we’re such a large target for them as they pass through. We have large tracts of protected areas without development and that’s the big advantage. We manage for waterfowl here, so in addition to natural wetlands we plant food crops specifically for the wildlife.”

Swans mate for life and their young of the year tag along on the great migration each winter. The youngsters are called “cygnets” and they are slightly smaller than their parents and sport darker feathers.

Wildlife books can be life savers for the beginning waterfowl watcher and Davis has written a dandy called, “The Northwest Nature Guide-Where To Go and What To See” – plus, the book’s many color photos make wildlife identification easy.

“It’s all about nature,” noted Davis. “Plants, all kinds of animals—plus I included destinations – important things to see. It’s also organized month to month, so you can see things any time of year.”

And “seeing things” clearly is important too! Davis added that you should include binoculars or a spotting scope with your wildlife watching gear.  “Swans are not hard to spot,” said Davis. “But many smaller duck species can be difficult to identify from a long distance, so I never leave home without my scope and my binoculars. Both make a big difference.”

Also – remember that waterfowl hunting is a part of the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area management scene through January. You can check the ODFW website to determine hunt day and plan your wildlife watching trips on non-hunting days.

And be sure you purchase an Oregon State Wildlife Area Parking Permit. It is required if you leave your vehicle for any time.


About The

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.

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