No matter what the season in Oregon, going outside to enjoy nature and the fresh air is more essential than ever. Now may just be the perfect time to take up the meditative, educational and inclusive hobby known as birding — an easy social-distancing activity year-round, including the fall and winter months. “[Birding] is for everybody,” says Gregory Smith, a field biologist and former Audubon member who now leads birding trips for the Portland nonprofit Wild Diversity. “It’s really easy to get into because birds are absolutely everywhere.”
Birding, or bird-watching, is a solo or group activity of regularly observing and identifying species of birds, including their migration patterns and behavior. You can spot them with your naked eye, but it’s even more enthralling if you can use binoculars or a telescope.
“You can get into it in your backyard and not have to travel very far,” says Smith, who’s studied birds all across Oregon in his work. “It can be exactly what you want it to be. It can be watching a robin for 20 minutes and doing nothing else. Or it can be going out and eBirding and making sure you get all the species you can get at a certain place. It doesn’t have to be this intense thing; it doesn’t have to be this competitive thing. It can be this really relaxing pastime or hobby.”
Find Your Starter Bird
In the Portland area, spots like Mt. Tabor Park, Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, Whitaker Ponds Natural Area and Kelley Point Park offer lots to see: great blue heron, black-capped chickadees, spotted towhee, sandhill cranes and more. Minutes outside of Portland, birders flock to the important habitats and trail systems at Salish Ponds Wetland Park to the east in Fairview, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve to the west in Hillsboro, and Coffee Lake Wetlands to the south in Wilsonville.
Elsewhere in the state, experienced wildlife watchers know that the Oregon Coast is full of fascinating seabirds (visit any of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuges), and that Southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin and Eastern Oregon’s Harney County are part of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. Many Oregonians can even observe an array of birds from their residence, nearest park and beyond. Often it takes a “spark” or “starter” type of bird or species to get someone interested in birding.
Sam DeJarnett, who works at a vet clinic in Portland, has been birding for a few years now. Her starter bird was a red-tailed hawk, for which she has an image of the bird’s skull tattooed on her body. DeJarnett’s passion for animals started with work with dogs in shelters, but after completing an internship in wildlife rehabilitation in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, she ended up falling in love with birds: “Being able to see them that close and see a bald eagle’s beak that close to your face is really, really cool.”
After moving to Portland, DeJarnett began volunteering at Portland Audubon, which led to her being hired as their education bird trainer. Naturally, she started going birding with her coworkers. “I think there’s this misconception about birding — especially when it’s called bird-watching — that it’s like some older folks sitting on a park bench and just watching birds. It sounds really boring, and it’s not,” DeJarnett says. “[It’s] actually super active, and you’re going to all these really cool places. There’s a lot of sitting and waiting, and watching as well — which I actually really enjoy, too, because it’s really peaceful in those moments.”
DeJarnett, who now goes birding at least once a week, says a past visit to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns gave her an opportunity to observe some burrowing owls, including six babies. “It was the coolest thing ever. They live in burrows in the ground,” she explains. “Yeah, owls! They’re cool. They’re really fun.”
Now DeJarnett is on a mission to get new people interested in birding. In 2021 she launched a birding podcast, “Always Be Birdin’”, available on Spotify and iTunes, and she also shares her broadcasts on Instagram. “People think it’s really funny,” DeJarnett says. “They’re like, ‘Sam, I want to go birding with you. I’ve never done it before, but you make it look so fun.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, because it is fun. I would love to take you birding.’”
DeJarnett recommends that every new birder establish a mentor who’ll help you navigate the natural area and show you how to properly use binoculars. Pro tip: Land your eyes on that bird and bring the binoculars up to meet your eyes.
Finding Safety for Everyone
While birding is a relatively accessible hobby in general, some may find it challenging to get into, due to barriers like limited access to equipment and natural areas nearby. It can also be perceived as an activity for a select demographic.
Another barrier, specifically for those in BIPOC communities, has to do with feeling unsafe in outdoor spaces at a time when incidents of targeted racial violence appear to be gaining prevalence in the U.S. “It’s going to be people of color; it’s going to be specifically Black people” who don’t feel safe outdoors, DeJarnett says. “Especially in Oregon, I think what happens to make it an even more unsafe feeling is that there isn’t representation out there.”
She adds: “What I personally am aiming to do as a Black woman birder — which is just many subcategories that don’t mix together out here — is to be that representation.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Keia Booker, a senior HR and equity manager at Portland Audubon, has been doing diversity and equity training there for three years. “I don’t typically feel so paranoid about being out in the world, [but] I am right now in this moment, with all the racial violence that’s happening,” she says. Booker says that finding a group or a buddy to go with can make embarking on this hobby feel less daunting and more fun.
When she got the job at Portland Audubon, Booker’s father sent his old chunky, 10-pound, military-style binoculars. ‘“The difference between looking through those and looking through some of the [binoculars] that Audubon sells and other options people have — it’s like night and day in terms of my excitement level,” she says. “You can see the intricacies of the birds — and not just kind of getting a feel for them in general, but you can get super into it.”
Booker is also a member of EPOC (Environmental Professionals of Color) and goes on birding outings with Wild Diversity, a nonprofit that acknowledges Indigenous people such as the Clackamas, Chinook and Cowlitz tribes as well as Black people as the original stewards and cultivators of this land. The group aims to decolonize outdoor spaces by supporting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folk in reconnecting to nature, outdoor adventures and education. Thanks to Booker’s referral, both Smith and DeJarnett now lead birding walks for Wild Diversity that attract groups representing a broad range of demographics.
One of Booker’s fondest birding memories was on a group outing to Sauvie Island, where they saw a merlin (a small species of falcon) scoop up its prey — a red-winged blackbird — from 10 to 15 feet away. “It’s amazing to think about how I always used to walk looking down at my feet,” Booker says. “I loved the different view I got when I started birding. I had only seen crows and pigeons before. Now I see goldfinches and all these other birds. It’s literally changed my perspective.”
If You Go:
Start nerding out. For the wildlife report about birds and other wildlife activity, visit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife bird-watching page or Oregon Birding Trails — a one-stop resource for up-to-date information, maps and more.