BY CHELSEA SCHUYLER
“Hummer!” our guide shouts and all eyes turn skyward just in time to witness an Anna’s Hummingbird hover for an instant in midair, then dive-bomb a male Lazuli Bunting from twelve feet up. Incredibly, a vibration of the male’s hummingbird’s tail feathers creates a single piercing “chirp!” just as he pulls up from the dive. The volume is remarkable for such a small creature.
The bunting doesn’t bat an eye; apparently he is used to this.
With his brilliant blue head, orange chest and white wing bars, the Lazuli Bunting is the “target” bird of today’s hike, and a large group of us are gathered here on Portland Oregon’s Powell Butte to see it. But before we even introduce ourselves we hear the bunting’s delicate call coming from the top of a young Douglas fir. Audubon member and guide Ron Escano joked, “Yep, we’re done. There’s no reason to proceed and trek up that trail.” We all laugh and take it as a good sign of what we can expect in this area. Lots of birds, little disappointment.
Ron explains that many of the birds are re-nesting due to the cold and rainy weather in May. Though tough on bird populations, the cold weather gives us a second opportunity to witness interesting courting and nest-building behavior usually seen only earlier in the year. Ron says, “Given the weather and the type of season we’ve had, we could see some rare birds up here”
The sun is out in full force, highlighting the daisy, wild rose, and lupine, all in bloom while Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens decorate the panoramic view with their brilliant snowdrifts. Streaks of yellow shoot by as two American Goldfinches leap-frog over a singing Savannah Sparrow. Birding in this idyllic weather has been rare so far this year, and we Portlanders are stoked. Only 20 minutes east of downtown, Powell Butte Nature Park is a perfect place to enjoy the day.
The hike up the Mountain View Trail is not difficult. As we begin slowly winding our way to the top of the Butte, a doe black-tailed mule deer watches us cautiously. There are nine miles of trail on this extinct volcano cinder cone with over 608 acres of meadowland and forest; plenty of habitat for a wide variety of species.
It’s fun to see the mini-ecological dramas play out before us. On our way to a wooded canyon heading west on the Cedar Grove Trail, our binoculars raise in unison to the skirmish of leaves as an American Kestrel chases off a Western Scrub-Jay. Jays are nest predators, robbing other bird’s nests and eating the eggs or killing the young, so we can’t help but root for their harassment. “Oohs” and “ahhs” harmonize in the crowd and someone cheers “Go kestrel, go!”
After the excitement dies down, everyone quiets to listen. A Swainson’s Thrush, my personal favorite, treats us to its beautiful spiraling call in the distance. The trees are now in full foliage, hiding many species from sight, so birders really have to rely on their songs to help with identification.
In the meadowland at the top of Powell Butte, our bird song identification skills are put to the test. A debate breaks out about which flycatcher we might be hearing on the southern side. Is it the Olive-sided Flycatcher with its “drink THREE beers,” or the speedier “bZEEyeer” song of the Western Wood-Pewee? Opposing camps form and the group is divided until iPods and smartphones emerge with their iBird and BirdsEye birding apps. Finally, there is consensus: Olive-sided. The friendly competition leads to further enthusiasm, and half of us will go home to re-memorize every flycatcher call in the Northwest.
Rounding the edge of Powell Butte on the Orchard Loop Trail we find ourselves overlooking a field of blue plastic tubes jutting out from the ground. Invasive blackberries are a constant battle in Oregon, and this area has recently been cleared of a large patch. The tubes protect and aid their replacements, possibly native elderberry.
It is here that our hopes of a rare bird are fulfilled by the appearance of a Western Kingbird. Three of our group try to set their spotting scopes on it but the bird won’t settle; it is constantly darting from tube to tube catching insects as he goes. Its yellow breast and large size are a real treat for me; a first for my life list.
We are supposed to meet back at the parking lot at 11 am, but by noon several of us are still finishing up the loop via the Service Road Trail, asking still more questions of Ron and hoping for one last peak at a Dark-eyed Junco or Black-headed Grosbeak. The trip was a definite success.
Anytime you need some solitude and want to see wildlife, trek to Powell Butte Nature Park. It’s ideal for a quick trip out of the city. I highly recommend the Butte for anyone – bird enthusiast or otherwise – who yearns for more nature in their life.
16160 SE Powell Blvd, Portland, OR 97236
From I-84 E take exit 6, merging onto 1-205 S. Then take exit 19 and turn left onto Division St. Take a right on 112nd until you reach Powell Blvd, then turn left again and continue until 162nd.
Portland is in the top five cycling cities in the nation, and Powell Butte is bike accessible. Powell Boulevard does have a bike lane, but cyclists might want to take the much more beautiful Springwater Corridor bike path.
If you go
The park is open year round, 7am to sunset, but may be subject to closure if the trails are muddy. The best times of year to visit depends on what you’re after. The obvious choice is the spring and early summer when it’s warm, the wildflowers are out, the migrant birds are visiting, and all the animals are about. But don’t discount winter; you’ll probably have the trails all to yourself, and the leafless deciduous trees helps with visibility when birding.
I recommend visiting the Butte with a group. Being with a group lets me be with others of the same passion who I would not have met otherwise. Having a guide is like having a live, interactive bird book who’s right there to give local information for each bird and habitat.
Tours led by Audubon members on Powell Butte are usually free and do not require registration. Dress for the weather, and bring good hiking boots if you aim to trek through the forests as the trails are often slippery. Bring your binoculars!
If you want to learn more about identification of bird songs, I recommend the Birding by Ear class taught by the Audubon Society of Portland.
Other Wildlife Activities
Powell Butte is a great place for field trips with kids. Spring, summer, and fall are ripe with insects like grasshopper, praying mantis, and butterfly that will delight school-age children. There are some mammals here, but they are rare compared to the rich amount of bird species.
For More Information
Portland Parks and Recreation
Friends of Powell Butte
For Audubon Society event information, call
or visit http://audubonportland.org/
Black-tailed Mule Deer
Lazuli Bunting (summer)
Northern Shrike (winter)
Pacific Slope Flycatcher
Yellow Barn Swallow
Violet Green Swallow
About the Author
Chelsea Schuyler is freelance writer with a degree in biology. When she was young her father took her camping every year and she’s still hooked on the outdoors. When not exploring the Pacific Northwest, she is writing or planning an overseas adventures.
Click here for a map of the adventure location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.