submitted by Harry Fuller (see full bio, below)
California, Oregon, and Washington are huge states that contain a bounty of bird-watching opportunities. Just as the climate and terrain is unique in those states, so are many bird species. There are dozens of birds that are rarely seen east of the Sierra Nevada or Cascade Mountains. California, in particular, is gifted with endemic bird species: the Yellow-billed Magpie and Island Scrub-Jay. They attest to the unique habitat and isolation of coastal California. Here are some pointers for birders who are new to birding the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon, Washington.
1. There are two climatic seasons: rainy and dry. As you move north from San Diego toward Seattle, the climate generally gets wetter. Most rain falls from November through April. Summer rain is uncommon. San Diego will get about a foot of rain per year while Seattle gets over four feet. Neither expects snow on a normal year. A heavy winter snowfall a few years back froze all activity in Portland, Oregon. The city does not own a snow plow.
2. Climate and terrain can alter dramatically over a short distance. In San Francisco a typical August high temperature would be 65, with a good chance of windblown fog coming in off the Pacific. If you were to travel due east past the coastal range to Walnut Creek, you could encounter a 95 degree temperature, almost no humidity and certainly no fog. The distance is about 30 air miles. This rapid and extreme shift of climate and weather means you get a wide variety of habitat and birds in close proximity. I once showed visiting birders to San Francisco Black Oystercatcher, Pygmy Nuthatch, Black Phoebe, Song Sparrow, and Pacific Loon within a five-minute span.
3. As in the rest of the U.S., adaptable and range-hungry species are spreading rapidly northward. Great-tailed Grackle, Hooded Oriole, Mockingbird, Eurasian Collared-dove, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Black Phoebe are all breeding much further north now than they were fifty years ago. Your field guide’s range map is probably outdated.
4. There are many species found across the U.S., like Northern Flicker, American Robin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Song Sparrow. But there are even more species that split roughly along a line through eastern Colorado. Many “eastern” forest birds do range up into Alaska but are not common along the Pacific Coast below the Canadian border—American Redstart and Northern Waterthrush are examples. In many bird families there are eastern-western counterparts. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (east) and Black-headed Grosbeak (west). Lazuli Bunting (west), Indigo Bunting (east). Eastern Towhee, Spotted Towhee. Eastern and Western Bluebird, Meadowlark. Ruddy Turnstone, Black Turnstone. American Oystercatcher, Black Oystercatcher. The list could grow to a couple of hundred species.
5. Birding the Pacific coast is a year-round activity. I do an annual Pacific Northwest trip for Partnership for International Birding. It is around the end of February, height of the rainy season. We hit the coast from Portland, Oregon, north to Puget Sound. We see Harlequin and Long-tailed Duck, Pigeon Guillemot and Rhinoceros Auklet, all three mergansers and both goldeneyes, six species of grebe, Brant and Northern Shrike, Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls, Bald Eagle and Pileated Woodpecker, Pacific Wren and Wrentit. These are all birds that ignore the rain and just get on with life. Christmas counts in Pacific Coast cities usually top 150 species. In San Francisco, Townsend’s Warbler compete with Yellow-rumps for winter food.
6. Western migrations happen over a longer period of time as the late winter on the coast is milder than it is on the Atlantic. I live eighty miles inland from the Oregon coast. By March we see Osprey, Turkey Vulture and Tree Swallow. Migration flows unevenly forward until the Empidonax return in late May to their mountain forests.
7. What the Pacific slope lacks in warblers (more than six species would be a fine day at any season) it makes up for in corvids, woodpeckers, owls, ducks and gulls. I count Cinnamon Teal and Barrow’s Goldeneye among the most handsome of our waterfowl. Where I live Wood Ducks paddle around in the city park, not far from where American Dippers nest in a small stream. Instead of Blue Jay, we can see Steller’s, Scrub and Gray Jay in a single day. The right mountain pine forest has Clark’s Nutcracker. The American Crow and Common Raven abound, even in cities. And we have both magpies.
8. Some practical info: expect to dress in layers. It can be windy and cool along the coast at any time. We joke about San Francisco tourists in summer; they have the blue knees. When 55-degree fog blows in off the Pacific you want to be wearing a windbreaker and long pants. Expect to dress in layers and expect most nights to be cooler than a summer night in Virginia. Don’t overlook rapid elevation changes. Less oxygen means you should move more slowly, don’t overeat (you need lots of blood to the brain) and drink, drink, drink (water). Much of the west has low humidity after the rainy season. Sunscreen can be useful any time of year, especially in mountains and on snowfields. Distances can be enormous. It is almost 800 miles exactly from Mexico to the Oregon/California border on Interstate 5. There are counties in Oregon that are bigger than some New England states. Harney County has 7000 humans, 170 thousand cattle and 200 thousand acres of wildlife refuge at Malheur. It has far more Sage Grouse than people. A fine thing, indeed.
9. As in other parts of the U.S. there are many fine local birding festivals which can offer bird-rich, well-organized introductions to western birds. There are also many tour companies and local guides who can do the same. So come see for yourself how great birding the Pacific Coast can be. Get the White-headed Woodpecker, Thayer’s Gull, Hermit Warbler and Wrentit on your life list.
Harry Fuller is a birder and birding guide based in Ashland, Oregon. He has led trips in California, Oregon and Washington State for over a decade, for private clients as well as the Partnership for International Birding, Pt. Reyes Field Institute, and Golden Gate Audubon. He is president of the board of directors for Klamath Bird Observatory, a research non-profit based in Ashland. He is also the author of Freeway Birding, on the birding sites along Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Seattle. View Freeway Birding in our resource section.