Bird Song Walks: Rebirth of a Bird Alliance of Oregon Tradition

by Erin Law, Senior Educator, Adult Classes & Trips; Camelia Zollars, Public Programs & Partnerships Specialist; Brodie Cass Talbott, Educator & Trips Specialist

The thrills of spring migration can turn an ordinary morning into something extraordinary. The familiar rhythm of seasonal bird song inspires hopefulness, wonder, and curiosity. The first week of April brings our resident birds, some winter stragglers, and a few early migrants such as swallows, all easily seen on the barren trees. Before we know it, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bullock’s Orioles have arrived. The trees have brilliant green foliage, making bird songs the more reliable way to identify which species are around. Luckily we’ve had practice by now at both seeing and hearing residents and early migrants, so we are ready to learn the new bird songs filling the forests. In the last weeks of May, we observe nesting birds frantically filling up on protein-packed insects, and we may even spot some baby birds. Each week is entirely captivating, and everyone can’t wait to do it again!

Black-headed Grosbeak perched on green leafy branch
Black-headed Grosbeak, photo by Jason McGinnis

For decades, Bird Alliance of Oregon has marked this changing season with weekly Bird Song Walks. We are delighted to share that after a two-year hiatus, we are bringing back these iconic walks in April and May! You can expect the familiarity of early mornings with longtime leaders at favorite locations such as Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and Mt. Tabor, but we are also adding a new “Bird Song for Beginners” walk at Whitaker Ponds Natural Area for the bird curious who noticed birds for the first time during the pandemic. In celebration of the return of Bird Song Walks, we’re taking a look back at the history of these volunteer-powered community events.

This tradition began 37 years ago. In 1985, Bird Alliance of Oregon launched Bird Song Walks in the April Warbler with this opening line: “Recently, it’s been discovered that spring migrants gather along higher ridges and hilltops of the Willamette Valley.” The following spring, the walks continued at Pittock Mansion and Oaks Bottom, led by Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Urban Naturalist Mike Houck. According to Tom Love, Field Trip Coordinator for Bird Alliance of Oregon for the first decade of the Bird Song Walks, one of the early goals was to make wildlife more accessible to everyone, not only by leading walks in urban areas but also by including nearby public transportation options, as the descriptions did even as far back as the 1980s.

By the 1990s, the walks had expanded to Mt. Tabor—by this time appreciated by birders as a favored stopover site for migrating warblers, flycatchers, and vireos—with Gerard Lillie starting a decades-long commitment as the walk’s leader. By 2019 it was common for over 40 birders to assemble at 7 a.m. to welcome old and new Bird Song Walk friends. Stories of rare and unusual sightings accumulated over the decades of birding, like the time a still-warm Cassin’s Auklet was found dead under a fir tree during a walk. Beyond the rarities, Gerard remembers how leading the walks brought him an appreciation for common birds seen through the eyes of a beginner. Most of all, he recently said, he enjoyed watching birders grow and learn over the weeks and years. Gerard fondly remembers a pair of elementary-school-aged twins who came with their mother, only to become two of the top birders in the state a decade later. Tom McNamara, who led the walks with Gerard, chuckled, recalling a walk where he proclaimed that you’d never find a Mountain Chickadee on Mt. Tabor, only to have the twins find one 30 minutes later.

In the 2000s, walks expanded to the Camassia Natural Area and Tualatin Hills Nature Park, led by Paul Sullivan. In 2009, Wink Gross took over the Pittock Mansion walks and became a mainstay there until 2019. Stephanie and Rick Wagner led walks at Tryon Creek State Park, Hailey Walls at Oaks Bottom, and Ron Escano at Leach Botanical Garden. The simplicity of these walks held strong across the decades. “Folks leave when they have to for work,” read a description from 1988. A full recounting of the many places these walks have happened is probably not feasible on these pages. Still, it is beyond doubt that they would not have been possible without the dedication and generosity of many leaders who love to share their joy of birds. And of course to the many staff members, like Dan van den Broek, Steve Engel, Dave Helzer, and Steve Robertson, who organized the program, led birdsong walks, and supported volunteers over many years.

We are grateful to the many leaders volunteering this spring to welcome us all back to Bird Song Walks! They will be joined by Bird Alliance of Oregon’s new Public Programs & Partners Specialist, Camelia Zollars, who began working with us this winter. In the coming years, she will grow the program to host walks for People of Color and those new to birding, expand to more accessible Portland locations, and offer evening and weekend walks for non-early birds and families.

We look forward to keeping the tradition alive and creating a place for you to join us, year after year, with the birds.

Check here for a list of our Bird Song Walks and join us!