Guide to Shorebird Watching on the North Coast of Oregon

The Pacific Coast fall shorebird migration is somewhat of a misnomer. It begins in June and is usually well beyond complete before the arrival of the autumnal equinox. The following guide has been put together to help shorebird enthusiasts plan their schedule for optimum viewing pleasure. The data presented here is based upon a cummulative analysis of my personal observations from 1988 to the present. As with anything statistical, this document reflects the probability of occurences rather than absolute guarantees. Please keep this in mind on those days when you're standing out at the South Jetty expecting great things and only managing a sunburn.

Timing your arrival
Chasing rarities
North Coast sites
Shorebird references

Timing your arrival

As with anything in life, timing is everything. The hotline may speak of several thousand shorebirds and by the time the weekend rolls around, providing time for viewing, they've apparently vanished. Shorebirds adjust their behavior to time of year, weather and the changing tides. There are peaks and valleys to the movements. Adults generally arrive before juveniles and there is a lull between the generational waves. Figure 1 shows the general timing of these movements.

For those observers interested in being impressed by sheer numbers, the 2nd week of August is the best time to be at the South Jetty. Diversity (kinds of shorebirds) peaks later, toward the 1st week of September. The South Jetty is, however, a vacation spot for non-birders and their dogs and their children. Weekends can prove frustrating, because birds don't stay put as long. Short tides are never quite as exciting as deep ones and the time of day appears to be a factor as well (figure 2).

Generally speaking, if you can manage a trip at mid-week, during an afternoon high tide (around 8 ft) in late August or early September, you should have a pretty good day.

Chasing rarities

What are the chances that a rare shorebird will hang around until the weekend? Not very good, I'm afraid. Most shorebirds do not stay more than one day at the South Jetty. This may not hold true for other sites, but it's hard to tell unless the birds are marked in some way. I was interested in determining layover time and recorded the presence of what I call conspicuous migrants. A conspicuous migrant is a bird so unusual (usually because it is uncommon) that it can be tracked from day to day. Using conspicuous migrant data, I was able to determine the probable layover time for shorebirds. Remember, we're talking probabilities here.

I identified 9 species I called significantly conspicuous:

                               encounters     range of stay
        Hudsonian Godwit               1              1
        Marbled Godwit                 8             1-2
        Long-billed Curlew             1              3
        Red Knot                       9             1-9
        Stilt Sandpiper                4             1-6
        Sharp-tailed Sandpiper         1              1
        Ruff                           5             1-9
        Buff-breasted Sandpiper        5             1-4
        Wilson's Phalarope             4             1-6
Of these 39 encounters, 24 (61.6%) remained only one day. The remaining 38.4% showed an even spread over the range. What does this suggest? Well, first, it suggests that you only have a 1 in 3 chance of finding a bird you're chasing 24 hrs after the report. If a bird does stay more than one day, then the average stay is about 5 days.

More importantly, if most birding occurs on the weekends (29% of the week) and 61.6% of birds only stay one day then, theoretically, we are missing 44% of the conspicuous migrants that stop over along the coast. We need more coverage spread out over the entire week, especially at peaks. Consider this a call to action.

North Coast sites

Favorite high tide spots:

South Jetty Shorebird Flats (SJCR)- Plan to arrive at least an hour in advance of the tide and wait until an hour after. If you're just too movious to sit, take a walk across the dunes to the river beach and check out the pre-hightide action.

Wireless Rd off the 101 business loop- The slough at the east end is best. The higher the tide, the more likely, you'll find stuff. The grassy pastures are pretty good, especially if it's been raining. Those of you looking for BUFF-BREASTED SNADS will want to check this place out in September.

Favorite low tide spots:

Trestle Bay- Park at parking lot B and walk the Wind Surfer path out to the edge or alternately park in parking lot A and hike cross country (being careful to notice the two species of orchids) to the edge and scope away. Some days (I've not yet figured out why) Parking lot D also has shorebirds, but it is much more hit and miss.

Young's Bay- Those who are brave might park in the PreMarq and walk the bridge, but I recommend walking the dike, particularly to the north. The best Young's Bay vantage, however, is from the Lewis & Clark River. This area (at the south end of the airport) is affectionately known as "the mitigation bank". If there is a log raft in the river, you may well find shorebirds on it at high tide.

Necanicum River Esuary -
The Seaside High School observation deck is the easiest to reach vantage. One can walk toward the estuary from here or scope from the deck.  It is the absolute most likeliest place for LONG-BILLED CURLEW. The sand on the west side of the river is full of GHOST SHRIMP, a delicacy among long-billed probers.
The Gearhart access to the estuary is the more productive spot from which to get on to the sand flats.  Turn at the light in Gearhart (Pacific Way) then south (left) at the 4-way stop sign (Cottage Ave).  Turn right at the end of the street (F St.), then left on Wellington and park in the parking lot.  There is a path down to the beach.  The Necanicum Estuary has recently turned up breeding SNOWY PLOVERS which have not been recorded in Clatsop County since 1984.

Stanley Lake- Just across from the Seaside airport on Lewis and Clark Rd. is an area called Stanley Lake.  Until recently, the lake had tide gates that managed the water there and it remained mostly fresh and was covered with vegetation.  Under banner of salmon recovery efforts, the tide gates were removed inundating the area with salt water which killed the vegetation and exposed the area as tidal mud flat.

Clatsop Beach- The beach from Gearhart to Peter Iredale can be driven, if you have a vehicle appropriate to the task.  A slow drive down the beach can turn up thousands of SANDERLING along with good numbers of SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, RED KNOTS and RUDDY TURNSTONES.

Chinook River, WA- If you can put away your listing prejudices, the Chinook River is a serious hotspot. Turn left after you cross the Columbia River bridge onto Stringtown Rd., park and check this place out.

Ocean Fresh Fish- West of the Ilwaco boat basin (yes, we're still in Washington), is a waterfront building called Ocean Fresh Fish and just west of this is a tidal flat covered with EEL GRASS. 400-500 LEAST SANDPIPERS regularly find this an attractive place to spend their time. If you harbor fantasies about finding a LONG-TOED STINT or some such exotic foreign Calidrid, this is the place to look.

Handy Tips for Shorebirding on the Lower Columbia

1. No matter where you are be patient. This is especially true at the South Jetty where birds are likely to fly in and out over 2 or 3 hours at and around high tide. Bring a chair, catch some rays.

2. Carry a notebook and/or camera. One of the safest ways to be sure you won't see anything rare is by being prepared to document it. Documentation is critical. No one is going to simply take your word for it or mine or anybody elses. Take notes, take pictures, take your time.

3. You want a CLATSOP BEACHES tide table. The Astoria tables are for Tongue Point and they're and hour later. This is especially important on wimpy high tides. And you want to be at the Jetty shorebird flats at high tide.

4. Avoid the weekends. Fort Stevens is a busy place. Filled with people who have no interest in shorebirds or their habitats. It is not unusual to find extended families of people hanging out on the shorebird flats, hunting crabs and mollusks, running their behemoth dogs, cleaning their fish, committing all manner of havoc. If you have only the weekends, come early, stake your claim and look mean.

Shorebird references

On-line Shorebird Photo Guide

Chandler, Richard J. 1989. The Facts on File Field Guide to: North Atlantic
    Shorebirds. Facts on File, NY.

Hayman, Peter, John Marchant & Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds: an
    identification guide to the waders of the world. Houghton
    Mifflin Co., Boston.

Patterson, M. 1998. Guide to Biirds and Other Wildlife of the Columbia River
    Estuary.  OFO Special Publication no. 11.

Paulson, Dennis. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. University
    of Washington Press, Seattle.

Richards, Alan. 1988. Shorebirds: a complete guide to their behavior and
    migration. Gallery Books, NY.

Rosair, David & David Cottridge. 1995. Photographic Guide to the Shorebirds
    of the World. Facts on File, NY.

Veit, Richard R. & Lars Jonsson. 1987. Field indentification of the smaller
    sandpipers within the genus Calidris. American Birds. 41(2):213-236.

Revised 12 Jul 2001

Copyrighted Material 2000 by Mike Patterson. All rights reserved. No part of this material (text or images) may be reproduced in any form or by any means without expressed written permission from the author.