Sauvie Island: Birding with the Family in Portland’s Backyard

By: Danielle Harris

Most parents are willing to pay for outdoor camps for their kids. And when children ask to play outside, we always give them an encouraging yes! But kids do as we do and not as we say, as the axiom goes, and a following corollary might be that if parents want children to value nature, we’re going to have to join them as they adventure in the great outdoors.

Portland has one of the largest freshwater islands in the world for just such a family foray—Sauvie Island. At the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, the island is an important pit stop for migrating birds and an excellent place to introduce birding to your kids.

Birding as a family can be a rewarding experience. Observing the details of wildlife help kids appreciate the beauty of the outdoors. Children have better eyesight, memories, and observation skills than we adults do. Give your budding naturalist a small pair of $20 binoculars and a used bird guide that he can write in. Point out a bird, name it, and explain its identifying characteristics: for instance, “a common goldeneye has a round white spot at the base of his bill.” Soon, he will be arguing with you about the number of wing bars, the absence of an eye ring, or the color of the belly, and he will be right!

Sauvie Island is stocked with fun species. On the Columbia, cormorants line the river, drying their wings on their perches. Look for common mergansers along the river as well.

Children usually visit Sauvie Island during October for the pumpkin patch or the corn maze. But for birders, the farmlands are popular because of the flocks of gulls and sparrows and the multitude of raptors they attract. Look for bald eagles and red-tailed hawks at Coon Point Lookout. The southern tip of the island attracts Thayer’s gulls during the winter, and glaucous and western gulls throughout the year. Sauvie Island is probably the best location in western Oregon for observing sparrows, who can be found mainly along Rentenaar Road at the north end of the island. Look for golden-crowned, white-crowned, song, and fox sparrows.

The island is teeming with water-loving species. Kids can easily observe Canada geese and sandhill cranes; tundra swans; and wigeons, pintails, and shovelers with their binoculars. However, a spotting scope is almost a necessity for other shy or smaller species.

Where to Start: From downtown Portland, take US 30 north for about ten miles. Take the Sauvie Island Bridge, the only road access to the island, and stop at the general store at the east end of the bridge to buy a permit. It costs $7 for the day or $22 for an annual pass.

What to See: The sandhill cranes at Coon Point Lookout. These graceful birds have a wow factor because of their large size (5 feet tall, with a 6–8 foot wingspan), their loud call, and an energetic mating ritual that looks like a dance. They also gather in huge flocks, so your child can easily spot them and observe their behavior. Sauvie Island is one of the few areas in western Oregon where sandhill cranes winter.

Tens of thousands of Canada geese winter here, and with a spotting scope, you can scan over the huge flocks searching for the rare emperor or Ross’s Goose. Our kids were excited to identify some tundra swans as well.

Don’t miss: a hike along the Multnomah channel, a few miles north of Reeder Road, to the left of Sauvie Island Road. The trail goes past plenty of waterfowl with enough bravado to stay close while they’re being tracked by binoculars. On the other side of the trail, forest flowers bloom to keep small admirers busy while mom or dad are scanning the water for interesting finds.

Don’t forget to take: binoculars, a bird guide, a camera, and a notebook and pen. When you’re choosing binoculars, try to get a magnification of 7 x 35, or 8 x 40. Encourage someone to be the secretary to record the family’s list of bird finds. Or make it a competition, using the honor system applies, about who can nab the most identifications in a day.

Things you might not know: If you call it birdwatching, it’s a sure sign you’re an amateur. Birding is the verb. Birder is the noun.

Each member of the family should have two lists: a life list and a list that records all the birds identified that day or all the birds found in a particular location. Encourage your children to keep track of their finds. They will be impressed with how much they’ve actually seen. Eventually, after a life list reaches above 200, finding a new bird gets more difficult and more exciting. The rare, the out of the way, are the very, very hard to find are all treasures that the family will celebrate.

Birder’s sites: Oregon, and Sauvie Island,

Danielle is a freelance writer who has written for Oregon magazines that include Cascades East and 1859. She graduated from George Fox University with a B.A. in writing and literature and a master of arts in teaching. She enjoys baking and cooking for her husband and four daughters and traveling with them. She is currently working on a novel.