Winter seems like a quiet, dormant time in the natural areas of the Pacific Northwest. In many ways it is– in winter, the songbirds, frogs, and insects that make such a racket in summer are either hibernating, in another country for the season, or keeping a vow of silence. The deciduous trees are leafless and skeletal, and a blanket of gray clouds covers everything.
But the months of December, January, and February are actually boisterous times in and around the valley wetlands of western Washington and Oregon. Waterfowl– ducks, geese, and swans– flock to these areas by the thousands in winter. They come from their summer breeding grounds in the north.
The wetland habitats of the Willamette Valley in Oregon offer a relatively balmy refuge from the bitter winter weather and frozen waters of Canada and Alaska. The lakes and ponds in the valley usually remain ice-free all winter. This means that food, water, and safety from landlubber predators are available to waterfowl through the cold months.
Honking flocks of the Canada Goose (and the similar-looking but smaller Cackling Goose) are a familiar sight and sound in the autumn skies of the northwest, as these birds are migrating to the Willamette Valley. Other commonly seen species that spend their winters in the valley are the Tundra Swan, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, and Ruddy Duck.
What do these birds do all winter? They eat, of course, laying on fat reserves for their eventual migration north in the spring. This is also the time that most waterfowl are in breeding plumage and form pair bonds. This is when the males must impress the females with their showy plumage. Breeding won’t take place until the birds reach their summer habitats.
Winter birdwatching can be really rewarding at the wildlife refuges of the Willamette Valley. If you want to experience the cacophony and spectacle of wintering waterfowl, grab your binoculars and head to one of the three locations on the map below. These make up the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which was established in the 1960s specifically to protect the winter habitat of waterfowl.