Site Guide to Birding Columbia County (Oregon)

This guide will be published in a series of installments:
Overview of Columbia County
Habitats of Columbia County
Birds of Columbia County – Overview
Birding Sites of Columbia County – Individual installments, and associated:
Bird Lists of the Sites in Columbia County

This Guide is a work in progress. The current Guide will always be up to date at the download location found below. This web based version may or may not be updated.

A lot of the information for this Guide was collected from around the web.  I have provided attributed  links so the source information can be referenced directly.  Any errors in transcription are those of the author as are any additions that do not match the source material exactly.  If the reader is so inclined; broken links, errors, or general comments can be sent via the Contact page or in the “Comments” of individual posts.

Large portions of this guide are currently being incorporated into the “Birding Oregon” guide to “Birding Sites in Oregon”  maintained by the East Cascades Audubon Society.


Site Guide for Birding Columbia County – last edited: 10/13/14

(Here is a link to a downloadable copy of this Field Guide)


Columbia County is bordered on the north and east by the Columbia River, on the south by Multnomah County and Washington County, and on the west by Clatsop County. The southern County line is approximately 30 minutes from Portland, the largest metropolitan area in Oregon. The western County line is approximately 30 minutes from the Pacific coast.

The County’s northern and eastern boundaries are outlined by 62 miles of Columbia River shoreline. Columbia County enjoys the longest stretch of the Columbia River in the State of Oregon. The Columbia River is a major route of ocean-going vessels and is a popular fishing ground, as well as a popular boating and windsurfing river.

The County offers the only two marine parks in Oregon: Sand Island on the Columbia River and J.J. Collins Memorial Marine Park on the Multnomah Channel. This is known locally as Coon Island.



According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 688 square miles (1,781.9 km2), of which 657 square miles (1,701.6 km2) is land and 32 square miles (82.9 km2) (4.59%) is water. The vast majority of this is in managed coast range forest with limited accessibility.

Habitats of Columbia County

There are three EPA Level IV designated ecoregions in the county:

Level IV: (1d) Coast Range Volcanics

The Volcanics ecoregion consists of steeply sloping mountains and capes underlain by fractured basaltic rocks. Elevation generally varies from 600 to 4100 feet (180 to 1250 m), although in some places the volcanic rock extends down to sea level. The region is marked by columnar and pillow basalt outcrops. Its mountains may have been offshore seamounts engulfed by continental sediments about 200 million years ago. High gradient, cascading streams and rivers occur, and the basaltic substrate preserves summer flows that are more consistent than streams on the sedimentary rocks in surrounding ecoregions.

The streams still support runs of spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead. The region’s Douglas-fir plantations are heavily logged. Mature forests consist of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, salal, sword fern, vine maple, Oregon grape, and rhododendron. Wetter slopes and riparian areas may support western red cedar, big leaf maple, red alder, salmonberry, and oxalis. Grassy coastal headlands and mountaintop balds feature Roemer’s fescue, thin bentgrass, California oatgrass, and diverse forbs.

Level IV: (1f) Willapa Hills

The Willapa Hills ecoregion (named for the Willapa Hills) consists of low, rolling hills and low, gently sloping mountains with medium gradient streams and rivers. It rises to an elevation of approximately 1,300 feet (396 m).

This region has a lower drainage density than other upland areas in the Coast Range. Logging is relatively easy and less expensive in this accessible terrain, and industrial timberland has almost completely replaced the historic forests. When disturbed, the silt- and clay-textured soils are easily eroded, thereby degrading stream quality.

The vegetation consists of Douglas-fir and western hemlock forests, with sword fern, vine maple, salal, Oregon grape, and rhododendron shrub layer. Wetter slopes and riparian areas support red alder, western red cedar, big leaf maple, salmonberry, and oxalis. Large herds of Roosevelt elk winter in the region.


Level IV: (3a) Portland/Vancouver Basin

The Portland/Vancouver Basin ecoregion (named for the cities of Portland and Vancouver) is a geological depression at the base of the Portland Hills fault-block. The region covers 305 square miles (790 km2) in Washington and 269 square miles (697 km2) in Oregon, including the northern and eastern suburbs of the Portland metropolitan area. It contains the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and is composed of deltaic sands and gravels deposited by Pleistocene floods, notably the Missoula Floods. Elevation varies from 0 to 300 feet (0 to 90 m), with buttes as high as 650 feet (200 m).

Historically, the basin was characterized by Oregon white oak groves and Douglas-fir forests on the uplands; black cottonwood groves on riverbanks and islands; Oregon ash, red alder, and western red cedar in riparian areas; and prairie openings maintained by Native American burning, with camas, sedges, tufted hairgrass, fescue, and California oatgrass. Numerous wetlands, oxbow lakes, and ponds can still be found, but today the region is dominated by urban and suburban development, pastures, cropland, and tree farms.

The climate is usually marine-influenced, but easterly winds from the Columbia River Gorge periodically bring continental temperature extremes. It contains several National Wildlife Refuges within the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex.[2][3]


That’s the big picture.  From a birder’s perspective there are basically four major habitats: 1) the Columbia River, 2) lowland basins bordering the river, 3) the hills of the Coast Range and 4) urban and rural residential areas.

The Columbia River is essentially monotypic, but not quite.  There are numerous islands, sheltered coves and inlets that break up the flow, offer some measure of protection and vary the habitat a bit.  It is on the Columbia where the best chances of finding divers and stray gulls will be found.

The lowland basins bordering the Columbia offer the largest diversity of habitat, and on Sauvie Island the only terrestrially accessible area managed for wildlife.  There are three separate basins along the Columbia. The first is the Portland/Vancouver basin which goes as far north as St. Helens and south to the southern border of the County on Sauvie Island.  The second is the Rainier Basin which is an alluvial plain of the Columbia piled up against rapidly ascending Willapa Hills.  And third is the Clatskanie basin including the Marshland Drainage District which is a large pocket of lowland around the Clatskanie River and is flood controlled by a series of dikes.  One could arguably call the Trojan lowlands a fourth.  It is within these lowlands, bordering the Columbia, that the greatest diversity of birds will be found in the County.

The hills of the Coast Range, while not completely monotypic, it’s darn close.  The Nehalem River and it’s tributaries cuts a riparian zone through the hills, there are a few agricultural stretches on suitable land, mostly lying along major creeks like Milton Creek, and a few lakes here and there.  But the vast majority of this land is held privately and is managed for timber.  There are numerous gravel roads throughout and most timber lands allow walk-in access.  It is in the hills where the elevational birds like grouse, Hermit Warblers, and Red Crossbills will be most easily found.

The urban and rural residential areas are not specifically covered in this guide, aside from a few parks. But the towns of Scappoose, St. Helens, Columbia City, Rainier, and Clatskanie all have potential to be additive to a day in the field.

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