Best Little Book of Birds The Oregon Coast

The Oregon Coast


By Sarah Swanson

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 11, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A Practical, Pocket-Sized, and Beginner-Friendly Birding Guide

Oregon’s coast is teeming with scores of beautiful birds, and the Best Little Book of Birds: The Oregon Coast will help you find them. From regal ospreys and iconic eagles to frenetic sandpipers and colorful kingfishers, this easy-to-use book will help you identify more than 100 commonly occurring birds that help make the Oregon coast the natural wonder that it is. An emphasis on best practices and habitat sustainability help empower conservation and ensure that birding on the coast will be possible for years to come. Perfect for budding and experienced birders alike, this sleek and compact guide is the ideal travel companion for every trip to the coast.


Adult Long-billed Curlew

Birding the Oregon Coast

The raucous sound of nesting seabirds hits you first, followed closely by the fishy smell. As you walk the short trail past the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, a large flat-topped rock just offshore comes into view. Common Murres are packed together, constantly jostling and screaming at one another. Birds land in a steady stream carrying fish for their fluffy nestlings as others depart to forage. On the cliff below you, a Brandt’s Cormorant flutters its bright blue throat patch to impress its mate. You set up your spotting scope and a quick scan of the ocean reveals a flock of Surf Scoters with their telltale bright bills. Another pass reveals a chunky Rhinoceros Auklet floating at the edge of a flock of murres. Scoping the intertidal area, you see a Black Oystercatcher pecking at a mussel bed while a small group of Harlequin Ducks roosts nearby, looking like a cluster of round rocks. The longer you stand there, the more you see. A line of Brown Pelicans flies by, shadowed by pale-headed Heermann’s Gulls. Looking for lunch, a Peregrine Falcon rides the wind on pointed wings.

The appeal of the Oregon Coast as a birding destination is a combination of its natural beauty, the diverse habitats that are home to a wide array of bird species, and the expanses of public land that provide abundant access to excellent birding sites.

A Common Murre lands at its breeding colony with a fish.

Seasonal pulses of migrants fill trees with songbirds, cover bays with ducks, and pepper beaches with busily foraging sandpipers. Shorebird and songbird migrations begin each spring, and breeding songbirds and seabirds stay at the Oregon Coast all summer. Their southward migration begins in late summer, and then the cast of coastal bird species changes again. Fall brings waterfowl, sparrows, and raptors to the coast, where they brave rain and storms all winter. Migrating birds connect the Oregon Coast to distant parts of the world, from the arctic tundra breeding grounds of sandpipers, to the verdant tropical rainforests where warblers winter, to the remote South Pacific breeding islands of shearwaters.

Finding a place to enjoy coastal birds couldn’t be easier. There are more than 75 state-run parks, recreation sites, scenic viewpoints, waysides, and natural areas along the coast. Many of these sites are small, but offer a view of the ocean or access to the beach. Larger parks also provide picnic areas, hiking, and camping. Federally managed public lands along the coast include wildlife refuges, forests, and the Oregon Dunes Recreation Area. The Oregon Beach Bill guarantees public access to Oregon’s 363 miles of beaches, so there is a lot of room to explore.

Coastal Habitats

The stunning vistas of the Oregon Coast are made up of a combination of sedimentary rocks like sandstone, that erode more quickly, and volcanic rocks like basalt, that can withstand the ocean’s weathering. Lava flows and eruptions have created dramatic headlands and small, rocky offshore islands that are home to many species of birds. Water interacts with the coastal geology to create a variety of habitats.

Wet, stormy winters and springs at the coast give way to drier summers. It rarely freezes along the coast, leaving lots of open water for birds. The South Coast is even warmer, and the “banana belt” around Brookings can reach 70 degrees in the winter. The Coast Range, mountains that run north–south between the coast and Oregon’s interior valleys, gets even more rain than the coast itself, with some places receiving over 120 inches per year. This huge amount of water is channeled into the many rivers flowing out of the Coast Range, forming bays and estuaries on their way to the ocean.

The original stewards of this land and its birds were the many indigenous peoples of the region who shaped this landscape and who still reside on the land. Conservation efforts that return land to coastal tribes can play an important role in both ecological and cultural restoration.

Bays and Estuaries

Bays are created where a river has a gently sloping path to the sea and room to spread out. Bays have saltwater areas near their mouths, freshwater areas where rivers come in, and estuaries in between. Estuaries are where fresh and saltwater meet and mix. These nutrient-rich areas are home to a rich food web of plankton, worms, fish, crabs, and other creatures. The estuarine mudflats revealed at low tide may seem barren, but shorebirds like plovers, sandpipers, godwits, and dowitchers have bills that are perfect tools for extracting hidden worms and clams. Beds of eelgrass in estuaries provide food for migrating and wintering Brants. When the seas get rough in winter, bays provide a calm refuge for scoters, loons, and grebes.

Iconic bay birds include Black-bellied Plover, Brant, and Caspian Tern. Find them at South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Bayocean Peninsula, and the Mark Hatfield Marine Science Center and Estuary Trail.

Birding tips: At low tide, exposed mudflats are wide; shorebirds are feeding, but may be far from view. Birding on the incoming tide allows the advancing water to crowd the birds together and push them toward you. Use extreme care not to get stuck when exploring mudflats.

rocky shores and islands

Basalt and sandstone outcroppings provide an anchoring place for a rich variety of marine organisms like limpets and mussels that in turn are food for birds. The twice-daily cycles of the tide obscure and reveal the intertidal area, closing and opening the buffet. Tall rocky cliffs and islands also provide nesting sites for seabirds. Jetties are fingers of rock constructed at the mouths of rivers to provide safe passage for boats through the waves, but they also provide additional rocky habitat.

Iconic rocky shore birds include Black Oystercatcher, Harlequin Duck, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone. Find them at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, and Cape Arago State Park.

Birding tips: At high tide, birds on rocks are more concentrated but will likely be roosting and may have their heads tucked. Low tide exposes more foraging habitat, and birds are more active. Avoid trampling sensitive intertidal habitat or disturbing nesting birds.

A group of Black Oystercatchers roosts near the surf.

Sandy Beaches and Dunes

Beaches provide foraging opportunities for many birds and nesting sites for a few specialized ones. Food items like tiny shrimp are constantly being washed in by the waves, and retreating water exposes worms and other creatures burying themselves in the sand. Mole crabs in particular are food for whimbrels and godwits that probe the sand with their long bills for these crunchy little nuggets. Each high tide leaves a wrack line of debris that attracts amphipods, also known as sand fleas, a favorite food of birds. On the dry sand, shells and sticks camouflage the nests of wary plovers.

Iconic sandy beach birds include Snowy Plover, Whimbrel, and Sanderling. Find them at Nehalem Bay State Park, Fort Stevens State Park, and Oregon Dunes Recreation Area.

Birding tips: Spring and fall migration are the best times to see shorebirds on the beach. You may need to cover some ground and spend a while walking the beach to find them. There are also a few places in Oregon where driving on the beach is allowed. This provides access for those with mobility issues, but it’s important to drive slowly and disturb birds as little as possible.


Shallow nearshore ocean areas provide foraging grounds for diving birds like sea ducks and alcids, while albatrosses and shearwaters cruise over the deeper pelagic zone and offshore canyons. The array of birds visible from shore varies with the seasons, as murres and puffins come to shore to breed in summer, and loons, grebes, and scoters float the seas in winter.

Iconic oceangoing birds include Marbled Murrelet, White-winged Scoter, and Pacific Loon. Find them at Seaside Cove, Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint, and Chetco Point Park.

Birding tips: For a good view of birds on the ocean, you need a viewpoint that is both close to the ocean and high enough to let you see over the waves. Some birds will be close enough to view with binoculars, but seawatching is much more satisfying with a spotting scope that will resolve those distant specks into identifiable birds. For an adventure and a chance to see birds that live beyond the sight of land, take a pelagic birding trip by boat.


Forests along the coast vary from primeval, moss-covered Sitka spruce and cedar in the north to myrtle, redwood, and rhododendron in the south. Shore pine thrives in sandy and exposed areas, and alder and maple grow in previously logged areas and along rivers. Forests provide nesting and foraging habitat for a large number of songbirds, woodpeckers, raptors, and owls.

Iconic birds of coastal forests include Hermit Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, and Pacific Wren. Find them at Ecola State Park, Cape Perpetua, and Humbug Mountain State Park.

Birding tips: Forest birding is at its best in spring when migrant songbirds arrive. Because birds are often high in trees and obscured by leaves, birding by ear is important. To get a better view of canopy-dwelling birds, find an opening in the forest, like a parking lot, where you can see up into the tops of the trees. In winter listen for the high chatter of chickadees and kinglets to find mixed-species flocks of birds foraging together.

Coastal Prairies and Fields

Open areas are great places to watch birds of prey. True coastal prairies are rare today because of human use and the proliferation of exotic plant species. Pastures and agricultural fields are more common, especially on the flatter North Coast. Many birds, both native and introduced, make their homes around farms because of the food resources like grain, rodents, and insects that are available there.

Iconic birds of coastal fields include Great Egret, Black Phoebe, and Red-shouldered Hawk. Find them at Wireless Road near Astoria, Tillamook River Wetlands, and Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Birding tips: Scan fence lines for songbirds like phoebes and sparrows. Check the tops of trees along the edge of fields for raptors. The edges of pastures often have brambles, bushes, and weeds that are home to sparrows.

Freshwater Wetlands

Freshwater wetlands and marshes are not unique to the coast, but they are great places to find birds. Plants like grasses, sedges, cattails, and willows provide cover and nesting sites, and aquatic insects and plant seeds are food for a variety of bird species. Wetlands are home to waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, herons, and songbirds. Sewage and settling ponds provide a surrogate for wetlands where they are uncommon and can be excellent birding locations.

Iconic wetland birds include Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren, and Northern Harrier. Find them at Cannon Beach Settling Ponds, Tillamook River Wetlands, Millicoma Marsh, and Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.

Birding tips: Listen for the songs and calls of birds to alert you to their presence in the tall grass. Scan open areas for shorebirds like Least Sandpiper and Killdeer. Sewage ponds vary widely in the level of access that they offer: some have public trails, some are completely off limits, and others require you to obtain a permit or permission. Research before you go.

Coastal Conservation Issues

Birds at the coast face both universal threats and unique challenges. Climate change threatens coastal birds in multiple ways. Rising seas are a danger to birds like Black Oystercatchers that nest and forage in a narrow area around the intertidal zone. Warming ocean temperatures cause declines in the populations of small fish like anchovies that Brown Pelicans and many other seabirds eat. Ocean acidification threatens shellfish and the scoters, turnstones, and oystercatchers that eat them.

Habitat destruction affects many coastal birds, but it is especially critical in the case of the endangered Marbled Murrelet. Murrelets nest on the mossy limbs of large, old trees within 50 miles of the coast, commuting daily to the ocean. Preservation of the small amount of coastal old-growth forest that has not yet been logged is critical to the survival of this unique species.

Fishing at the beach is popular with both birds and humans, but only humans leave fishing line behind. Fishing line entanglement kills many coastal birds, especially murres, gulls, cormorants, and ducks. This problem is much easier to fix than some of the others that face birds. When fishing, always gather up stray fishing line and put it in an appropriate receptacle. If you find any fishing line or lures when birding, take them with you.

Another direct threat that people pose to coastal birds is the disturbance of nesting and roosting sites. Approaching nesting areas, especially with dogs, can easily disturb birds like Snowy Plovers and Black Oystercatchers. Flushing a nesting bird exposes the eggs and chicks to predation. Roosting birds need rest to conserve energy, especially during migration.

Though it may seem like the deck is stacked against coastal birds, there are still many things that we can do to help as individuals and communities.

How to Help Coastal Birds

support the formation of Marine Protected Areas that provide refuge to ocean fish and increase their populations.

advocate for the protection of remaining areas of old-growth forest.

reduce your carbon emissions from fossil fuels and ask the same of corporations and governments.

choose ocean-friendly options when you eat seafood. See

obey nesting-season closures and restrictions. Enjoy birds from a respectful distance.

pick up stray fishing line and dispose of it properly.

join one of several volunteer community science projects that monitor coastal bird species. Contact Portland Audubon for more information:

train to become a Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (Coasst) volunteer, and monitor beaches for beached birds.

report banded plovers: See a Snowy Plover during the fall or winter? Take a photo or write down the color band pattern and report it to

A Marbled Murrelet sits on its nest on a mossy branch, high in the forest.

Gear and Safety

There are no hard rules about birding gear, and you can enjoy birds without any financial investment. That said, a pair of waterproof binoculars will go a long way toward improving your birding experience. If you want to spend a lot of time birding at the coast, a spotting scope (also waterproof) is ideal for better views of birds seen out on the ocean or far down a beach. A scope increases your magnification from the 8x of typical binoculars to 20x–60x. A camera can also be useful for documenting rarities or challenging identifications, and you can even take photos with your phone through binoculars or a scope. Recording your sightings can be done with a smartphone app like eBird or in a notebook. Finally, remember that there is no bad weather, only inadequate rain gear.

In some ways the Oregon Coast is a benign place: the weather is rarely hot or below freezing, and there are no venomous snakes. The ocean, however, requires vigilance. Birders should be wary of both incoming tides and unpredictably large “sneaker waves” that can crash over rocks and rush shockingly far up the beach. Large waves can also crash over jetties and shift rocks and logs. A good rule of thumb is to never turn your back on the ocean or take your eyes off it for too long. Other coastal hazards include crumbling cliffs, and mudflats where it is easy to get stuck when water levels come up quickly on incoming tides. Birders should always be aware of their environment and possible hazards. Check for tidal predictions and for warnings about large waves and hazardous weather.

A pair of Harlequin Ducks


Birding is for everyone. You don’t have to climb a mountain or hike through soft sand to get a great view of birds on the Oregon Coast. Birders with mobility challenges will find trails and viewpoints that offer access to a variety of habitats. The Oregon State Parks website has information about and photos of accessible features at each park to allow visitors to find parks that work for them. Seaside, Cannon Beach, and Manzanita all offer special wheelchairs for visitors to use on the beach. A list of some recommended accessible birding sites can be found in the back of this book. See for more information about removing barriers for birders.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Birding Ethics

It is important to make the well-being of birds a priority, even if it means not getting the best view or photograph. Watch birds for signs that they are disturbed by your presence, and back off if necessary. Be especially sensitive around nesting sites.

As a person in public with binoculars, you are an ambassador of the birding community. Be kind to other birders and stay out of private property and closed areas of parks and refuges. The American Birding Association (ABA) details a complete Code of Birding Ethics at

Ebird Basics

eBird is a website ( and smartphone app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is a valuable tool for birders and has many functions:

  • Track your sightings and generate customizable lists
  • Contribute to a scientific database
  • Find birds and birding hotspots
  • Get customized alerts for rare birds and target species

A flock of Snowy Plovers takes flight on a busy beach.

Bird Names for Birds

Bird names can highlight distinctive plumage, geographical range, song, or habitat, and provide helpful information. Many birds, however, are named after people, including the Townsend’s Warbler, Heermann’s Gull, and Steller’s Jay in this book. The #BirdNamesForBirds campaign wants to change the bird names that honor people because these names were applied by European and American naturalists as part of colonialism and are, therefore, associated with racism and exploitation. New names could make the birding community more welcoming and equitable. The discussion in the birding and ornithology communities on this subject is ongoing, but the American Ornithological Society, in charge of bird names, is looking into how to address the issue.

Using this Book

This book focuses on the 124 birds that are most likely to be found on the Oregon Coast. Less common birds are also mentioned but do not have their own entries. The classification system used by scientists worldwide categorizes living things into smaller and smaller related groups, the last three being family, genus, and species. In this section you will find an introduction to the families featured in the book and learn what characteristics exemplify the members of each. Individual bird entries will include its genus and species. In a departure from the typical field guide format that groups birds solely by genetic relationships, this book groups bird families that are genetically unrelated but resemble each other and share the same habitat. For example, the unrelated guillemots, scoters, grebes, and loons that you might see swimming near each other in a bay have been placed on adjacent pages for easier comparison.

Each species entry provides the following specifics:

of the plumages most likely to be seen on the Oregon Coast.

Captions detailing key field marks.

Habitat and behavior Which habitats the bird prefers on the Oregon Coast, what it eats, nesting behavior if it breeds at the coast, and any other distinctive behaviors.

Yearly abundance When and where to find the bird and how common it is at the Oregon Coast. These categories are not indicators of absolute abundance but provide an idea of how likely you are to find each species during the months indicated. Sites listed are by no means the only places that the birds can be found, but they represent the type of habitat where you are likely to see them, and they are all great birding spots.

Rare | It would be exciting to see this bird because it doesn’t happen very often.

Uncommon | You might see this bird, especially in the right habitat.

Common | You will see this bird most of the time.

Very common | It would be hard not to find this bird.

Sounds The various songs (complex sounds often used for territorial and courtship purposes) and calls (short sounds used as alarms or for communication within flocks) made during the time this bird is at the coast. Breeding season sounds are not included for birds that only spend the winter in Oregon.

Similar species Birds with similar shape or plumage that could be confused for the featured species. Less common birds may only be shown on the page of a similar, more common species.

Size of the Bird in length (head to tail) and wingspan.

Bird Family Descriptions

A “family” is a group of closely related species that share physical characteristics and behaviors. Each family has a name in English and one in Latin, the language of scientific classification. Learning to recognize a bird family can help you narrow down the possible species when you are trying to identify an unfamiliar bird.

Alcids (family Alcidae)

Alcids are awkward on land, waddling with legs positioned near the back of their stubby bodies. They also seem labored in flight, but are completely at ease underwater where they use their wings to “fly” gracefully after fish. Alcids are primarily oceanic, with some venturing into bays.

Geese & Ducks (family Anatidae)

Waterfowl have adaptations for a life lived in and around the water, including webbed feet and waterproof plumage. Their bills fit their foraging methods: serrated bills for grabbing fish, thick bills for crushing mollusks, or comblike “teeth” for filtering out small invertebrates. Most waterfowl visit the Oregon Coast only during migration and over the winter when they sport bright, fresh plumage.

Coots (family Rallidae)

Coots are loud and gregarious, diving and squabbling in open water. Their feet have fleshy pads, or lobes, that help them swim but also spread out their weight when they walk on mud or floating plants. Though they may resemble ducks in shape and behavior, they are actually related to rails, which are secretive wetland dwellers.

Loons (family Gaviidae)

Loons have sharp, pointed bills that help them to grab fish, and webbed feet placed at the very back of their bodies to make swimming more efficient. Loons breed in northern areas but spend the winter on the coast. Young birds may also remain along the coast in summer. During spring and fall migration, large numbers of loons can be seen flying over the ocean with their long necks drooping.

Grebes (family Podicipedidae)

Grebes are adapted to a life lived on the water. They swim underwater to catch food, propelled by lobed feet set at the back of their bodies. Grebes have dense bones that make it easier for them to stay underwater, and they can decrease their buoyancy by holding their feathers more closely to their bodies. Most grebes at the coast are there only for the winter.

Cormorants (family Phalacrocoracidae)

Cormorants propel themselves underwater with webbed feet and grab fish with hooked bills. They can often be seen holding their wings open while roosting in order to dry their feathers and regulate their body temperature. Three cormorant species breed on the Oregon Coast, each with its own nesting niche.

Pelicans (family Pelecanidae)


On Sale
Oct 11, 2022
Page Count
304 pages
Timber Press

Sarah Swanson

Sarah Swanson

About the Author

Sarah Swanson is the co-author of Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest. A native of Oregon and lifelong birder, she has held positions at Audubon Society of Portland and WaterWatch of Oregon. When she’s not writing, Sarah can be found exploring Oregon and birding with her husband and their dog.

Learn more about this author