Portland-area birders and other nature lovers in search of wetlands need only to visit Forest Grove’s Fernhill Wetlands for a full day of watching feathered antics.
The area is owned by Forest Grove’s Clean Water Services, and it has undergone a fantastic revival in recent years. These acres used to be unattractive farm fields and wastewater treatment ponds, but are now transformed into a welcoming habitat of natural-looking water cells, mudflats, and a variety of native foliage. Over 180 snags were planted in the past few years, and natural-growing cattails and wapato add undercover. The parking area was completed in 2018, wrapping up improvement projects.
To hike the wetlands loop start from the parking lot/picnic area and follow a gravel path winding through a carefully planted section full of native plans. Look for Oregon grape, red osier, shore pine, ponderosa pine, snowberry, and dogwood. Off to the left you’ll see a rocky filtration wetland that relies on nature’s own processes of water cleaning. Over on the right are views of Fernhill Lake.
Keep straight, and follow the trail over two 40-foot bridges of Douglas fir timber that lift the path over several patches of sitting water. Shortly after you’ll hit a junction, at which you’ll take a left to loop around a cattail pond and the Water Garden. It’s a beautiful spot with a quiet pond framed by Pacific madrones, spiraea, and a giant alder. If you pass along the trail leading to the center of the Water Garden, you’ll find a path leading back to the main trail.
Ahead is a small shed that serves as an outdoor classroom. Take a right on the trail here and you’ll come up on the Dabblers Marsh Trail which leads into a thicket of red osier dogwoods mixed with cottonwoods. Follow the wood chip path alongside a pond that’s popular with the local duck population. Then up ahead cross a wooden platform (built by local Eagle Scouts) and you’ll hit a farm road.
Just 80 yards down the road the Dabbler Marsh Trail resumes. You can follow that trail down a muddy tread through a thicket of hazel arches, dogwood, alders, and nutria. Up ahead is a little backwater shaded by cottonwoods and Oregon ash. Look for an abandoned beaver dam in the water, and whip out your binoculars. This spot is full of birds, including towhees, chickadees, goldfinches, song sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds.
Backtrack to the main loop at the shed, and take a left this time to finish the loop. The path heads up to an elevation point with vistas of Fernhill Lake mitigation ponds. Here’s another great place to watch for birds, this time in flight over the waterways. And just up ahead is a viewing gazebo overlooking the curve of the Tualatin River before it disappears behind a cottonwood swale. On clear days, this is also a great place to look for Mt. Hood on the horizon.
The trail concludes along a gravel maintenance road that loops around the Fernhill Lake levee. You’ll wander past a swamp thick with ash, dogwoods, and willows. Then the path bends between Cattail Pond and Fernhill Lake, another terrific spot to look for birds like marsh wrens, coots, and wood ducks. The mudflats here are resting spots for migratory birds in the spring through fall, including flocks of dunlins, sandpipers, and yellowlegs, among others.
There’s one more gazebo ahead, which signals the upcoming gravel path leading back to the parking lot trailhead.
This loop is open year-round, except during high-floodwater times when the Tualatin River backs up into these wetlands. Check in advance to see what seasonal bird patterns are in play to get the best birding experience. Some trails are ADA accessible, with universal access on the main paths. Visitors are encouraged to use public transit to reach the wetlands, but bikes and dogs are not allowed on the trail.
Learn more: www.fernhillnts.org.