5 Bird Species
to Photograph in Fall on the Oregon Coast

As summer rolls into autumn on the Oregon coast, there’s a shift in the bird species we have the opportunity to photograph.

The common murres that spent the summer raising chicks on the coastal bluffs have left for the open sea, and many warbler species are leaving now that the nesting season is done. But, other bird species that nest in the arctic have been making their way southward since late summer.

Being located on the Pacific Flyway – one of the primary routes birds use for annual migrations – means we get to see a broad range of species as they fly south to wintering grounds. We also get to see the first arrivals of species that spend their winters here on the coast. 

But there’s another interesting shift that happens at this time of year. The deciduous plants and trees that provide so much greenery in the spring and summer months shed their leaves. Those birds who have been tucked away in the green blanket are exposed as the forest floor and canopy open up. We may have been hearing them all spring and summer, but now we finally have improved odds of seeing them!

Listed here are five species I’m always excited to have opportunities to photograph, particularly during fall months. Some are just passing through, while others are year-round residents of whom we now have a better chance of snapping a portrait. 

cedar waxwing in sitka spruce tree

CEDAR WAXWING

These elegant birds are gregarious, traveling in flocks that will catch your attention not only by the high-pitched, almost humming-bird-like trills and zeeees, but also by their constant activity in the trees. Cedar waxwings specialize in eating fruits – particularly berries – but we also get to watch their aerial acrobatics as they hawk insects from the air. 

The Bombycilla cedrorum species is called “waxwing” for the red tips on the secondary flight feathers on adults (unfortunately not present on the youngster pictured here) which look as if the very ends of the feathers have been dipped in red wax. 

Cedar waxwings are particularly fun to photograph in fall because their gorgeous tan and yellow colors – and those bright red dots on their wings – coordinate beautifully with the orange, rust and red fall foliage for a wonderful pop of color in portraits.

Conversely, they stand out wonderfully against the deep greens of conifer species, which is perfect for printing out as holiday cards for friends and family! 

lesser yellowlegs in marsh

GREATER YELLOWLEGS
& MIGRATING SANDPIPERS

The greater and lesser yellowlegs species both travel through our area during migration season, though the greater yellowlegs may also be spotted wintering along the Oregon coast. 

Meanwhile, many species of sandpipers are also passing through. A few species are common to see in spring and summer migration, but quite a few species are rarely spotted during spring. Instead, autumn offers a much better chance of seeing and photographing these travelers  – especially as some species have the intent to stay through the winter months. So fall is an especially exciting time for sandpiper enthusiasts on the coast. 

Depending on the species, you’ll find them on our sandy shores, in rocky intertidal zones, jetties, mudflats, estuaries, marshes, open beaches, flooded fields and similar locations along the coast. 

Sandpiper species you will likely photograph in fall include:

  • Western sandpipers
  • Least sandpiper
  • Surfbird

Sandpiper species you might photograph in fall include: 

  • Baird’s sandpiper
  • Pectoral sandpiper

If we’re quite lucky, we may photograph:

  • Semipalmated sandpiper
  • Rock sandpiper

And if we’re extremely lucky, we might see these vagrant species with sightings documented nearly every fall:

  • Ruff
  • Sharp-tailed sandpiper
  • Stilt sandpiper
  • Buff-breasted sandpiper 

bald eagle in conifer tree

BALD EAGLE

The bald eagle is the undisputed icon of the Pacific Northwest, and as we all know well, is our national animal.

This majestic raptor is also a beacon of hope, as it is an environmental success story. It’s dramatic decline to near-extinction brought our attention to the critical issue of DDT and environmental pollutants. Thanks to concentrated conservation efforts, the species is back in high numbers, and has returned to places from which it was missing for decades last century. That includes the Oregon coast. 

This incredible sea eagle is an opportunistic eater. While it’ll take advantage of food sources from birds to carrion, it is primarily a fish-eater. And there is nothing like capturing a photograph of a bald eagle swooping up from the water with a fish clutched in its massive talons. 

Though I’ve listed the bald eagle as a fall favorite, it’s true that this species is a treat to photograph any time of year. We have year-round residents who are quite active, and put on a show for onlookers – including those with cameras!

Hairy woodpecker on red alder snag

WOODPECKERS

Woodpeckers are always a joy to photograph. We have 5 species that live here on the coast, including: 

  • Northern flicker
  • Red-breasted sapsucker
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Pileated woodpecker

As with other forest-dwelling birds, the thinning of the tree canopy as deciduous trees lose their leaves opens up fantastic opportunities. Listen for the unmistakable calls and drumming of woodpecker species, and you’ll be able to photograph them working their way around a tree trunk, looking for grubs and other goodies. 

When watching them, note their adaptations for a life of vertical perching. This includes stiff tail feathers that provide extra leverage against the tree trunk and zygodactyl feet, which feature two toes facing forward and two toes facing backward. 

band-tailed pigeon in red alder tree

BAND-TAILED PIGEON

The band-tailed pigeon may at first glance look like the rock pigeon – the common resident of cities and suburbs. But don’t be fooled. This beautiful species with its white neck band and lilac coloration is native to the Pacific Northwest.

Like so many bird species, it suffered decline due to overhunting. While it has been spared the fate of its cousin the passenger pigeon thanks to hunting limits, it still seems to be declining slowly at a rate of about 2.8 percent per year. 

It’s two-syllable call is sometimes mistaken for owl hooting, especially during dawn or dusk in a forest where pigeons and doves aren’t the first species a photographer expects to hear. 

You’ll find this stunning species in small flocks in the temperate rainforests of the Oregon coast, looking for seeds, fruits and nuts amid forests of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas-fir and red alder. 

BONUS SPECIES

The birding list could go on and on, as the Oregon coast is such an incredible location for an amazing diversity of birds. But I’ll note a few additional species you won’t want to miss during a fall visit to Oregon’s central coast.

5 additional bird species that are here in the fall, or year-round, and which I love to see and photograph include: 

  • Brown Pelican
  • Red-necked phalarope
  • Northern pygmy owl
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Rufus hummingbird

Stay tuned for the next article highlighting favorite bird species to photograph in winter! 

My gift to you:

Photographing birds isn’t easy. Mastering some skills in using aperture priority mode, shutter speed priority mode and manual mode will definitely increase your chances of making “keeper” photos. 

Yet, when starting out, keeping all those settings straight in your head gets overwhelming fast.

Add to that the challenge of getting a great composition with a subject whose busy flitting about. It’s an exercise in frustration!

That’s why I made a gift for you. These downloadable cheat sheets walk you through what different f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO settings are used for – at a glance!

And you get some great reminders about composition so you can think creatively even while busy juggling settings. 

The sheets are sized at 5×7 so they can be printed and easily tucked into your camera bag for quick reference. 

Have fun out there!


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