Run for Hills and Birds!

For most races I show up solely as a runner, but during the Run for the Hills race, I showed up as both a runner and a naturalist. The racecourse is the most scenic, habitat-dense I’ve ever run. I didn’t win this race (not even close), but I observed 49 species of birds and 19 species of native wildflowers.

The 30 km route (18.65 mi.) passes through several landscapes; riparian forest, oak savannas, cow pastures, forest meadows, conifer forests, upland prairie, oak woodland, maple/oak forest and all the transition zones in between. It was a grand natural adventure.

That being said, I would never recommend running as the best way to encounter birds and wildlife. The sudden movements of a runner frightens most birds and mammals. As expected, I didn’t encounter any mammals (except cows) and most birds I got close to were quickly flying away from me. Also, I didn’t have time to stop and search for flowers or bugs.

Binoculars and running aren’t a good mix. It helps that I have a lot of experience with local bird sounds because the majority of the birds were identified by ear. I only noticed the wildflowers that were next to the trail, but I covered so much ground that a high number of encounters were inevitable.

Here are some highlights. Soon after the start, one of the few birds I was lucky enough to see up close was a Lazuli Bunting. He was next to the Midge Cramer path on a fence, singing and showing his bright blue back. Bright orange Columbia Lilies were dangling over some of the forested trails. At Fitton Green, there were a couple Blue-eyed Marys still in bloom. There was Hermit Thrush calling just west of Fitton Green.

The weather was cool and rainy at times and that’s probably why I didn’t notice any butterflies or dragonflies. That also meant it was comfortable conditions for running.

My adventure sorta started the night before. I booked a tent space at the Benton Oaks RV Park, next to Benton County Fairgrounds, so I could wake up at a comfortable time before the race and basically be there and ready to go. I don’t own a car, and buses don’t run on Sunday, and I wanted to avoid the extra physical effort of riding my bike across Corvallis the morning before a race.

I went to sleep among the Oregon White Oaks, just after the Acorn Woodpeckers stopped calling. That night, I heard the call of a Barn Owl (not included in race-day observations below). In the morning, I awoke to the sound of a Western Wood-Pewee’s dawn song, Eurasian Collared-Doves, and of course, there were the vociferous antics of the Acorn Woodpeckers.

I often feel nervous before races because I dwell on my upcoming athletic performance. But not for this race. I decided, while training for this race, that I would focus on being in good enough shape to finish without much distress. Minutes before the race start, I was anticipating all the birds, flowers, and beautiful landscapes I would encounter. This mindset kept my attention away from my exhaustion in the latter parts of the race.


Naturalist, Don Boucher, runs the 30K race for Run for the Hills and notes the birds and wildflowers along the way- with just his eyes and ears!

Counting birds and flower species while running takes a special strategy since I can’t carry a notepad and pencil or stop to take pictures. During training runs, I experimented with recording voice memos on my phone but it was just too cumbersome. I instead practiced keeping a mental note of what I encountered. It also helps that I’m familiar enough with Willamette Valley and Coast Range ecology that I know what to expect. To some degree, I noticed what I didn’t encounter as much as what I did. Soon after the race, with everything fresh in my memory, I flipped through my field guides to help me remember, and made a list. No doubt, this system is less than perfect and I probably forgot some.

Some species I expected but didn’t get were Red-shouldered Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, White-breasted Nuthatch, MacGillivray’s Warbler and Oregon Vesper Sparrow. While running on the Mulkey Ridge trail, I heard what sounded like Northern Pygmy-Owl nestlings or fledglings. Without binoculars and time to track them down, I couldn’t confirm it because they sound a lot like a junco’s song. I had spotted these owls in this area last year, so it was likely, but I just can’t rule out something much more common like a junco.

This was the first time I participated in this race. I don’t run many races because I’m just not that competitive, and I also prefer to spend more time birding or leading nature field trips. Another incentive for me is that the proceeds from this race help to support trail work for Greenbelt Land Trust.

Maybe I’ll do it again next year but I’m not looking to out-do my species list because, as I mentioned before, running isn’t the best way to survey. I think I have a better chance of improving my time. In the meantime, I certainly plan to hike portions of the racecourse, and I’ll bring along my binoculars, notepad, and camera.


Birds Counted By Don:

While camping: White-breasted Nuthatch and Barn Owl

49 species during run:

Wild Turkey

Turkey Vulture

Red-tailed Hawk

American Kestrel

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Rufous Hummingbird

Acorn Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Western Wood-Pewee

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Hutton’s Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Steller’s Jay

California Scrub-Jay

American Crow

Common Raven

Violet-green Swallow

Barn Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee


Red-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

Bewick’s Wren

House Wren

Pacific Wren

Western Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellow throat

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Hermit Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Spotted Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Song Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

Brown-headed Cowbird

Purple Finch

American Goldfinch

Evening Grosbeak


Native Wildflowers Counted By Don:

Elegant Brodiaea – Brodiaea elegans

Fork-toothed Ookow (Cluster Lily) – Dichelostemma congestum

Hyacinth Triteleia (Hyacinth Brodiaea) – Triteleia hyacinthina

Tough-leaved Iris – Iris tenax

Columbia Lily – Lilium columbianum

Celery-leaved Lovage – Ligusticum apiifolium

Yarrow – Achillea millefolium

Oregon Sunshine – Eriophyllum lanatum

Slender Tarweed – Madia gracilis

Northern Microseris – Microseris borealis (North of the covered bench)

Narrow-leaved Mule’s Ears – Wyethia angustifolia

Orange Honeysuckle – Lonicera ciliosa

Marah Vine (Wild Cucumber) – Marah oregana

Riverbank Lupine – Lupinus rivularis

Oceanspray – Holodiscus discolor

Self-heal – Prunella vulgaris

Candyflower – Claytonia sibirica

California Poppy – Eschscholzia californica

Large-flowered Blue-eyed Mary – Collinsia grandiflora (Fitton Green)


-Blog Post by GLT Volunteer Naturalist, Don Boucher