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.
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.
While camping: White-breasted Nuthatch and Barn Owl
49 species during run:
Common Yellow throat
Black-throated Gray Warbler
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