You and your kids can find flora, fauna and a story at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove. 

Story and photos by Ali Wilkinson

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With three kids, it can be hard to find one-on-one time with any child — particularly in our bubble-filled COVID world. As my husband said when we had our third, “No more man-on-man defense!” But after a magical impromptu bike date with my daughter, we’ve made a bigger effort to carve out solo parent-kid dates. 

My son Grady, 11, is an animal fanatic. So when it came time for him to pick his activity, I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to explore an animal habitat. Some searching on the internet led us to Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, about 40 minutes from downtown Portland. 

The main parking lot leaves you steps from the main trail, a 1.1-mile, ADA-accessible trail that takes you around Fernhill Lake. (There’s also a visitors center, which was closed in April due to COVID-19; and non-portable bathrooms, which were open.) The lake is surrounded by natural flora, including blooming red-flowering currant, chokecherry and Pacific ninebark. We also caught sight of numerous salmonberry bushes, which left us knowing we needed to make a return trip! 

When we went, the loop had the added bonus of featuring a story walk. Let’s Go Eeling by Mercedes Jones was told in page-long snippets over the course of about a quarter mile of the trail. The story was about a child who goes eeling for the first time with his family, and the historic importance of eels to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. 

Fernhill Wetlands is home to nearly 200 species of birds and is known as a premier bird-watching spot in Oregon. While enjoying the story, we caught our first up-close glimpse of a bird — a red-winged blackbird. The bird was close enough that we could see his throat moving as he called out to his neighbors. 

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Our hope to see an egret was rewarded when we extended the walk by adding on a loop of the gravel and bark trails around Cattail Marsh and Eagles Perch Marsh. Not only that, but we actually saw the egret dive her curved neck into the water and come back out with a fish! A few gulps later, the fish disappeared. Soon after, we saw a blue heron close to enough to get a good look at his yellow, reptilian eye before he elegantly flew off. 

We saw more ducks than any other bird — mallards, but also wood ducks, American coots and others. But we also got a good look at a hummingbird, eagle and a hawk that was so near we thought it would land on Grady’s arm. 

Besides birds, Fernhill is home to a number of mammals. We mostly saw nutrias, including baby nutrias. Which, even if you don’t like over-large rodents, are really, really cute. But Fernhill is also home to coyotes, bobcats and deer, among others.

In addition to some stellar wildlife spotting, the wetlands have the added benefit of helping to naturally purify 5 million gallons of water per day before flowing on to the Tualatin River.  

I’m brand-new to birding, and I was surprised by how exciting it was to see the birds in action and to attempt to glimpse the more elusive ones. We didn’t get to see pelicans while there — which were at the top of Grady’s want-to-see list. But I’ll be back. My youngest son, Teddy, has already said that’s where he wants to go on his one-on-one! 

If You Go: Fernhill Wetlands, 1399 SW Fern Hill Rd., Forest Grove. Fernhillnts.org

Ali Wilkinson
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