Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cooper Mountain Nature Park: Restored Habitat on Beaverton's Doorstep

Park entrance - view across Tualatin River Valley
Last Sunday, to mark the first day of Spring, I wanted to explore a Portland area park that I'd never been to before.  What better way to start off a new season than with a visit to a new place where you can get close to nature?  I'd recently read an article about Western gray squirrels making a comeback at Cooper Mountain - on the southern edge of Beaverton - so I decided to head out there and try my luck at spotting one.  Although the squirrels proved too elusive for me (the article did say they were easier to spot in the fall), I did enjoy my time in the park, and the views alone were worth the trip.

Play area with Nature House behind
Cooper Mountain Nature Park is one of Metro's newest parks, and it's elevated location (over 700 feet at the parking area on top) provides expansive views of the Tualatin River Valley and Chehalem Mountains to the south.  Most of the land was purchased in 1997, through voter approved bond measures which have allowed Metro to purchase and protect over 11,000 acres throughout the Portland metro area.  (The same program used to purchase the land for Mount Talbert Nature Park in Clackamas, and the Wilkes Headwaters Property in NE Portland.)  Development of the park began in 2006, and today you can explore 3 1/2 miles of gravel trails meandering through habitats which include forest, prairie, and oak woodland.

The Willamette Valley once supported over 400,000 acres of oak woodlands.  Today, less than 7 percent of those historic woodlands still exist (according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife).  Development is an obvious cause of habitat loss, but invasive species and fire suppression have also played a role.  (Native Americans once used regular fire suppression to maintain the open savannas and oak woodlands.)

Cooper Mountain Nature Park is a joint venture between Metro and the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, which provides day-to-day management.  Volunteers have helped restore the natural habitats by removing invasive species, planting over 110,000 trees and shrubs, and improving a small quarry pond. The pond now provides habitat for frogs and insects (which support birds and other wildlife) as well as a much-needed water source during the dry summer months.

Bioswale with mini wetland
When I arrived at the park on Sunday about Noon,
it was overcast and chilly.  The wind was blowing across the unprotected mountain top, trying it's best to convince me that I hadn't brought the right coat.  I first spent a few minutes checking out the amenities near the parking area.  The lot itself has a bioswale running through the center, landscaped with native plants, and a mini wetland at one end.  There's an interesting play area for the kids, a horn-like device for listening to birdsong in the meadow below, and a barn-shaped Nature House for environmental education programs.  The Nature House also contains accessible restrooms.

Birdsong concentrator thingy
I had read about a demonstration garden that was supposed to be onsite, to help people identify native and low-water, non-invasive plant species for their yards.  In my search for the garden I found several beds around the Nature House which appeared to be planted with native species, but there was no signage identifying individual plants.  I spoke briefly with a  friendly park employee who happened to be there, and he said the demonstration garden is a work in progress.  He told me that he would be personally working on that project in the months to come, and it will eventually be a much more interpretive experience.  For anyone interested in a great list of native and non-invasive plant choices, Metro does have a great planting guide available on the park website.

After consulting the trail map, I decided to take the Cooper Mountain Loop, which takes you through a sample of all the habitats, and includes the small pond I mentioned earlier.

A house in the pines
As soon as I dropped off of the mountain top, the wind relented and it was much more comfortable.  The first part of the trail descends gently through an area planted with some type of long-needled pine tree.  I'm assuming it's a native species, but I didn't have my tree book with me and I'm not great at identifying pines unless it's a mature Ponderosa Pine, with its distinctive "puzzle pieces" bark.  These were young trees, and wouldn't yet display that bark if they are Ponderosas.  If anyone can tell us what kind of pines these are - please do!  I saw an American Robin perched atop one of the little pines.

Great signs!
As the trail left the young pines, it crossed a broad grass prairie and continued sloping down to a brushy woodland area on the other side.  Along the perimeter of the woodland, I saw young Pacific Madrone trees which appeared to have been planted several years ago.  The woodland path was lined with hundreds of fir seedlings which have been more recently planted.  I saw Grand Fir for sure, and I think some Douglas Fir as well.  There was also lots of naturally-occurring Osoberry (Indian Plum) which was just starting to leaf and bloom.  I saw several tiny, gray birds flitting about in the trees, but I didn't get a close enough look to get any real field marks.  At several places the trail was intersected by wildlife trails that went off into the underbrush.  Deer tracks were everywhere, and I spotted a dog-like track which might have been coyote - I say that only because pets are not allowed in the park.  The park has lots of very nice interpretive signs, and one told about the various animals that use the park - from deer and coyotes, to the occasional black bear or cougar passing through.

The Cooper Mountain Loop continues downward and enters an area of more open oak woodland.  I noticed several oak galls before running across a sign that told all about them.

Oak gall sign
Oak galls in summer

Small quarry pond

I made it to the bottom of the loop and began making my way up the other side when I came upon the little quarry pond.  Again - more signage telling about how the pond creates a natural larder in the landscape.  Near the pond, I saw a hummingbird rocket skyward, then return to earth to perch at the top of an oak.

On my way back up, through a mixed woodland area, i kept hearing birds scratching around in the undergrowth.  I suspect they might have been Rufous-sided Towhees, judging from their habits and the brief glimpses of color that I was able to catch.

When I made it back to the parking lot - about an hour after I left it - the wind was back and it was just starting to sprinkle.  Perfect timing!  That's when I spotted the bear tracks.  OK - so they were simulated bear tracks in the concrete sidewalk.  Still notable.

Bear tracks!
This visit was a little early to catch any of the wildflowers which grow in the park - including meadow checkermallow and pale larkspur - but I'll definitely return to explore more of the trail system later in the season.  If you haven't yet been to Cooper Mountain Nature Park, it's a great perk for our Beaverton neighbors, and it's even worth the trip across town for an east-sider like me. If you have spent time on Cooper Mountain - let us know what kinds of things you spotted, out there in the Nature of Portland!


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