Friday, February 18, 2011

Elk Rock Island: Nature on the Willamette

 To get to Elk Rock Island (unless you have a boat), you first have to go to Milwaukie's recently improved Spring Park.  From there, take the trail toward the Willamette River.  The short, dirt trail leads through the woods to a low, rocky area which - during the winter high water months - is actually underwater.  Hence, the name, Elk Rock Island.  During periods of lower water; however, you can walk across the rocky ground to the Island itself, which provides seven distinct habitats:

Pacific Madrone tree silhouetted against the Willamette.
• Willamette River Floodplain
• Emergent Wetland
• Mesic Upland Forest
• Riparian Forest
• Cliff Face
• Xeric Upland Forest
• Willamette Valley Grassland

The island was formed by a volcanic eruption 40 million years ago, and - for you fellow geology buffs -the exposed rocks are some of the oldest in Portland.

Low, rocky area connecting the island
to the east bank of the Willamette.

For anyone that does have a boat, there's a perfect little bay on the island's west side - a great spot to pull up for a picnic.

Cedar Waxwing on Elk Rock Island
According to the Portland Parks & Recreation website, bald eagles and osprey have been spotted in the area.  I know I've seen both at different times and different spots along the Willamette.  On one visit to Elk Rock Island, I saw a group of Cedar Waxwings, feeding on the berries of a Pacific Madrone tree atop the rocky cliff.  I consider myself an amateur bird-watcher (although I don't go out, binoculars in hand, specifically to see what birds I can find, I do keep my eyes peeled and make note of any birds I happen upon), but these were the first Cedar Waxwings I've ever seen.  Beautiful birds.
Elk Rock Island - controlled burn
Evidence of controlled burning to maintain grassland.

On one late summer visit to the park, I ran across an area of the grassland habitat that had burned.
At first I was thinking some careless person had started the fire (and I was thankful it didn't take out the fir and oak forest on the northern section of the island), but as I walked into the burned section, I saw the burned lines that told me it was a deliberate, controlled burn.  I'm guessing they do it to maintain the grassland habitat and prevent larger shrubs or invasive species from taking over.
The rocks along the river provide ledges for  fishing, or to just sit and watch the boats go by (while you wait for the osprey and bald eagles to appear), and the wooded section of the park hides a couple different loop trails circling the island.  A great place to explore, and soak up a little Willamette River nature, just minutes from town.

Update:  I just ran across this interesting story from The Oregonian, about restoring the oak habitat on the island.

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