The man calls himself “Nature Nerd” and offers free, annotated small-group tours of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
Living in the city next to an important wildlife reserve is a rare pleasure and a unique opportunity. Aaron Campbell knows this and wants to make sure everyone knows this too. That’s why he started hosting free weekly nature tours through the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
“People who have lived in Portland for most of their lives, or even just have vacation homes here, and come to visit – many of them didn’t know this place was right in front of them,” said Campbell. . “It really is a little secret refuge, close to our home!”
Campbell, who calls himself the Nature Nerd, is a trained zoologist who has worked outdoors for 23 years. His work has included studying wild birds, conducting wetland tours, and teaching “nature journaling” courses. He lives in Sellwood and works as an educational biologist for Jackson Bottom Wildlife Preserve in Hillsboro. His wealth of knowledge of, and love for, the plants and animals of Oaks Bottom becomes evident from the start of his tour.
On a sunny Sunday in early March, a dozen people from across the Portland area gathered at Sellwood Park to embark on the experiment. The group descended the hill to Oaks Bottom, then meandered along the trail until Campbell stopped to point out some interesting natural features: an owl’s nest here, the State Mill of the ‘Oregon there. He explained how the south end of the wildlife refuge was saved from its early use as a dump, and how the north end was made from earth removed when Interstate 405 was dug through downtown Portland. .
As the tour weaved its way through an area dense with trees, Campbell’s attention shifted to the many types of habitat found in the refuge. He talked about resident birds, fungi, trees, insects, mammals and berries. He highlighted invasive species as well as native ones. Throughout the two-hour walk, Campbell answered participants’ questions, including a question about identifying dangerous plants like poison ivy.
Near the end of the hike, he paused the group along the Springwater Trail to point out a pair of bald eagles hovering overhead. Then he pointed out the bold dives of Anna’s hummingbirds, trying to impress their potential mates.
Meredith Beau had arrived from the Pearl District for this tour and brought two of her friends. She appreciated Campbell’s depth of knowledge and engaging style. “I think he was fantastic,” she exclaimed. “He was able to make his enthusiasm for biology contagious! John Fitzgerald, a local real estate agent, said he enjoyed the tour so much that he plans to invite his clients, so they can get a sense of the natural beauty of the Inner Southeast.
These “Nature Nerd Expeditions” are advertised primarily with flyers posted at local parks and businesses in the Sellwood area. Campbell recently started announcing them on her Facebook, Instagram and NextDoor social media accounts as well. Attendance varies, but he likes to limit attendees to six people or fewer. All ages are welcome and there is no charge. The flyers note a suggested donation of $5.
Campbell also organizes tours for individuals and small groups on other days of the week, upon request. For these walks, he focuses on the specific interests of the participants, such as bird watching, photography, medicinal plants, regional history and mushroom identification.
The idea for these tours started in 2021 as a reaction to the pandemic. Campbell wanted to share Oaks Bottom’s generosity with her neighbors because it has brought her so much comfort throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Everyone at that time was struggling, whether it was financially, mentally or otherwise, so I really wanted to make this place as accessible as possible,” he explained. “If you can learn about a cool animal that lives in your neighborhood, it really opens up your perspective. Understanding that we share this planet with so many other living beings is a really good experience for anyone.”
Campbell’s current weekly Oaks Bottom tour begins at 4:30 p.m. each Sunday afternoon, from the south entrance of the refuge in Upper Sellwood Park. He plans to continue throughout the fall, rain or shine, but recommends checking in, as start times will change throughout the season to match the sunset, when more wild animals are active. He also starts a tour in Westmoreland Park called “Monday Marvel Walk”.
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