Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Oregon Birding IV: The Coast

As I mentioned in my last update post, I went birding on the Oregon Coast with my family a couple of weeks ago. If you haven't been to the Oregon Coast, I highly recommend it even if you are not a birder. There are scenic vistas, quaint light houses, fresh seafood, beaches, tsunami escape route signs, salt water taffy, tide pools, and (if you have more time) you can go deep sea fishing, clamming, and crabbing. All good times. But what about the birds? I had high expectations for the coast. Damon had told me previously of his trip years ago to Seattle and how he got like a dozen new bird species just stepping off the plane. New gull species, nesting pelagic birds, strange and exotic shorebirds! The sky was really the limit. 
We headed off from Portland in the direction of Tillamook. After lunch at the cheese factory, we drove to Cape Mears. See the really nice view that greeted us from the parking area? It was here that I spotted a Peregrine Falcon soaring near the cliffs.

Quite helpfully, the Parks people put up a sign to help up understand the local avian fauna. You see there are cormorants, gulls, murres, and gullemots nesting at different places on the cliffs. If you are lucky, you might even see a puffin or an oystercatcher! After this refresher on coastal bird ecology, we headed off toward the lighthouse.

My family left me at the viewing spot to go inspect the lighthouse. I stayed back to study the nesting birds on the nearby rock cliffs.

Yes, there were lots of birds here. See the white splotches on the cliffs? That's guano deposits from the thousands of nesting birds. Birds were flying to and fro and it was a loud chaotic scene to be sure. There were a lot of Common Murres and, in a few places, you could identify Pelagic Cormorants. Occasionally you would spot a Pigeon Guillemot flying by. And there were Western Gulls everywhere as well!

Not wanting to linger, we stuffed the seven of us back into the car and headed down the coast to Pacific City where we were going to eat dinner at an acclaimed microbrewery. Next to the brewpub, there is a really large beach and it was a very busy scene. There were all kinds of people on the beach, some surfing, some flying kites, and some sliding down a giant sand dune cliff. And I was there... looking for birds... with my Dad looking on.

We saw Brown Pelicans, more Western Gulls, more Pigeon Guillemots, and an unidentifiable gull species. It was brown but not mottled like a juvenile. Eventually it dawned on me that this was a Heerman's Gull. The maps in the books don't really show it as a summertime bird on the Oregon coast, but apparently it will show up in late summer as it starts migrating south. Besides these birds, I also saw many others flying near the horizons. Many of these looked like scoters and, possibly, guillemots but without better optics it was beyond me to get a good identification.

The next morning, we left Lincoln City and headed south towards Newport. Our first stop would be Yaquina Head, which is another recognized bird area that also has a nice lighthouse. The tide was going out and we would be able to pole around the tide pools, which was a plus as well.

First thing I notices was that here the Common Murres were a lot closer. We also found nesting Brandt's Cormorants here.

After descending down to the rock beach and looking at urchins and anemones for a while, the song of the elusive Black Oystercatcher was heard. I scanned the rocks and found a pair enjoying a tourist-free, mussel-covered rock in the middle of the small bay.  

We left the oystercatchers and went to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The highlight of this tourist trap is the shark tube and, while it was impressive, they also had a bird on display: the highly revered Turkey Vulture! Now you might not think that this would be the first choice for an animal park exhibit, but apparently feeding time is quite the show.

Anyways, we continued south to Yachats where we stayed the night before driving to Heceta Head the following morning. Another breath-taking view with another picturesque light-house. As we hiked up to the lighthouse, I found small hummingbirds (aren't they all small?) buzzing around a large group of flowers growing on the steep bank. They were most certainly Rufous Hummingbirds. Once at the lighthouse, I took a good look at the birds nesting on the nearby rock cliffs.

There was a lot of guano and like at the other two lighthouses, more of the same birds.

Yep, it was a nesting colony of Common Murres with some unidentified corvid hanging around. A few cormorants and a couple of guillemots too.

All in all this was a really nice birding excursion and as you can tell there is a pattern to Oregon Coast. Lighthouses were built on heads (large cliffs) where they could be seen well out to sea and so they are quite close to large nesting colonies of murres and cormorants. I didn't see some of the more exotic Pacific Ocean birds; I would probably need a boat for that or far more experience identifying black specks flying on the horizon. I guess that saves something for me to see on the next trip.

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