PacNW 2016: Episode VI: Stone and Sea

To recover from Friday night's pizza-related disappointment, I slept in an extra hour. Okay, in truth, Tina had agreed to meet me at 6:00 a.m., rather than the previous day's 5:00. I needed the additional strength because today I had to accomplish something: to get a life bird in Oregon.

Washington's lifer had been easy. Basically, if you go to a totally new part of the country and wander around looking for long enough, you'll probably turn up something you've never seen before. I'd done it wandering along Lake Washington for three or four days, with Anna's Hummingbird, Bewick's Wren and a few other odds and ends for my trouble. But Oregon was going to be a different problem. I had one shot at it--a single day trip across the state line, with only a fragment of the coastal habitat within range. Tina was already being extremely generous to make this long haul southward, and there would be no time to make a second one if I went dry today.

Luckily--and at this point, unsurprisingly--Tina had a plan. We would make our way down over the Columbia to Cannon Beach and take a look around Haystack Rock, one of the world's largest sea stacks. In addition to being a gorgeous piece of scenery, the 235-foot rock is also a nesting site for a bird I'd never seen: the Tufted Puffin. With a new bird and a confirmed breeding site combined, the only thing we had to worry about was the timing; the puffins usually arrive at Cannon Beach sometime in early April, but they hadn't been spotted there yet this year. We'd either get them on their first day or not at all.

No pressure.

Mind you, we were not so focused on the 50-50 Project portion of the day that we ignored all other considerations. One of these was the presence of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just north of Olympia, an area of woodland, field, and wetland that lay just off the interstate, and which Tina felt might well yield something interesting. In this, she was correct. I not only logged another Washington life bird--a Golden-crowned Sparrow--and got to watch the most prolonged songbird-v.-songbird battle I've ever seen (two Song Sparrows locked in a wrestling match that went from branch to boardwalk to ground for a good five minutes without one of them releasing its grip on the other), I got what is unquestionably the best look at a Marsh Wren that I could ever hope for:

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Having glimpsed only a few Marsh Wrens in my entire life, I can safely say this long look at a boldly singing bird perched right next to the boardwalk was just about ideal. I can also say that Nisqually gave me a look at a very common bird doing something that I would never have expected:

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Yes, folks, that is indeed a Canada Goose nesting in a hollow tree. 

Having reached peak absurdity early in the day, we pressed on southward, crossing the Columbia on the Lewis and Clark Bridge in Longview and proceeding westward along the Oregon bank. Despite my awareness of the Puffin Plan, I kept my eyes on the trees we passed, hoping for a Varied Thrush or some other woodland bird, just in case. We didn't get anything new, but when we finally turned south in Astoria and headed down the Pacific coast on highway 101, we did discover that everyone else in the area had noticed that it was a) Saturday and b) sunny and warm; the roads were rapidly filling up with beachgoers. We crawled through Sunset Beach, Surf Pines, and Seaside before pulling off into Cannon Beach and beginning the search for a parking place from which we could descend to the shore. Luckily, as far as Haystack Rock was concerned, visibility was not an issue:

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After a few starts down the blind alleys of driveways, we made our way to the sand right at low tide--just as Tina had planned--and started scoping out the area. A thorough scan of the rock's grassy top and craggy sides revealed that everything on it was a gull of some sort--mostly Westerns--but we didn't give up. We also noticed that the waters around the rock were full of bird life, some of it rather peculiar-looking. A great raft of birds floating in the swells beyond the rock turned out to be Common Murres, birds I'm always happy to see, and there were also a number of other birds riding the heavy surf in amongst the smaller rocks around Haystack, such as the Needles, the shorter stacks to the left in the above photo. I kept my eyes on these birds as they surged up and down in the scope, and before long I was confident that at least some of them were Black Scoters. The others, however, were harder to pin down, at least until I got one of them in profile and spotted the telltale white circle on the side of its head: a Harlequin Duck. My Oregon lifer.

It wasn't a long look, or a particularly close look, but it was enough. With that identification done, the tension of the day disappeared, and suddenly I was free to marvel at everything we could see on the beach: the gorgeous, shifting colors of the Pacific:

DSC03249.JPGThe richness of the tidal pools:

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The misty distance of the coastline to the south, straight out of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel:

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And of course the beauty of the great basalt tower themselves.

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Heck, I was so relieved, I even got a passerby to get a shot of Tina and me for posterity:

DSC03246.JPGWe spent a while there, still hoping for puffins, and I got a look at one more life bird--a distant football-shaped seabird that Tina confirmed as a Rhinoceros Auklet. As the tide began its return, however, we tromped back up the bluff to the car, pointed it north, and made for the Columbia.

We were now about 400 miles downstream from Vantage, where I'd seen the river the day before, and the bridge over it at Astoria is nearly three miles long. Even at low tide, that's a hell of a lot of fresh water:

DSC03273.JPGIn short, I do not expect to refer to the Columbia in the future without appending the adjective "mighty" to it.

Tina had one more spot in mind for the day, a marina in Westport where she thought we might get a look at one species that had escaped us in West Seattle: the Black Turnstone. Seeing nothing wrong with another stop, particularly one where the chance of a decent seafood dinner might be involved, I agreed, and we headed north toward Raymond. There wasn't much bird activity by this time in the afternoon--I did spot a Greater Yellowlegs on a mud flat near South Bend--but as we turned off onto Highway 105 north of Raymond, we drove by a pasture where we had an opportunity to do something I'd never been able to do: look carefully at a large flock of Canada Geese.

For an experienced birder, that last bit may seem a bit odd. Canadas are among the most common of American birds, and spotting them at a golf course, municipal park, or even parking lot is no real challenge. What made this flock interesting, however, was the fact that the geese didn't match. Some appeared unusually short and squat, which indicated that I might be in the presence of another life bird. Sure enough, with a quick look across the flat, we could tell that there were a number of birds whose bills were quite stubby, whose necks were decidedly short, and whose overall size was roughly that of a Mallard. I was getting my first undeniable look at a Cackling Goose, a bird whose similarity to the Canada is so strong that identifying it just about requires having a Canada nearby for comparison. And luckily, we had one. More than one. And thus, I had another Washington lifer.

The day was waning by the time we reached Westport, but there we had a chance to go out on the docks to observe a variety of marine life: a troop of sea lions that had taken over a floating dock across the water... a trio of Western Grebes patrolling the entryway to the marina... several Common Loons in full breeding plumage performing some strange ritual where they placed their heads on the surface and shoved themselves forward like a crocodile... and even a few Harbor Seals poking their noses up to look around:

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Still, it was clear that we were running short of light, and we didn't see any obvious signs of the Black Turnstones Tina had hoped for... until we looked across the water at the jetty on the opposite side of the Marina and realized that the stones piled around the waterside were actually about fifty percent shorebirds. In a field guide, the Black Turnstone is not a bird that immediately cries out "camouflage" to the reader, but in real life, standing on wet rocks, they're remarkably cryptic. There were probably close to fifty of them there, distant but distinctive--if you knew where to look.

As the sunlight drained away, I took one more look northward toward the Olympic Range, whose ability to be scenic in the distance was just as powerful from the south as from the east:

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And with that, we called it a day. We stopped by Bennett's Fish Shack to load up on seafood, piled into the car, and headed for Seattle. Tina remained in the driver's seat, as she had for the past three days, musing on a job well done. She'd found me life birds in two states and seemingly dozens of biomes, and now she was doubtless ready to put her feet up and take a breather.

"So, Pete," she said, somewhere in the darkness west of Olympia. "I'd really like to take you out to Deception Pass. What time do you have to meet Kelly tomorrow?"

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 28, 2016 2:34 PM.

PacNW 2016: Episode V: High and Dry was the previous entry in this blog.

PacNW 2016: Episode VI: Deception and Reunion is the next entry in this blog.

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