Thursday, August 27, 2015

Looking for the Peep show..

So it's August in Portland, and I havn't drowned in a puddle of my own sweat as I feared I might. That is promising. It is also that magical annual event where I give up on other birds altogether and pin my hopes on shorebird migration. The other birds have thinned out, as their fledglings have left the nest, and they themselves are beginning their own plans for end of summer and fall migration. All the shallow ponds and marshes of winter have either completely dried up, or what little that remains is not enough to support large populations. Whatever water is left and it's oozing muddy banks becomes a magnet for migratory shorebirds heading south; a place to search the mud for worms and little crustaceans to keep these cracked out little guys strong enough to keep heading south to their wintering grounds.  

You hear a lot about bird migration in the spring and fall, and it is an ongoing process and not really a fixed date, but the shorebirds actually start heading south as early as late June, early July. The weather and food supplies are the main impetus to jumpstart their annual clocks.  I myself face each August and September with a growing excitement, which is hilarious given the maddening qualities of shore bird watching.  I find my enthusiasm to embrace the challenge similar to young mothers who decide to have another baby after suffering through a horrible labor with the last.  Perhaps there is a hormone for birders much like oxytocin for mothers, that encourages me to forget the pain and frustration of last seasons fruitless racing around, and encourages me to try it all over again this summer..  sigh.

This summer I became a member of OBOL, which is an online birding post community for Oregon birders.  Aka, I've officially joined the nerd squad.  That's OK, you can say it, I barely wince at all anymore.  And another thing, I can go without my binoculars for days at a time, several days.  I just choose not to. So anyway, I can now follow posts from all over the state, of up to date bird sightings, which is kind of a cool thing.  And while I'm pretty sure I'm not interested in becoming the person who drives hundreds of miles to see one bird, check it off my list and then drive home, I do appreciate having some insider info on the whereabouts of migratory peeps.  I'd been seeing ongoing sightings all up and down the coast for various shorebirds, from terns to plovers to turnstones, and sandpipers were starting to show up.  So I chose the 17th of August to do a grand 150 mile sweep from the tip of the Oregon coast in Astoria down to Florence, which is about halfway down the state. This was ambitious I know, and honestly I wouldn't have tried to do so much coastline in one day but I was trying to tie in a visit to an inland refuge on the second day of my trip.  That spot is Fern Ridge NWR and it's just west of Eugene, about an hour inland from Florence. The coastal winds had been kind of strong with 30 mph gusts but it was supposed to die down by the morning I left.  I also wasn't trying to time my visits to any spots with high or low tide, as would have been smarter, because I had just one day to get down to Florence and I was just going to have to take what I could get regardless of where the tide was.

So I packed up and hit the road at 7:40am, heading out NW to Astoria on Highway 30.  Rolled up to the Astoria Safeway for a coffee and bathroom break two hours later and then headed out to Fort Stevens.  I headed over the big dune from parking lot B and walked north along the beach to the South Jetty.  The morning fog still lay over the surf and the beach and it looked amazing, like an alien landscape. It eventually lifted a bit and I saw a variety of gulls, including Heerman's which are my new fave for the west coast.  It's those crazy red beaks.  I seem to love all birds with a red accessory, oystercatchers, skimmers, pigeon guillemots, puffins, and now Heerman's gull.  Unbelievably, I found a dozen sand dollars, and put them in one of my handy plastic bags I keep at the ready for natural souvenirs; never know what you're going to find.  I headed over to the rocks and clambered around looking at starfish, but the sun was too bright already for taking pictures at this angle, so I headed back towards the parking lot.  I saw two dead birds down the beach from one another, both common murres, it was kind of weird. And then I saw what were to be the only shorebirds I would see on the coast all day long, a pack of about 15 semi-palmated plovers.  They've got funny personalities, not as skittish as some other shorebirds.  Most were juveniles, but one of the adults had an injured left leg and hopped around regardless, eating and taking care of business.  Better a leg than a wing, am I right?

                                       heerman's gull with that red beak

                                      california gull
                                      immature herring gull
                                       calfornia and heerman's gull
                                       common murre challenged by the life force
                                       semi-palmated plovers

                                     this adult plover has an injured leg, whah!!
I got back to the car, with my pics of the plovers and my bag of sand dollars, thinking this was going to be the start of a great shore birding day! Wrong...  It just went so downhill from there.  I guess the best that I can say is that I now know the locations of several birding spots I didn't before.  Maybe they'll come into play this fall once the water fills up the marshes and estuaries again.  Needless to say, many hours later around 4pm, I sat high up on the hillside of the Nestucca Bay wildlife refuge, eating my boxed Asian chicken salad from Safeway, staring morosely at the family of barn swallows swooping all over the valley in the now gusty winds that weren't supposed to be happening.  What to do, what to do?  I was now exhausted from 8 hours of driving and fruitless stops and I wasn't even through Lincoln City yet.  How the hell was I going to make it to Florence and to my campground by sunset?  I decided to quit making stops and just put the pedal to the metal and head south to Florence.

Driving through Newport and past Seal Rock I realized I was in territory I had only been through once, many years ago now for an annual retreat at the bar I worked at.  I had found and rented us this ridiculous beach playhouse in Yachats for a night, and I recall that it wasn't on the ocean.  We had to walk down the road and effectively jump a fence to get to the shore, and the beach was completely nondescript.  No features of any kind come to mind, just seemingly miles of flat sandy beach.  And I had never been back to that area or really anywhere in central Oregon, all my trips either taking me to the north or more recently to the southern coast. And getting there always involves taking I-5 and then cutting over on highway 38 at Reedsport.  So I was really surprised to find some stunning coastline just south of Yachats, all curves and rocky cliffs, very few towns or houses for that matter.  I'm determined to come back here soon and explore, but for now I was on a schedule.  I finally hit Florence and decided to try to find the north jetty of the Siuslaw River before I went to the campground.  Just maybe I'd luck out and find some peeps feeding at dusk. The road out was an eight mile long park road running parallel to the coast just inland from the dunes, and by the time I got out to the river, the wind was gusting like crazy.  There was a small flock of ducks that I scared off when I pulled up, but the rest was just a handful of gulls with their heads low and into the wind.  I didn't even bother walking out to the ocean from the jetty. There wasn't going to be anything there in wind like this..

I decided I also didn't want to spend the night in a campground just on the other side of the dunes in wind like this either.  Especially as I was just going to get up early and haul ass inland to Fern Ridge. So I headed east and drove about 30 miles alongside the Siuslaw River to get to the Whitaker Creek campground.  I pulled in at dusk, found a spot, and set up my bed, made some food, had a drink and read for a while.  It was about 10pm and I was getting tired, looking forward to what might be a good first night of camping.  I don't always sleep well the first night out, but this campground was fairly quiet and I was feeling sleepy.  Just as I could feel myself about to drift off, I heard a scraping along the underside of my truck.  It jarred me awake, and I slapped the inside of the truck and hissed, assuming it was raccoons trying to get to the food I'd locked in the front of the truck.  It stopped and I lay back down and shut my eyes.  Then again, a frantic scratching.   I sat up in a panic and grabbed my flashlight to look under and around the truck; nothing.  What the hell was going on?  Back in the truck I tried to settle down again... Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going by now. No rest for the wicked or crazed birders either.  Maybe I had pissed off Neptune by being greedy with my sand dollars and this was his repayment?  I know most people would have just said screw it, and gone to sleep regardless, but I'm not hardwired that way.  It finally occurred to me that the scratching was coming from inside my truck cab and it was a creature trying to get out.  I was too tired to do anything about it at this point, I'd have to deal with it in the morning.  I think I fell asleep around 2:30 and at 6:15 I got up to pee and thought to myself, "gee, if I had had a full night's sleep, this would a great time to pack up and head east". But I knew that I needed a little more sleep or I would be useless birding much less driving home to Portland.  I opened the cab doors to my truck, giving my little critter a chance to escape and then tried to get back to sleep.  I got up again an hour and a half later, made myself some tea and packed up the truck.  If my nighttime buddie made it out, I never saw it.  I really hope so, I really don't want to have to smell hot dead little rodent in a week.

I got to Fern Ridge about a half hour later and pulled out my printouts with all the stops I planned to make.  It's a pretty big lake and local residents driving it's perimeter like to haul ass on the back country roads, so good luck trying to see road signs for the first time.  I did a lot of turning around to backtrack throughout the day.  I did have a decent start birding, although the sun was high and bright and the thermometer was starting to climb.  It got up to about 93 that by afternoon which is painful to be out in especially if your last stop is a shadeless mile long road, out and back again. My pictures are a bit blurry, as peeps are cracked out and sensitive to proximity.  Some would argue isn't this the case with all birds?  And you'd be right in most regards, but not all peeps are equal. Peeps really force the serious birder to acknowledge the need for a good birding scope and/or a really high quality telephoto lens if you want decent photos.

                                     this little immature california dude was killing me
                                      american bittern in horrible light
Adult and young western grebe
                                      amphibian love in remaining water
                                       immature california with crayfish
                                      long billed dowitchers
                                      greater yellowlegs and pectoral sandpiper
                                       ruddy duck
                                       lesser yellowlegs
                                      more long billed dowitchers
                                      fern ridge from the viewing platform
                                        the hotly contested and unopened gate
                                      this land used to all be an ocean at one time..
                                      oh killdeer, how I want to throttle you...
                                      greater yellowlegs and various western peeps
                                       western sandpipers seriously camouflaged
                                      more peepshow
                                      this little crayfish was crafty, but not fast enough..

As I edit my photos after the fact, forcing the best of the image to emerge, they're still laughably pathetic compared to any of the hundreds of high quality photos taken by semi-pro birders on Flickr sites.  Oh well, you pick your battles, and I like to think that I create more of a thematic visual essay which creates a deliberate sense of place. At least that's how I justify it to myself, more like the shitty photos are consistent at creating a somewhat hazy and mysterious alternate reality.  Kind of like camping and birding in a sci-fi novel.  It keeps me interested, clearly, so that's all that matters. And as for the annual temptation of the shorebirds, it's clear that I'm a goner, a lifer.  It's the lure of the bastard.  You can see any of the photos I didn't include in this post on my flickr page, just click on the link on the top right of blog and click on any of the blog photos to see it full size.  Until next time, Happy trails!

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