Milestone 700, ch 10, Windfalls

Windfalls

Moving to a smaller residence required tossing stuff that settles in dark lost boxes full of items never or seldom used. The pants that no longer fit or the not so useful food chopper that we could not believe we purchased went to charity. Of course, perhaps more chopping of vegetables might have meant the pants would still fit. Our early start at packing had meant not every questionable item went in the trash or to a charity before some kind of inquiry of true worth. What is true worth is a great concept. Regardless, it is hard to throw away accumulated possessions, and we kept and moved (again) more than we should. Boxes carted across the continent, and moved three more times since leaving the East Coast might have some worth. Who knew, since there was always something better to do than sift through aged belongings, especially those worn boxes containing old papers. Sorting a tree’s worth of notes requires a slow crawl and often entering a state of boredom.

Discovering one letter-sized page, torn from a disappeared spiral notebook put a stop to sorting and packing. In my hand, with fading blue ink, was a singular entry. “Larus ridibundus, winter adult, January 1991, Ocean City area. Flying and at rest, all marks.” What? Think Ralph! First, I rarely went birding while employed at the museum. Second, I did make a few trips to Ocean City in the winter. The teeming summer crowds are gone then, and in winter, it was a good place to get away from Washington, D.C. It was a fulfilling although usually very cold excursion. Even then, I thought maybe I could cross paths with a Dovekie or a skua. As for the gull, I did not pay much attention to them if they were outside a museum drawer. The only gull that really got my attention while practicing my Smithsonian day job was a Lesser Black-backed Gull I almost tripped over while walking across the mall from my parking spot under the Air and Space Museum to my office at Natural History. Ring-billed Gulls were interesting during my early years in Washington, D.C., when the species avoided people. Eventually, just as Western Gulls on the Oregon coast, Ring-bills joined the French fry frenzy. They no longer shunned humans, but followed them, waiting for a dropped or tossed morsel of something most likely of little nutritional value. Could gulls and other beggars patrolling fast food parking lots for human garbage become as addictive as we are to salt, sugar and fat?

Larus ridibundus might be scavenging for more gull suitable food. The deserted beach would have been too cold for French fries. That my entry provided the scientific name only testifies to what had become at the time, for me, a routine language. Pronunciation was another thing. Allan Phillips especially scolded me for my bad articulation of Greek and Latin. Of course, some of those names…who knows?

I will never forget Mr. Ripley, then Secretary of Smithsonian, asking me for the location of the cases containing “Pea-KNEE-colah.” With his stress on the Knee, and a sort of exhale on the cola, I was not sure what to say. Hurrying through my gray matter did not help. I hated to, but I asked him to repeat his request. That gave me more time to think.

“Pea-KNEE-colah.” This time there was a slight stress on the “Pea” but the “KNEE” was out there too, with even greater emphasis.

I had it. “Oh, they’re one aisle over and about three cases to the left.”

Mr. Ripley thanked me and we both went on our respective ways. Surely, a man of such letters knew how to pronounce Pinicola, but when I replicated Mr. Ripley’s pronunciation to Storrs Olson, the result was a hearty laugh.

Anyhow, according to my unscientific and brief note, the gull was seen both standing and flying and “all marks” was my shorthand signifying that I saw what the field guide showed, the red legs and bill and the dark spot behind the eye. Being familiar with Bonaparte’ Gull, I would have made sure about the red bill. Years later, following my retirement and beginning the process of salivating over unseen species in field guides, I often would stop at the plate and description of Black-headed Gull. The hesitation was one akin to “haven’t we met?” and “I think I know you.” It was déjà vu all over again.

My scribbled note on the gull causes two types of realizations. First, I did see a Black-headed Gull. Second, I cannot actually remember the sighting. There is only a shadow of the memory. Perhaps had I made more of the sighting at the time, I might have a clear recollection. Apparently, I did not mention the gull to anyone, not even Claudia Wilds, who was a regular visitor to the collection. Then, we often talked more about tern molt, politics and music. Black-headed Gulls are now so regular in Maryland that the rare bird committee no long reviews new sightings. The species even showed up on East Potomac Island in 1998, which is within sight of my old office at the museum. Before my museum job, before there was a was, I did a semi-required stint in the Navy and had a financially required second job as night manager of a miniature golf course on the very island. Now, that job I remember. I just can‘t call up that particular winter day at Ocean City.

The ABA rules of engagement do not exactly address the case of the Maryland Black-headed Gull. Granted, I should have ticked it off on my life list, which at the time was languishing in the back of a file drawer at my museum office. Believe it or not, my life list was unimportant; it was a forgotten memento of a past life.

Nonavian preoccupations, at least of the live variety, at the time of the Black-headed Gull sighting ruled much of my brain. My divided time in the early 90s was full of museum birds and, during the off hours, working diligently and happily composing music for piano and orchestra. By then I had had a public concert of a piece for string orchestra performed by an Alexandria orchestra. In addition, I was digging out from a too extended marriage to an alcoholic. Perhaps the casualness about my Black-headed Gull observation was the result of a greater need for inspiration or healing from the lapping water at the Maryland beach. I do not know; with two decades past, I cannot put a handle on essentially ignoring a new bird. I must have been out of my birdbrain, but something, perhaps my scientific side told me to scribble the observation.

Can or should I count a species I am sure I saw, but cannot remember seeing? There has to be a reason for that minimal note and my strong impression of once seeing the gull when I flip through my field guide. Could I remember the first time I first saw every species on my life list? Of course not. Maybe some people do and I wish I could. Is it reasonable to recall the one-time sighting of life birds of usually hard to find species? I member most of them, some better than others. Although not everyone will agree, my old notes add proof to the pudding. Rummaging through my list, remembrances of several species are vague, but I have notes of variable quality backing up most of my aging hard-drive. Possibly the most blurred recollection of a life bird is LeConte’s Thrasher. It appears on a list of birds observed during the early days while grasping for birds during a frantic trip with my parent on the way to the Midwest. The thrasher is there, dutifully noted, and albeit ever so briefly, in my “official” notes, not scrawled on a loose page lost only to be rediscovered ages later. The hardly evoked LeConte’s Thrasher, the only one I ever saw, according to my notes, probably ranks second with the Black-headed Gull. Belatedly confirming my so-called sneaking suspicions that I had had a Black-headed Gull close encounter of the first kind, the discovered note requires me, and there is no pain here, to add it to the register of found birds, thus boosting the ABA life list to 619.

It will be more satisfying to have a second chance sighting. In the meantime, there is some solace knowing that at least some fellow birders ticking new species by the minute in Panama, as I did, likely cannot dredge memories of each and every one. In spite of the focus of the birders, the new species were coming too fast and furious for all of people to be recalling the leaping lifers. Human minds, or at least mine, cannot distill all information, especially if it comes too fast, or there are other influences interrupting the retrieval of memory. In some cases, it simply is just the ravages of old fartdom.

The thought of the gull, a new bird, could be helpful to the psyche now that packing, moving and unpacking consumed every day for almost two months. Yet, my curiosity of what people were seeing locally began to be bothersome. Having disengaged from the internet, checking the local bird-sighting site was impossible. Time for some real birding would be a physical stretch since almost every one of our tote and lift muscles and joints ached 24-7. Birding without a net and more work before being settled were not great cards to win even another new county bird, let alone a life bird. Ever hopeful and knowing the strength to muster a brief outing would eventually be there, I knew that surely, if a rarity popped in the region, someone would contact me.

Anxiety began settling in as the window of time closed for a possible trip to SE Arizona that could add nine or ten summer species missed in the spring of 2005. Was I dreaming or what? A jaunt near Elko, Nevada, for the snowcock in August was out of the question. Could there be a September trip to the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. Spruce and Dusky Grouse waited there. Anything is possible, and by fall, something exotic might appear in the home county. Two years ago, my first Ruff was at a local reservoir. By late May, connected again to the internet, I salivated at reports that in Oregon, just hours away, Tufted Ducks were at multiple places and a Yellow-billed Loon was on the coast. These unseen species needed seeing, especially by me. Of course, part of the “fun” in listing is the anxiety. What if I could just somehow be at the reported site? Where’s Scotty or some enterprising person when you need to be at the right spot at the right time? What if I find the target bird? What if I was too late? There is a certain rush in trying, even failing, and knowing or at least hopeful there will be another chance that could be successful. There is a bit of solace knowing that the more birds I have not seen will increase chances to add to my life list. Unless you are rich and have unlimited time, it is necessary to prescribe heavily to optimism even if it seems ironically ridiculous.

Eventually, meandering around boxes of stuff from the bedroom to the large windows of the living room became less hazardous, and one morning I looked from the front porch 50 miles northeast and spotted a familiar landmark. Union Peak, a Matterhorn shaped volcanic plug in Crater Lake National Park, still mostly covered by snow, barely poking over the far away lower ridges. It was almost in line with the site for my next target bird, a third try at Flammulated Owls.

*****

18 June 2007

Norm Barrett phones that he, Jim Livaudias and perhaps one or two other local birders are planning to look for Flammulated Owls near Huckleberry Mountain this coming Saturday night. I tell him Linda and I will meet the owl contingency at the forest service campground. Linda and I begin making a list of things we will need. Not being campers, thus tentless or RVless, we contemplate the trials and tribulations of sleeping in the back of our small SUV and the use of a Government Issue outhouse. We weren’t looking forward to the cramped sleeping quarters, the waking bladder and the inevitable pitch-dark trip to the stinky little house in the woods. Our pioneer spirit wanes, but a Flammulated Owl is a Flammulated Owl. Although Norm will have his boom box and taped owl lure, I panic when I can’t find my own small tape player and owl tape. They are somewhere in the myriad of unpacked boxes.

23 June 2007

Linda’s lower back began shooting signals of pain three days ago. She had caught my earlier lumbar throbs. There would be no owling for Linda. The familiar drive to the high elevations, where a Flammulated Owl might give a hoot, zips by as I solo up Oregon State 62, aka, the Crater Lake Highway.

Arriving hours ahead of Norm’s owling contingency provides time to bird around the expansive campground named for nearby Huckleberry Mountain. It is what the forest service called a primitive campground; with each site was a picnic table, a fire pit of rocks stacked neatly in a circle and a worn trail to the few outhouses peppering the flat ridge top of giant hemlock and fir hovering over expanses of huckleberry bushes. The campground is quiet. Next weekend it will be humming with early Fourth of July celebrants, sans, surely, fireworks. Red Crossbills, the small-billed variety, chirp high above and three or four species of woodpeckers knock about in the trees. It is the usual suspects except for three Black Swifts flying over a meadow about a quarter of mile down the mountain. Where were they going? No waterfalls are nearby.

There are at least eight officially named Huckleberry Mountains in Oregon, but this Huckleberry Mountain region has a long and full history, so much so that the forest service designated 9500 protected acres of it as the Huckleberry Patch Special Interest Area. As Dave Berry might add, I am not making this up. Civil servant Brer Rabbit must have thrown in the ho-hum name. Surely, someone could have dredged up a reasonable moniker fitting to the beauty, history and ecology of the area. The site is even on the National Register of Historic Places and was once a favored site of the Cow Creek Umpqua Indians, whose original homeland roughly included watersheds of the Umpqua River south to the northern bank of the upper Rogue River. The Cow Creeks may have been some of the Indians who watched David Douglas in the early 1820s when he ventured far south of Ft. Vancouver that lay on the north side of the Columbia River. Douglas discovered, besides sugar pines and other plants, Mountain Quail on the journey. Naturally, most of the Indians enjoying the Huckleberry Mountain region as a place for berry picking and communal ceremonies were extirpated or removed by the mid-1800s. Today, after genocide, broken treaties, and theft of reservations, Indians are welcome to Huckleberry Mountain. Of course, it is shared with users of ATVs, SUVs, GPSers, even owlers and, of course, bears.

Norm is late. Maybe the Spotted Owl spotting was taking longer than anticipated. Ever fired up to see my first Flammulated Owl, I am tired from weeks of packing and unpacking. While resting, I sit at the heavy wooden picnic table and begin sifting through a field guide. How about pelagic birds off the East Coast? Several species might be found off North Carolina. A list began growing including a half dozen species that might steer passed a boat on a good day in May or June. Anytime later would approach hurricane season. Already thinking of barfing over the Texas Scat Cat’s gunnels, or was it rail, I was too sick to care, the mere thought of pitching and yawing in a hurricane was not a good trade for even a Fea’s/Zino’s Petrel.

About the time of the last entry to a fantasized list of pelagics off North Carolina, silence gives way to the sound of two approaching vehicles. Besides one camper and a family “just looking,” I had earlier had the mountain to myself. Norm is in the lead as passenger in a large SUV driven by Bill Varble who asks if I need any mice. Immediately in the trail of dust is familiar Jim Livaudais. His passenger, Geanine Felker, is a local birder looking to fill her North American list of owls. Norm said their Spotted Owl owling was mostly a flop. They heard only one bird, which did not respond to the white mice Bill was now jokingly offering me. Normally, as Linda and I experienced a couple of years ago with Norm and Jim, Spotted Owls loved every offered mouse morsel. We exchange best bird observations. Mine, the Black Swifts silences the group since no waterfalls are around here. Bill writes a birding column published infrequently in the local newspaper. He had interviewed me shortly after moving back from my day job at the museum. Over the years, we have wrung our hands on the newspaper’s refusal to publish English names of birds with capitals. The editors once, so against capitalizing proper names even changed Bill’s Steller’s Jay to stellars jay, thus changing the name and publishing a misspelled word. Thank goodness this small town paper has a relatively small distribution.

Norm’s plan is to drive up Huckleberry Mountain nearly 6200-foot summit, some 800 feet higher than the campground. He had seen a Flammulated Owl at dawn last year just below the round treeless summit. It was found on Norm’s second night in the region; on the first night, Norm and I had searched unsuccessfully for Flammulated Owls. My hope is this year will finally be my year to find one. Maybe it will take five people to scar up a Flammulated Owl, and we gather a few feet from the top of the mountain, huddling around Norm’s boom box booming the incessant and monotonous hootings of a performing species that seems to exist only on that tape. All is quiet. Minutes before the setting sun, Jim and I hike to the summit, find four concrete footings and one lone daffodil as the last vestiges of a fire lookout. The wooden lookout stood 50 feet in 1934. It was destroyed in 1959, along with many fire lookouts in the late 50s. Airplanes supposedly took the place of stationary lookouts, but when Linda and I lived in an immobile cabin several ridges to the southeast, we were the first to report fires in our neck of the woods.

Jim and I return to the group of waiting birders. Norm’s “official” protocol for beginning to count Flammulated Owls is not until seven stars can be found. As this is an unofficial survey, we count planets as stars. The five of us, audience to the hooting boom box, wait in silence. As the darkness index meets Norm’s protocol, the mountain air begins to chill. A summer cold front had moved in yesterday and the temperature at high elevations moved into the low 40s. Bill gets a little cranky and excuses himself from some important bush work. The tape plays on. By now, I am keeping a full bladder warm or was it the other way around. Finally, we leave, but I stay to retreat, so to speak, into the darkness before catching up with the defeated. A half-moon lit our failed and cold bodies back to the vehicles. Too bad. A Flammulated Owl would have made the cold wait a warm memory.

We try several more stops, replete with hooting tape and lowering thermometer. Only once did we hear a single hoot. Suddenly I feel warm with the prospect of that sound. More taped hooting. More waiting. Nothing. Whatever it was, and it sure sounded like a Flammulated Owl, but is not heard again. I don’t feel comfortable counting it. By 10:30, the party is over. However, I stay, prepared to spend the night, sleeping in my SUV, and determined to hear an owl, any kind of owl.

Retrying the same locations and a few others near the campground are futile. At the first stop, my nerves are overly alert. It had been many moons since being completely alone in remote mountains woods. Ready to spring into the car upon appearance of Sasquatch, I play and replay my tape of the Flammulated Owl hoots. The dark shadows of the half-moon eventually begin to feel comfortable. The only thing to worry about is possibly a cougar or worse, another human. Neither are seen or heard and any kind of big foots are somewhere over the next ridge, with the Flammulated Owls. Frustration and boredom set in. I decide to drive up to Crater Lake National Park for a try at Boreal Owls, which had been heard there last October. I could not get away last year to hunt another missing lifer. Spring and early summer is not normally the best time to get a response from a Boreal Owl, but the few miles from Huckleberry Mountain call for a try.

On the way up old Mt. Mazama, I am surprised that the snow poles along highway 62 are in place. The poles, made from slender lodgepole pines, guide snowplow drivers, who remove foot after foot of winter snow. The poles used to be removed once the snow melted. Each pole is wrapped with white reflecting tape, one a few feet above the ground and one wrap much higher. Now, in the darkness of night, appearing surrealistic and glowing white, each pole marks the sides of the curved road.

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Crater Lake when owls are asleep.

 

Once in the hemlocks, I begin playing the recording of a Boreal Owl. I stop, play the tape and wait about eight times on the way to the rim at 7,000 feet and about five times on the way down. All that is heard is silence, except for a ranger who stops to ask what on earth I am doing at this hour. He is satisfied with my reason and drives away.

Returning to the road to the campground, I again play the Flammulated Owl tape. Again, there is only silence. The moon no longer left a silvery mark in the chilling forest. It is darker than dark. Tired and cold at my last stop, I drop my search light, which did not achieve the level of smithereens, but it is broken to the level of not working. Fumbling my pockets for another light, I find a small flashlight, got back in the vehicle, turn the heat on full tilt boogie, drive to the campsite, wriggle into the back and cocoon inside two summer level sleeping bags for a few hours of sleep.

My last waking thought is Flammulated Owls have never been heard from the immediate campground. If there were any kinds of owls during the remaining darkness, I do not hear them. The morning’s sunlight is welcome warmth. After a two boiled egg breakfast, I bird around camp and begin my beaten descent to the Rogue Valley below. Maybe next year. It is good to be home.

*****

While walking down from the summit of Huckleberry Mountain with Jim, I asked about his plans to break 1,000 this year. He told me he had calculated missing the mark by 100 species, even with his trip to Mexico and later, birding in Australia. I sympathized. Jim said it was ok, since the time trying was what he enjoyed. Come to think of it, despite the cold and frustration, looking for Flammulated Owls was actually approaching delightful. During the fun filled freezing hunt, with the high price of gasoline and a few morsels from the home pantry, not finding the owl cost about $35.00. It could have been worse. Since this was my third try at the local population, the price tag is approaching $100. That’s not bad for a new bird, but, if I find one next year, the owl will cost closer to $150.

It turns out that Arch McCallum, an ABAer from Eugene who reported Boreal Owls in Crater Lake last fall, emailed: “I reviewed my tapes spectrographically, and compared the samples to the CLO 2-disc collection of owl vocs. They just looked more like nswo than boow. Too high in frequency for one thing. Everything nswo is above 1000 Hz, boow calls typically reach down to about 600 at some point.” I hate it when banders and some birders speak in a foreign tongue. For those not speaking in four-letter words other than those elicited from mishaps, Boow, usually rendered BOOW, is a Boreal Owl. Moreover, “vocs,” apparently is shorthand speak used by people who study vocal sounds. I wonder, are the vocalizations between Boreal and Saw-whet so similar that the sounds require analysis spectrographically in order to make a proper identification? Perhaps, but I thought the differences I’ve heard from recordings were greater than discerning say the differences a violin or a viola playing the same note. I thought separating Boreal and Northern Saw-whets was easier than understanding announcements in a train station. However, I admit that, concerning the full repertoire of these two species, I am owl-stupid. Norm, who has considerable experience with the two owls, and found a Boreal Owl near the park boundary last year emailed: “I have never had trouble telling Boreal Owls apart from Saw-whets, as much from the different rhythm as from the pitch or tone. I am the first to admit, however that all these birds have wider repertoires than the limited CDs I have at home so they may have calls that are similar.”

As for the Black Swifts and lack of any waterfalls, Charlie Collins replied in an email that the species might travel 10 or more miles from their breeding colony. I wrote Charlie that a suspected nesting site was about that distance from Huckleberry Mountain.

During July, Linda and I researched color and texture for a remodel of the old and abused kitchen of our new digs. By mid-August, we hired a contractor (I can barely hammer a nail straight) and chaos began. That meant being homebound until completion of the project. In late August, a probable Long-toed Stint visited the coast, and more improbable, several birders 13 miles offshore had a bird’s eye view of a Great-winged Petrel. The kitchen was not even at the halfway mark and the first week of September was nearing the finish line. Somehow, and soon, I had to get to the coast. Finding a stint or a new petrel would be unlikely, but this season’s window was not closed for a possible Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpiper. Too much time had been spent watching sawdust fly and paint dry. It was time for birding.

*****

25 September 2007

Shortly after the last paint stroke, thus signaling the completion of the new and improved kitchen, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was found at a reservoir west of Eugene on 21 September. Linda and I had already decided to get out of dodge for respite and some belated shorebirding. The Sharp-tail would require a worthwhile detour from our route to Bandon, our common coastal haunt of the Oregon coast. As we drive from Eugene to Fern Ridge Reservoir, anxiety set in. What if we cannot find the sandpiper?

The initial sighting of the bird was posted on the web at a site called OBOL, a listing of recent sightings from Oregon. In this instance, OBOL is not an older than dirt Greek coin, but Oregon birders On Line. The posting, said park at the end of Royal Road and walk west to the end of the grassy area, then head north. It’s amazing that people, especially locals, fail to provide enough geographic information that might help an out of towner. After asking, Randy Sinnott and others thankfully provided greater detail that I print and add to tide tables and other information for the whole trip. We park according to instructions and in about 45 minutes, we locate a plover, reported as an American Golden-Plover. We, and a lone birder we meet on the dry mudflat, conclude the bill looked large and that the bird is more likely a Pacific Golden-Plover. Perhaps, but my focus is on finding the sandpiper. The lone birder is leaving, and did not find the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, which is discouraging. Slightly an hour later, Linda and I focus on a flock of Least Sandpipers poking the mud at the edge of the reservoir. Part of the flock is out of sight, having walked around a tall stand of emergent vegetation, a kind of monocot left high and mostly dry by the low water level. We are steps away from muddy boots. Linda and I split up, each flanking the stand of obscuring marsh grass. In a few minutes, she whistles three times. She either had the sandpiper or was stuck and sinking in the mud. There is no verbal call for help. It must be ok. As usual, Linda finds the target bird. It is uncanny how she detects target species. Feeling confident, I continue around the opposite side of the grass, and there it stands. Compared to the Least Sandpipers, the Sharp-tailed is a giant among the munchkin peeps. The grayish Least Sandpipers pale in contrast to the buffy juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. We watched a few minutes, congratulate ourselves and hoof it back to the car for the three-hour trip to Bandon.

26 September 2007

Ever since the mid-60s, I have had a weird fondness and dread of Bandon. Not so much the town, but specifically the islands adjacent to Coquille Point provided mixed memories. The point is more remote then. Now houses perch on the mainland cliffs among high-priced motels, people and too many unleashed dogs. Bill English and I, then students of Southern Oregon University (it was a little college during our time), were censusing birds that might nest on Oregon’s many offshore islands. We were trying to count the burrowing species, the petrels and alcids, not the already aerial surveyed surface nesters such as gulls and cormorants. Anyway, one spring day during a low tide, I hopped on to one of the large rocks to have a look. The 20-foot climb up the rocky side to the top was rewarding. There were petrel burrows. By the time I had checked the rectangular island, it was too late to walk to a dry sand beach. The choice was to wait several hours or find a place shallow enough for an escape. Bill waited across a narrow area between the island and a few protruding beach rocks. The rising tide had created a wet channel that appeared to be the easiest crossing. Bill stood ready to throw me a rope. I waited for most the water to empty from the channel. Once the channel was at wading level, I stepped in, but an incoming sneaker wave put me under for what seemed forever. As the water receded, I was able to grab the rocky face of the channel just in time before another wave submerged me. Exhaustion, hypothermia and the wet weight of my clothes, including a light jacket hinted doom. My lungs screamed. I recall thinking this could be it. However, I did not want that and my briny brain had a plan. This time I’ll let the water push me the few feet to the other side where I could grab the opposite rocky face while still under water. The channel emptied again. I found myself hanging about 45 degrees on the landward rocks. The wet clothes pulled as I scrambled up, and I hoped this time above sea level. Bill grabbed me, and laughed nervously. I just wanted to get warm and the sand out of my shorts when a tourist approached. As if amazed, he asked, “How often does that happen?” What, how often does someone nearly drown? Turns out, he didn’t see the mishap, just the sneaker wave crashing over the rocks. We were polite and excused ourselves. The Pacific was dripping out of me and that sand between my buttocks was about to produce an oyster.

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Coquille Point, Bandon, Oregon

 

Bill and I coauthored three papers on our work. A large portion of our research was self-financed and helped from a small grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service. During a meeting with two FWS official in Portland, we had earlier broached financial assistance. As wet-behind-the-ears undergrads, we thought we were being bold by asking $500. The grant was quickly ours. Years after the research, I heard Bill moved to Hawaii where he was a commercial angler. As I stared at Coquille Point today, I hoped he was likewise happy and dry. The FWS officials we met too long ago were the late pilot/biologist Ray Gahn and David Marshall. When at Smithsonian, Dick Banks and I confirmed identifications of birds Dave collected at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. After my retirement, I joined Dave’s editorial staff to help produce Birds of Oregon. Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is 575 acres of give or take 1,853 rocky islands, a few with burrowing seabirds, reefs and a couple of headlands along the 320 miles Oregon coast. The refuge was created in 1934 but consisted only of a large island off the southern Oregon coast. Many other islands were added to the refuge in 1968 based on research by aerial surveys by Gahn and Marshall and surveys by Bill and me. It was a cause worth almost drowning. The islands were designated a National Wilderness in 1978. Eerily, at least to me, Coquille Point is the only part open to the public.

Those were morning thoughts as I gazed out to sea from the cliff near the motel. Linda is still sleeping. Hearing the story when I almost became fish food makes her cringe. In a few hours, the moon will be full. As a landlubber, I had not taken into account that high tide would be very high and arrival at our first stop was too late. The higher than normal tide already covers the vast mudflats at Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, a 700-acre wetland along the lower Coquille River. It is water, water, everywhere and not a shorebird to see. Where are they? Of course, most had migrated in late August, but the remainder are somewhere above the water line. During the many visits to the Bandon region, I have yet to discover where the shorebirds wait out the high tides. Perhaps it is somewhere in the low fore dunes of Bullard Beach State Park. On other years, we have discovered Whimbrels setting out high tide in the grasses of the soft pale sand.

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Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

 

The shorebird’s invertebrate filled dining table would return with lowering tide. While waiting, we drive along the Coquille River that snakes south for nearly two miles, then west past the stubby 1896 lighthouse at the foot of the north jetty. Bandon sits across the narrows of the river. Almost all Northwest rivers flowing west from the Coast Range, but near sea level, are forced south by tons of sand piled deep from powerful south flowing ocean currents. Such geology gives rise to the Coquille Estuary and, on the agenda tomorrow, Coos Bay. Waves break over the jetties. A northwest wind penetrates our alleged windbreakers and prevents holding our binoculars steady. It is invigoratingly chilling. We meander back up the river as the tide continues to lower and stop at a small beach. Although sometimes a productive spot during the height of migration, it is nearly birdless today. The wide estuary is full of fishing folks, human, seals and a few grebes and cormorants.

Back at Bandon Marsh, the mud flat is at last exposed. A flock of about 40 plovers is just yards away. I rush back to get my scope, but the flock suddenly bolts into the air and lands at the far end of the flat. Just as abruptly, the birds begin running full speed back to the stop where I first saw them. The scope is almost useless since the birds keep on the run. Finally, most of them arrive in front, close to 50 yards away. The sun is shining—it is perfect. In the middle of the group, scurrying along the flat is a taller and buffy bird. It is not a plover. It is a godwit, and it seems to be trying to blend in with the crowed, to be one of the plovers. The plovers run, suddenly stop, probe, run, stop, look around, probe, run and stop. The godwit mirrors the maneuvers. It lacks the cinnamon color of breeding or buffy winter plumaged Marbled Godwit. Unfortunately, no Marbled Godwits are around for comparison for plumage or size. My skin flushes. The bird has a pale buffy wash, faint dark barring on the upper breast and a distinct whitish supercilium. The pinkish orange of the bill appeared to extend less than half its length. This is a juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit!

In a blink of an eye, the flock and the Bar-tailed Godwit Black-bellied Plover wannabe disappear, perhaps to some other mudflat. Searching the remainder of the day is fruitless. Where did it go? Maybe south. Two Bar-tailed Godwits had showed up at the extreme ends of California. Bar-tailed Godwits are long distance migrants, the champion among the top ten frequently long fliers. An individual carrying a satellite transmitter flew 7,200 miles in the fall from its breeding territory in Alaska to New Zealand. We are talking nonstop, without peanuts or complimentary beverages. In March, the same individual flew 6300 miles to the Yellow Sea west of Japan and from 1-6 May migrated 4500 miles to Alaska. That is 18,000 miles of wing flapping in one year.

27 September 2007

No godwit today, so while the tides are in at Bandon, we drive north to Coos Bay, stopping at Bastendorff Beach, famous for a Curlew Sandpiper once probing the sand there for weeks on end, but not this year. Linda and I watch four Heerman’s Gulls huddle out of the wind and Sanderlings sidestepping ocean foam. It is mostly the usual suspects, but how can we complain.

*****

Back home, it was cold and raining. I emailed Alan Contreras about finding the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, number 620 on the ABA parade of birds. Because of finding such great birds in northern coastal California last February, I hesitate telling Alan I had once again seen, without proof or witnesses, a pretty good bird. With some reluctance, I detailed the godwit observation, and asked about wing linings of juvenile Bar-tailed and Marbled Godwits. I needed that little detail just to be 100% sure of what I had seen. Our field guides didn’t adequately cover that character. I wrote Alan that I didn’t own a good shorebird guide and likewise had the smallest TV screen in my neighborhood. Keeping up with the Joneses and other birders is not always a priority, but I was happy when Alan wrote back that my description was perfect for a Bar-tailed Godwit. Feeling that 100% sure about an identification is good. Hitting the 621 species mark is great. It was also luck.

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