Dollars and Loons
Pathetically wishing for a lost Xantus’s Hummingbird this winter is not such an inane yearning after checking the website “Birds Mentioned in Recent RBA’s, ABA Difficulty 2 or more.” Georgia was hosting a rare southern hummingbird in late November through December 2007. Almost as incongruous as the Xantus are other southern birds visiting the crispy U. S. At birdingonthe.net/hotmail/tuffbirds.html are listed several difficult to find category 4 species looking for less ice while visiting post-Thanksgiving day localities south of the border. The site, summarizing mention of species from RBAs, posted three such species seen repeatedly during several days. Those are the species worth chasing since a bird staying put one day only is not offering a guarantee of being available for a birder interview the following day. It is hard to call. Some waifs may stay weeks, months or they may be one-day stands, or in the case of most owls, one night stands. Chasers take their chances and hope for the best. The summarized list in late November is satisfying, offering promise and is concurrently frustrating, warning that there are too many impediments to go see it or that the bird may simply leave, never to be found again. There is a certain gratification knowing that someone is seeing species I would like, no, need, to see. The exasperating part, the main element that gives hunger pangs to my list is that I am not the one seeing those birds.
Retirement suggests one will have time on their hands to do something beyond the norm but it is not true. Even when the clock ticks extra time, money may be a factor. May, hell, it is most definitely an important dynamic in whether some rare waif gets into the round view of my binocs. For example, speaking of hummingbirds, the Green-breasted Mango is hovering in a place dubbed Dublin, Georgia. One was in Texas, not far from down by the river, in the spring of 2007. Of course, it was gone when I was there later in March. But, Georgia? Many people have seen it. Could I see it? Assuming there was time; I could catch a flight from my little home airport, fly south to San Francisco, change planes to Las Vegas then, finally arrive almost 12 hours later in Atlanta. A round-trip fare would be around $1080. I would schedule the trip from Friday to Monday to allow two days looking for the mango. Getting to Dublin would require a car rental of about $110, plus probable sticker shocking hidden fees revealed upon returning the smallest car available. Three nights lodging in Dublin could be inexpensive compared to most places. Allowing 65 bucks per night, sleeping under a roof might cost around $200. Not eating is not an option, and the little SUV chocked full of birder snacks would be thousands of miles back in Oregon. Lacking the luxury of a jar of peanut butter and other food tucked in the corner of my own vehicle meant grazing restaurants. Being generous, for my budgeted diet, the two days driving around Dublin and back to the airport in Atlanta might ring up to $40. Of course, I might live on dollar meals at a fast food joint, but that isn’t fair to my waistline or cholesterol count. I will need some food on flight days. Man does not live on a tiny bag of peanuts alone. Because of airport security, it will be mandatory to purchase any food, including water, in the airport. Inexpensive or even normally priced airport food is an oxymoron since the price of a hamburger, for example, outside the airport would have a contradicted pricing inside the airport. Of course, one has to eat at home, but a small runway sandwich or a bottle of water to avoid passing out from low blood sugar or dehydration is going to cost plenty. No dollar meals here. Planning on a terminal ten-dollar meal going for the mango and returning home, the cost of fueling up might be around $20. Gasoline requires factoring into the scheme of things. Nonetheless, the grand total for laying eyes on a Green-breasted Mango hosted in Georgia is at least 1450 green backs.
The site to salivate for also lists a Black-tailed Gull in Saylorville, Iowa, north of Des Moines. This north Asian has wandered to ABA land more than once on Atlantic and Pacific coasts. An inland occurrence of a Black-tailed Gull is something to write home about, so what would this bird cost? First, the airline flight. That would require me to fly north this time, then east to Chicago for yet another plane change before heading southward to Des Moines. A good price on the net for a cheap ticket is $781 round trip. Again, a rental car would be needed, and allowing for two days to look for the target bird, the price tag might be somewhere around $100 to drive to Saylorville. Motels are slightly more expensive in Des Moines than in Georgia. It would be prudent to budget maybe $250 for three motel nights. Staying with the dollar meal idea, food would probably cost close to the same as in Georgia, or around $40. The total trip could cost around $1070. Maybe I could divide my total cost for this one gull by another rare bird in Iowa, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher reported to be 94 miles east of Saylorville. The flycatcher would not be a lifer, but certainly new for the ABA list. The gull and flycatcher would reduce the cost to $435 per species. Either way, that is a lot of corn.
Closer to home, sort of, is a Northern Jacana padding about a golf course near Phoenix, Arizona. The total cost to fly in, get a birdy, and fly home would take $485. While in the region, it would be difficult to resist trying for another category four species, a Streak-back Oriole that winters in Gilbert, east of Phoenix. Seeing both the Jacana and the oriole would put the per species cost down to $121.25, give or take a quarter or more. How could a birder stop there? Not all that far south things were hopping in Madera Canyon, including Rufous-backed Robin and Aztec Thrush, and the Eared Quetzal and Crescent-chested Warbler might still be lurking off one of the mountain trails. Looking for those four species would require at least an extra day and motel night. Still, a detour to Madera Canyon would be good birding business, producing a reasonably excellent dollar per bird index. Looking at the list of “Birds Mentioned in Recent RBA’s” is akin to perusing a catalogue. It is a kind of window-shopping. You scrutinize the possibilities but that window glass will not let you touch the display. Perhaps a penny foolish, and not a pound wise, the trip to Arizona would make since, but sometimes money is not the only reason to let a big one or two get away. Obligations to guard the home front out of necessity and love sometimes schedule life more than the price of a cheap airline ticket and the promise of new birds. Could next year be the time, when life birds are begging for eyes and money and time are ripe for the venture? Maybe. In the meantime, perhaps an ABA gull missing from my list will show up at the local reservoir as November chills to December.
Consolation for missing the hummingbird, the gull, and the jacana, and possibly other nearby species, is that at least $2300 remains in the coffers. It also means a feasible trip to Victoria, British Columbia, this coming late February for at least Sky Lark and, we will see. Also on the itinerary in late June is road trip to SE Arizona to hunt for a few species missed there a couple of years ago in early May. Those two trips, optimistically might net about 15 species. The cost per bird would be greater than the November flight to Phoenix, even more so if the extra time was budgeted to try the four Madera Canyon rarities. That realization sends a twinge up my spin, not unlike the one felt after passing on the Temmink’s Stint a couple years back. Oh well, there is next year, but approaching 64, how many more will there be? I should stop whining.
The year’s end and the beginning of another are good times to take stock of progress and ponder what might be ahead. As for 2007, 14 new birds were added to my ABA list. That is not bad, especially considering a short trip to Texas and some rarities chased not far from home. Fourteen species mixed in with moving, remodeling and other obligations was five more than the previous summer when record high temperatures were baking down on what was to be an attempt to pick up some southern boreal birds. Nonetheless, the pace for seeing new birds seemed agonizingly sluggish. Now, at a measly 622, the 78 needed to reach 700 is well beyond the horizon. It will take 5.5 years at 14 species per year to achieve 700. Can I reach 700 before 70?
Homeland winter is bleak, with freezing fog or drizzling Northwestern rain, and dreams of a bird expedition or two next summer. In the meantime, if a Xantus’s Hummingbird did show up, I contemplated a potential nightmare of visiting birders, grid locked around a feeder. What would the neighbors say? Some would be unhappy with the invasion to their little 55+ community.
About two dozen northern species get pushed from the Arctic weather to the south during the colder months beginning in late 2007. Many have been reported in my home state, some even further south. A Ross’s Gull made it to the Salton Sea. What was it thinking? What I was thinking was there was a chance to see a few of the two dozen northern waifs. A couple of years ago a Northern Hawk Owl camped out near Bend, Oregon, for days and days. Where was I then? Not there. This year, surely, I would pick up Tufted Duck, a species routinely visiting the state. A Yellow-billed Loon, maybe one of five northern gulls yet to check, who knows what might loom. Winter Whooper Swans and a couple of Tundra Bean-Geese were reported in the Klamath Basin, not many miles away on the other side of what in winter becomes the icy Cascade summit. Upping the ABA total has potential, short of closed or difficult to negotiate snowy passes.
An Arctic Loon had been seen near Astoria, Oregon, for weeks. Linda told me I should go and take a few days birding the northern coast. Unfortunately, she had business on the other end of the Oregon coast and could not join me. Reluctantly, we agreed to take separate journeys.
11 January 2008
Would about six hours and a few hundred miles of driving produce another notch on the ABA?. Astoria, Oregon, birder Mike Patterson discovered an Arctic Loon a few miles east of Astoria in early December. The bird was fishing a narrow waterway called Blind Slough north of Brownsmead. Brownsmead? It is not on my road map. According to Wikipedia, Brownsmead is an unincorporated community, on a distributary of the Columbia River called Saspal Slough. Distributary? Aha. Wikipedia made a mistake, but no since what I assume to mean tributary is and should be distributary, the opposite of tributary, that is, a water body that branches and flows from a mainstream channel. Perhaps Blind Slough, where the Arctic Loon ate fish, is a distributary. From a Google Earth point of view, Blind Slough is a meandering sea-level channel that eventually connects to the Columbia River. Blind Slough, the settlement, was once a logging camp established in 1883, with a post office from 1910 to only fourteen years later. Logging stopped. What’s left of the settlement remains as a few scattered homes, some built on stilts over the narrow channel and a few scattered small farms. Southwest of the former settlement is a token preserve, Nature Conservancy’s 897 acre Blind Slough Swamp, Oregon’s best example of a surviving Sitka spruce swamp. It’s surrounded mostly by pastureland and flattened forests.
Punctuating the long drive to Blind Slough is rain and more rain. Not having Linda to talk to and NPR stations disappearing between mountains, I listen to a couple of CDs, including one my own, with my first piano concerto, and others that my main fan, Linda, might enjoy. After traveling all but about 30 miles of the length of Oregon, Portland is navigated to U.S. 30, the main drag that will get me to Gnat Creek Road, Brownsmead and to my first Arctic Loon. By now, many Oregon birders, some from adjacent states and even further, had captured the Arctic Loon at Blind Slough. It was reported on the web yesterday. Would the Arctic Loon be there today? The usual pangs of nervous anticipation gnaw through the cold rain as I drive north on the narrow paved country road. It is nearly 4:30 p.m. and the sunlight is far away on the other side of thick gray clouds.
The loon reportedly patrols the narrow Blind Slough at the Barendse Road Bridge. No cars are insight as I park on the top of the concrete bridge arching maybe 50 feet above the dark water. Just minutes earlier, a small boat roared under the bridge. The small craft was ferrying two shotgun totting men dressed in camouflage. The wake from the speeding boat laps at both shores of the narrow slough. My heart sinks. What right-minded loon would hang around for such a disturbance? I am wrong. As the water flattens, Western Grebes and a few Bufflehead catch my eye just as a Red-throated Loon pops to the surface. Forgetting the cold drizzle, I get out of the birdmobile, with scope at the ready although unneeded. A larger loon bobs to the surface, seems to glance toward the bridge, swims a few yards, and then disappears below the slough’s surface. It had to be it, the Arctic, but a better look might be the clincher. Minutes stretch by as the light wanes in the thickening cold rain. Finally, the bird pops to the surface and shows its extensive white patch at its Arctic Loon flanks. It looks exactly like Mike Patterson’s photograph. It resembles Sibley and Geographic’s illustrations that I had drooled over before knowing I would be standing on the Barendse Bridge.
Back in the 80’s and earlier, Arctic Loons did not exist the same way they do today. In the old days, before some of us became loons, the Arctic Loon included three subspecies, pacifica that breeds in Alaska and northern Canada and two Asian subspecies, arctica and viridigularis. Blushing inside, I wonder why, as taxonomic editor to Birds of Oregon, I mistakenly had pronounced in print that the Arctic Loon is monotypic. How embarrassing. What was I thinking? The nominate subspecies, arctica breeds from the British Isles to about Lake Baikel and viridigularis breeds eastward to far western Alaska. Believe it or not, those facts, working in my museum mode, were ricocheting in my skull all the while marveling at the sight of my first Arctic Loon. Anyway, some researchers once thought pacifica and viridigularis interbred, which is permissible among consenting adults. Limited breeding or none at all is what is expected from two good species, and it turned out that pacifica and viridigularis were not up for frequent trysts. A few papers and new field guides briefed birders on how to identify Pacific and Arctic Loons.
Retracing the route back to U.S. 30, I find an inviting motel in Astoria. Traffic is heavy, drenching rain glistens off a narrow black highway, its white and yellow center and sidelines mostly worn away, and oncoming headlights are blinding to eyes used up from miles of driving and staring at the loon, my number 622.
12 January 2008
A 7:30 wake-up call at the motel allows time for the sun to be up and improve lighting for another look at the Arctic Loon. Unfortunately, thick clouds saturate the sky but do allow a smidgen more light than yesterday. A man stands outside a car parked on the Barendse bridge. We introduce ourselves. Danny Bell and his wife are from Portland to see the Arctic Loon, aka ARLO, with homage to Arlo Guthrie. Within minutes, the clouds thin and the unconcerned Arctic Loon raises to the surface about 30 feet or more from the bridge. Great, closer and in relatively descent light, what more could a southern boy want from a boreal bird?
Danny and I talk a few minutes. Meanwhile, ARLO disappears. Leaving the bridge, I bird westward down the slough, driving slowly and stop and start along the one lane of pavement called Pentilla Road that follows the north edge of the water. I am only a few hundred yards from the bridge. Maybe ten minutes has passed when I see the Arctic Loon bobbing the flat surface of the glassy slough. Was it following me? Apparently not, as it was earlier reported to fish up and down Blind Slough. Between a section of Pentilla Road and Blind Slough are a half-dozen connected houses sitting on silts above the water. Lights were on in two of them last evening. The aging structures may have been remnants of bygone years when Blind Slough was a logging community. Now, it looks to be a good place to get away from the crowds. That may have been the thought of one woman crossing the bridge. She drives a gray car, had gray hair and lacked a bright smile as did other apparent residents I saw driving Gnat Creek and Barendse Roads. She seems to speed up and veer to splash through a rain puddle on one end of the short bridge. It was as if she is thinking, “take that you meddlesome birders.” It is true that peaceful Blind Slough and surrounds had become busy from interloping loon lookers. However, the traffic is not just birders. Today, Saturday, is crawling with duck hunters. Because most were camouflaged, I may have missed some. Earlier, at the motel lobby, I run straight into one well-dressed hunter.
On the way back to Astoria, I stop at Ziak Wildlife Refuge, apparently a privately owned marsh near the small town of Knappa east of Astoria. The rain stops as I get out of the car and put one foot on the wooden steps of a viewing platform at the edge of the deserted road. As I make it up to the second step, an angry voice booms suddenly “You are on private property and must leave now!” Jumping back and nearly slipping on the rain sodden wood steps, I regain footing to look for the source of the assertive voice booming somewhere above. Had I had the big one? No warning chest pain. Did I unwittingly pass through the light to be told that I was an intruder? Luckily, the assertive voice is human, coming from a man standing on a hill above the road. He is in front of a house holding an amplified megaphone. The man repeats the message, sternly reminding of the seriousness of trespassing. Why? What? The refuge and its viewing platform were mentioned on a website on Oregon coastal birding locations. I can see interpretative signs on the railing at the top of the platform. How could I be violating someone’s space? Looking up on the hill again, I realize that the man is staring directly out and across the marsh to a slough, and seems unaware of my presence. I look in the same direction and there are the targeted transgressors, a couple of trespassing duck hunters scurrying back into their boat. Stepping to the top of the platform, I am now confident of not being arrested and enjoy a view of a marsh devoid of hunters, but except for a few mallards and coots, no birds.
By afternoon, I am at the south jetty of the Columbia River in Fort Stevens State Park. The last time I was here was during celebrations of Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Throngs crowded the parking lot at the south jetty. Today, only a few people are here. While scoping the ocean I tick off a few wind-blown gulls before a young collegiate, after watching me, announces to his follow traveling ivy leaguers that I must have an eidetic memory of birds. His voice underscores the word eidetic, and that he certainly knew more than his fellow students do. Am I being insulted? Am I the butt of a joke? Eidetic? Where is Webster when you need him? I reply, “What kind of memory? I don’t recall the word.”
“Exactly,” he chortles. He apparently did not count on my verbal reaction and states back with surprise. His body language translates as me being a little stupid, but as I sometimes tell people, I am not as stupid as I look, although today, I‘m not sure I will get an A or a F. I glance back with a mixture of sternness and amusement.
The student prince elucidates. “You have an accurate and vivid recall about birds.”
“Oh,” I reply with a graciously over civilized “Thank you.” I am following my philosophy that by the time you make it to 60 judgments by any ilk, especially a young collegiate should be evaluated but never allowed to ruin a day. Staring at gulls, the binocs dangling from my neck and the telescope, in his eyes, gives me a certain status. The kind of status, according to Joe College, ranging from admirable, disreputable or downright comical, is subject to considerable interpretation. Is he being sarcastic, just showing off or what? Not be outdone, even though I am unaware of any contest, it seems apparent that he wants especially his friends and me to know he is good at crossword puzzles. Perhaps, I should have responded to what I perceived as borderline pompous moralizing by replying, “Why be so sententious?” Of course, maybe my two-dollar word was on the tip of his lexiconic memory. I did not speak. I want to get on with the day’s birding. Anyway, I really do not possess an eidetic memory. I am not a brainiac of birds, but perhaps there are a few eidetic brain cells bouncing around somewhere under my knit cap warding off the cold sea spray. Maybe my memory is somewhere between the good and bad. I keep trying to be on the plus side, but out-of-body perceptions do not matter that much. What I think about myself, the over 60 rule again, and what Linda thinks, is the bottom line. What does matter to one’s gray matter is to always listen and learn from everyone that has something of substance to say, whether they are young or old. The beach boy collegiate did not teach anything about birds or much about life in general, but he did increase my vocabulary. Eidetic is a good word, I just hope I can remember its definition.
Now had it been said that I am a bird maven, I would agree fully or at least in part. By some measure, and about some species, I might be considered an expert. It is an elusive salutation that I do not think is particularly deserved. Certainly, the label has been inadvertently worn sometimes following publication of a paper. I once wrote about the geographic variation of Willow Flycatchers and later found my paper referenced in the Congressional Record. Two papers on North American populations of dunlins reported my limited knowledge. Those and other papers sometimes elicited unsolicited correspondence, in the form of a letter since emailing was then not readily available or yet to be invented. The inquiries wanted answers about the species I wrote about, but their questions were about aspects of the birds that were often well beyond my expertise.
Some dictionaries also include a maven’s dominion as being a connoisseur. Like all birders, I fit as a master of fine birds. Of course, all birds are fine, and I am working on acquiring an even finer taste for identifying new life birds. Insofar as being enthusiastic, I know I’ve gone overboard. During Ralph, the early years, I drove my parents crazy with my early teen bird stories, dissections of the fried chicken dinners and disappearing up a trail chasing a bird on a stop during our traditional Sunday drive. Today, I miss, but only a slice of that life, my teen years when so much was new, I miss my parents, their patience, support and my mom’s naïve platefuls containing disheartening amounts of fat and cholesterol, the delicious fried chicken.
Even my lovely wife, the birder, grows a bit perturbed, albeit rarely, at my bird-brainitis. Bird-brainitis? The spell-checker did not hesitate to accept the inflammation. How could it be; I must have added it to the computer’s dictionary in a fit of being an ardent, huh, birdbrain.
Rain, sometimes falling almost sideways, continues hinting that the packed rain suit is the uniform of the day, but I ignore common sense. A Thayer’s Gull careens by but not much else except more rain that begins collecting inside layers of my winter coat. Soon, the wet weight pulls downward, adding pounds to shoulders carrying a bottle of water, a scope and binocs not to mention my be-prepared for almost anything vest. Realizing I am stooping over, I force myself in an upright pose. That’s when my back begins protesting and moisture starts percolating noticeably and uncomfortably close to the next layer of clothing. I am beginning to live Johnny Carson’s “Edge of Wetness.” The cold sky’s gray turns to darker bleakness. Meteorological events, surpassing ornithological ones, overtake time and sodden clouds too thick to allow a sunset. Perhaps I should have said to that college word dazzler that my gaining rectitude was built on experience and parts wearing out. It is time to get out of the rain and rest. It is time to call it a day.
13 January 2008
Sun! At least that is the promise, but it is dark when the wake-up call rings. Down at the motel desk, a half cup of coffee waits to wash down an English muffin with cream cheese and a poppy seed pastry. Then I check the office computer for any RBAs. There is one, and it is along the route home. Hoping it will wait, the first stop of the day is Astoria’s Sewage ponds. There are three ponds and one of them just might have a Tufted Duck among the denizen. One was there a couple of years ago. The ponds are surrounded by a cyclone fence with signs warning of “domestic” sewage. Wispy fog plies upriver, meandering first in sunlight, then seeming to join a few morning clouds hanging barely above the ponds. Not much is going on at the first two ponds, just a few scaup. At the third pond, water roiling to the surface is thick with ducks, scaup, Ring-necks, Ruddies, shovelers, a couple of Mallards and Green-winged Teal, including a male Eurasian crecca. I wonder if and when the teal will be split? Only a few gulls join what appears to be a feeding frenzy as birds tip and dive for something. If only the duck hunters could see what they might be having for dinner.
A quick stop at the East Basin Breakwater to look for gulls is as useless today as it was yesterday. Driving out on the public area, a pier of sorts seems like a good idea and maybe there is something other than the usual larid suspects. If there were, I miss them. Not far from the breakwater is the Astoria-Megler Bridge. It’s 196 feet above high tide, a height I don’t like to entertain. My relatively new malady of acrophobia would have made a bridge crossing a little unpleasant, but today, there is no need. No known RBA’s in southern Washington. Highway 30 took me under the bridge and westward. Yesterday, perhaps the largest ship I had seen on the Columbia River, the Georgia Highway steamed or rather dieseled up stream just yards from Astoria’s shores. Barely over two football fields long, it stood so tall it surely caste a forbidding shadow as it cruised under the bridge at Astoria. Seeing the colossal ship and many that it dwarfed reminded me of a 1959 crossing of the Columbia River at Astoria. I was with my parents, heading for southern British Columbia where I saw my first breeding Common Loons. Crossing the river required a 30-minute ferry ride. Several years later, the Astoria-Megler Bridge opened. The ferry crossing was fun; the bridge crossing is definitely not.
In a little over a dozen miles west, I am again standing at the foot of the south jetty of the Columbia River. Construction of the jetty began in 1885 with huge boulders that eventually stretched seaward for 4.5 miles. In 1903, the jetty’s length was increased to a total of 7 miles. The south jetty, and north jetty in Washington, has had a profound influence on the region. The mouth of the Columbia River is safer from what was once the “Grave Yard of the Pacific,” sinking 2,000 ships and killing 700 seafarers. The young wordy collegiate would have been a mile from the shoreline when Lewis and Clark set foot at the mouth of the Columbia. That much sand extends the shoreline. In contrast, sand at different areas of the jetties has drifted away, which potentially could cause a breach and eventual silting in valuable shipping lanes. Sand diverted north and south of the jetties has sometimes added 10 to 20 yards of new land per year. Scientists at Oregon State University believe the process is reversing. Changes in sand deposits occur from dams up the Columbia River and 4.5 million cubic yards of sand dredged from shipping lanes. The study strongly recommends constructive use of the dredging vs. dumping it in the offshore ocean.
The Army Engineer Corp had been working on the jetty last year and had placed small angular rocks that formed a roadbed for machinery placing 145,000 tons of boulders to the decrepit jetty structure. Most of the small roadbed rocks had been tossed by waves and dotted the tidal sand and grasses on the inland side of the jetty. A remaining section of small rocks provides a flat platform for a couple of anglers casting into the boiling waves. Because it is low tide, I trudge past the area on the riverside of the jetty to the fore dunes where some winter years were home to Snowy Owls and Lapland Longspurs. The sun and Sunday brought out a couple dozen tourist and locals cooped up from days of rain. No birds, just people and an unleashed dog. It only takes one to scare away wildlife. I hightail it back across a narrow stream that flows under the jetty before high tide washes away the angler rocks and blocks my passage back to the car.
In an hour and thirty minutes down the Oregon coast, I pull into the parking lot of Pacific Oyster, a seafood processing plant, in Bay City, a tiny coastal town north of Tillamook. What might have been interesting gull watching is not. It is the usual suspects. Unlike most of the Oregon coast, which is mountianous and rocky, US 101, the highway to Tillamook Bay, passes the flatlands hosting dairy cows and some other agriculture. Sitting on the lowlands is an expanse of buildings of Tillamook Cheese and the town of, what else, Tillamook. Taking the road west to Bayocean Spit, might bag a Tufted Duck. One was reported there last year. Certain individuals seem to get off course and repeat their errors year after year. Today all of the scaup and Ring-necked Ducks turn out to be scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Maybe a Tufted Duck will return, but not on my watch, at least not today. The Falcated Duck, my number 607 last winter, came to the same little pond near Eugene for years. The Northern Jacana now in Arizona is apparently a repeat winter visitor. Al, the Laysan Albatross Linda and I saw last winter at Point Arena, California, is back for its, I think, 14th year. The Baikel Teal, seen last winter near Eugene, Oregon, may be the same one killed by a hunter this winter.
Back in town, I pass the Tillamook Pioneer Museum and recall meeting the late Alex Walker decades ago. He was the regional naturalist, and kindly showed me around one afternoon. That was my first real exposure to a natural history collection. In1930, Alex Walker collected some of the first specimens of subspecies described by Harry Church Oberholser, a taxonomist who named hundreds of new subspecies while curator at my old alma mater. Most of Walkers’ holotypes, the specimens Oberholser selected that formally represent the new names he proposed, are in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1979, I wrote a paper “Type specimens of birds collected in Oregon” published in Northwest Science. As part of the research, I examined Walker’s Cleveland specimens. About twenty years later, following retirement, I planned to revisit the Oregon type localities, the site where the holotypes were collected. I want to know if those locations continue to support the species Alex Walker found, or are the places barren parking lots. Sites revisited in eastern Oregon and near Tillamook so far provide suitable habitat for the same species he found.
14 January 2008
The wake-up call at the Tillamook motel did not come, but the room’s microwave is humming as I nuke caffeinated tea poured from yesterday’s cold thermos. A hard-boiled egg brought from home provides a good breakfast. Checking out, I drive north to Pacific Oyster for another try at gulls while killing time before the library opens in Tillamook. No unusual gulls. Back in town, the library computer brings good news. The RBA, the one on the way home, is present and waiting for my scope, but first, I head back along the southern shore of Tillamook Bay toward Bayocean Spit for another try at a Tufted Duck. A flock of 70 Ring-necked Ducks raft in Cape Meares Lake. Most are males, and the few females are surely also Ring-necks. I check for any ducktails on the backs of their little brownish heads. Nothing.
Rain and torrents of more rain spilling over the road and windshield make driving down U.S. 101 unpleasant. Not far from Newport, I stop at Boiler Bay where I had once seen Short-tailed Shearwaters and Black-legged Kittiwakes. Today, the wind driven rain does not invite scoping the frothy seas. A flock of 70 or more gulls sitting in the grassy slopes surrounded by the park road do offer entertainment while I down a peanut butter and cracker sandwiches and more tea. The usual suspects. Unexpectedly, a gull flies up from the rock barely above the crashing waves. It is dark backed and has a wing pattern that fits a Slaty-backed Gull, but it disappears. Maybe the bird will come back into view. I choke down another cracker sandwich, stalling, anticipating another chance at the mystery gull. Minutes tick by as my bladder begins sending signals that high tide is on its way. Donning a heavy coat, I trudge into the weather, circle around the flock of loafing gulls and barely reach the restroom in time. Before getting back into the car, I look over the black rocks above the roiling white water where the unidentified gull made its all too brief debut. A couple of surprised Western Gulls reluctantly rise into the wind and join the others on the grass by the parking lot. No unusual wing tips, nothing different. It is time to head inland.
Around 4 p.m., I arrive at the target destination. Daniel Farrar, who Linda and I met last fall while looking for the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, found a Yellow-billed Loon on Dexter Reservoir, 15 miles SE of Eugene. Several people had seen the loon, and it is no surprise today to see a couple of birders looking for the it. I catch up with the birders during a welcome lull from rain. The reservoir is slightly over 1,000 acres and six eyes are better than my two, but they seem intent on going away from the last place of this morning’s sighting. Deciding to go it solo, I continue to scan near a boat ramp mentioned in the report. Eventually a large brownish bird bounces to the surface of the now rain spattered lake. It dives before I’m able get the scope in focus. Motioning to the two birders, now beyond shouting distance, I slowly walk back across the dam to the ramp. The bird is weary and appears to be unsuccessful at catching fish. It continues diving, staying under water longer than on the surface. Closer and closer and, with the scope cranked to around 30 power, I can see the bulky head and pale, yellowish, bill. It is not the Yellow-billed Loon of my dreams, a breeding bird. Complaining. Not a chance. Adding two new loons in any plumage is a journey well-worth the three motel nights and a little food and gas is a small price. I would have done it for the Arctic Loon. The Yellow-billed Loon, ABA number 623, is a bonus bird, which makes doing business even better. Next time, Linda will be there to reduce the cost per bird.
The 1998 AOU Check-list committee noted that although the two subspecies of Arctic Loon interbreed, the “level of hybridization is not sufficiently known and obscured by individual variation.” Maybe there is a sixth loon lurking out there in northland, waiting for a scientific reason to join the loony family Gavidae. Time and research will reveal if Gavia arctica viridigularis is actually Gavia viridigularis? Other than Aramidae and Peucedramidae, hosting only single members of Limpkin and Olive Warbler respectively, maybe I cannot yet claim to have seen all members of the loon family. Regardless, I have a lot of birding to do. Since I pretty much have the low hanging fruit, I’ll have to increase my reach.
And, the cost. The vicinity of Astoria, the winter home of the Arctic Loon, is about as far from my home as possible and still remain inside the boundary of Oregon. Originally, I thought of driving up, staying overnight, and driving home. That would have reduced fees for motels but not gas, and we all are reminded that gas goes up, and solids, our money goes down. As for other expenses, there was none. Why count food? I had packed snacks and meals from the home pantry, nearly the same food I’d be eating no matter the situation. Earlier dreaming of going for the Arctic included a possible Emperor Goose. Reasoning that I could see both on one motel night meant a good cost per bird index. In the meantime, a Baikel Teal would have been on my way home. However, the teal was killed and the goose disappeared. With the extra time along the coast, maybe something new would have showed up. That didn’t happen although breathing the briny air was therapeutic. I hoped something besides the Arctic Loon might show and something did, the Yellow-billed Loon. So, the cost of two new ABA life birds came to a grand total of $260.96 or $130.48 per loon. The price tag equates to a few more loons per loon, depending on the exchange rate, as discovered by some Canadian visitors seeking Oregon’s Arctic Loon. No matter how you calculate it, that is less than a winter flight to catch some Arizona rarities, and far less than a Green-breasted Mango in Georgia.