Rogue Birder, ch 11, On being Littoral

On Being Littoral

When not too busy attending lectures and labs, pouring over homework, or working in the school collection or dreaming of unseen birds, I stumbled onto some intriguing information. That was probably a good thing too since I would have otherwise filled in my “spare time” by going Rogue Birding. The discovery was that aerial surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service had been made of Oregon’s littoral zone, the offshore islands and coastline, grabbed my attention. Researchers had estimates for gulls, cormorants and murres, but population counts for species breeding underground were unknown. Knowing that something is unknown should bother anyone, including a Rogue Birder. Could I help answer these littoral questions? After all, the coast of Oregon is not far away, maybe 70 miles as the pelagic bird flies. Bill English, a frequent study partner, was also curious about those unknown subterranean denizens. Which species and how many pelagic birds were hidden from the aerial camera lens? Bill and I guessed we might find petrels, but just which of two possible species was breeding would be something to learn. We had unproven ideas about what species of alcid we might unearth. We also knew that some of the Oregon islands were not merely hard rocky promontories. Some of the islands must at least have some soil with secrets of underground nesters such as nocturnal storm-petrels and some hole-nesting alcids. Maybe we could carry out a study and get some college credit as well. Dreaming is fun, but living the dream would be more enjoyable.

My former adviser Frank Sturges had moved east to an all-girl school called Beaver College in Pennsylvania. Bill and I ambushed the next likely professor, Steve Cross. He was up for the idea, now all we needed was funding. Neither Bill nor I understood a thing about research grants, but we were not bashful about asking. We knew that the Fish and Wildlife Service protected Goat Island near Brookings and that we would need permission to be on the island. Would the service, if they gave us permission to land on Goat Island, have something to say about other islands on the Oregon coast. They did. We made an appointment with the regional biologist in Portland. It was my first encounter with David Marshall. The meeting seemed to going well until it came time to ask for funding. It was not so much a fear of a refusal, but that our wished for amount would be too high. Would the service laugh and tell us to get lost?

To the best of my recollection to use a favorite retort during the infamous Watergate hearings, Bill English and I sat in David’s office, alone, wondering why our interviewer suddenly left. Was Dr. Marshall having a private laugh at our audaciousness? Fretful minutes passed before our host announced that our proposed amount was possible. Whew!

Bill and I began our project with feet not on the ground, but in a boat. With some of the small grant, we had purchased a small 10-foot skiff that Bill assured was sea-worthy, at least, well mostly. Bill grew up in coastal Brookings and knew the sea from experience on small commercial fishing boats. Of course, we had spent hours on dry land planning, but the closer one is to an offshore island, the more formidable becomes the task of stepping on its remote shore. Not being a great swimmer did not bother me. Young-man-just-getting-started and going overboard in the frigid Pacific Ocean for more than a few minutes would certainly put an end to checking offshore islands and any hope for future Rogue Birding. No manner of being too young to succumb could overcome an exposure to the body numbing cold Pacific. Luckily, neither of us fell into the sea. In fact, becoming wet from rain greatly competed with the salty stuff. Of course, there was the one time, but I am getting ahead of myself.

from fuji nov 11 020

Our first island to survey was 21-acre Goat Island just off Brookings. The island was designated Goat Island Migratory Refuge in 1934. In 1940, Goat Island was the only island in the newly named Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. We landed on the island on 23 March 1966. We had fathomed, pun intended, that we could make landing on the eastern side where a tiny beach shows itself during low tide. I had an inkling and Bill knew that the vertical level of tides vary from time to time. Some low tides are lower than others are. Goat Island’s little beach was about the size of our dingy. The operative word is was since in a short time the size of the beach would change dramatically with the ebb and flow of tides. Landing was all in the timing. Bill expertly rowed to keep us not to close and not too far from our sandy target. He pointed the bow toward the island and at just the right moment, he rowed us forward, I jumped out, pulling the boat toward the near vertical rocks. Otherwise, we had two mandatory scenarios. The current would take us away from our landing site or it would crash us into the island. Actually, there a third situation might have been going down with the dingy.

The chance of waves tossing on shore was not remote. Somehow, we didn’t even get our feet wet and dragged the boat above the high tide mark and lashed the little boat that could to the rocks. Once on dry land, it is necessary to scurry diagonally along the steep rocky eastern face of the island, eventually climbing to about 125 feet above the pulsating waves below. The summit, another 100 feet higher would be a short walk through tall grass, something we would do once we set up camp. Depending on the source, the summit of Goat Island ranges from 184 to 232 feet. A barren shelf on the west side provided a flat space and shelter from the cold north wind. We pitched our tent. Considering our exploration took place before the advent of GPS, we relied on 1950-ish  topographic maps.

It must have been decades since anyone visited Goat Island, a thought we entertained in our darkened tent above the white surge battering the rocks below the western face of the island. We reminded each other about getting up at night to pee to not face into the wind or not go too far west of the cliff now engrossed with the cold Pacific surge. The night was long for lack of sleep and short for needing more of it. The early morning wind was just strong enough to keep the tent dancing in our little rocky inlet. The full force of the north wind made itself sharply known when we stood above the tent. Managing to feed ourselves, we then got to work.

Our goal was to determine what species breed on Goat Island. We quickly discovered that our late March visit was early, but the north end of the island offered promise of discovery. Soil on the north end was full of burrows just above the steep bare northern face from about 100 to perhaps 130 feet above sea level. (We reported the burrows near an elevation of 80 feet, but modern GPS data shows were off 20 or so vertical feet.)

We soon discovered a colony of Cassin’s Auklets, which we estimated 50 strong. During our study, we unearthed a Rhinoceros Auklet deep in its burrow. The bird was a surprise since the species was then unknown to nest south of Destruction Island, Washington. The stressful call of the Rhinoceros Auklet was a cross between comedian Phyllis Diller and Donald Duck. We released the poor thing, trusting it would return to dig a happier home.

Excavating hard-working alcids might seem cruel and unusual punishment. It was, but much later, our efforts reaped benefits. In the meantime, the wind was so cold and strong that we periodically had to take a shelter break to warm up. That was also a good time to try to clear our eyes from the dirt blown in our faces while we dug. Naturally, neither of us possessed eye-drops. We should have had warmer clothing, but we did not. We should also have had goggles and maybe a hard-hat or helmet. Something would have been nice to protect Bill’s head since minutes before finding a burrow, Bill, who was standing almost 20 feet above me, inexplicably came down the slope when he was not ready. The slope was essentially bare, with sparse tufts of grass and gravel and one rather large rock. It was maybe human head sized. Bill’s aim was perfect. He hit the rock solidly, lay there, still at first, and followed by a weak four-letter murmur. He blinked and moved slowly. His head hurt and a round bulge was growing from his forehead. Later, he admitted his concern about getting off the island if he did not recover. I confessed that I worried how I might get him down to the boat and somehow row to the mainland. Bill had good reason to worry.

Following recovery from the rock meets skull incident, we continued collecting information on hole-nesting birds as well as other species flying by the island. Besides gulls, we encountered an endangered subspecies of Canada Goose using the island to rest between migratory flights. Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Tree Swallow and 4 species of sparrows and a junco landed on the island. Territorial Song Sparrows sang. Flying offshore were birds I had not thought of as littoral species, including mallard and Wood Duck.

About six weeks later, we revisited Goat Island. The weather seemed balmy relative to late March and we camped near the north end in the tall grass we identified to the genus Phalaris. With only sleeping bags, we were soon overrun by Leach’s Storm-Petrels that had burrows throughout the Phalaris grass. Myriads of petrels flew through our flashlight beams. The sound of the calling birds was almost deafening. The air was full of what I consider the sweet musky smell of Leach’s Storm-Petrel. Storm-petrels do smell, and, at the time, we did not know they also smell. They have a sense of smell that apparently aids them in finding their burrow and finding prey. We determined that there were 1.5 birds in every square foot of 8.2 acres of Phalaris grass. The mathematical story problem is far more interesting than figuring how long it take to get to Chicago on a train traveling 40 miles per hour. Our estimates for Leach Storm-Petrels on Goat Island was, give or take a bird or two, 535,000.

Whatever the number, there were more birds in one spot of air and land than I had ever thought possible. Although we could not see but a few of them from our flashlights, we knew clouds of petrels were swirling all around. If we could have seen them all, the experience would have been more of disbelief than the shock jolting us that night. For several days after returning to Rogue Country, I occasionally heard the din of the petrel colony. The sound was completely real, as if the birds were fluttering in the air around my face. Yet, there were no petrels. Was I going crazy? I reluctantly mentioned hearing petrels to Bill. Nope. He was as sane as ever. My human anatomy and physiology professor said I was experiencing a kind of after perception akin to seeing the image of a flashbulb for seconds after a taken picture. Years later, the term flashbulb memory was coin of the day. In a week, the periodic din from the petrel malady took flight. The ghost of petrel vocalization was gone. I asked myself, would it be so bad if it returned and answered I don‘t think I would mind.

Whetting our taste for littoral birds was complete. The following year, we widened our search to two Whalehead Islands not far north of Goat Island. Our goal was to access one of the islands. The seaward island might be the end of our project so we chose the more accessible landward of the two islands. There was no place to land our skiff, but Bill backed up to the cliff and I scrambled up just in time to climb above the next wave and in time for Bill to row a safe distance from the dangerous near vertical rock face. Only a fraction of the size of Goat Island, I was happy to end the scramble to the summit and find the top of the landward Whalehead Island relatively flat. Leach’s Storm-Petrels occupied the grass top. The survey had to be quick and dirty, or becoming marooned on the island, without food or water would be a distinct reality. It required hurrying up and down the island while Bill deftly rowed around the wave swept rock. I was searching for hole-nesters and Bill was counting murres, guillemots or whatever was visible from the foaming water. The real trick was getting back into the boat while not risking myself, the data I collected, Bill and the boat. All returned to shore unscathed.

All through March, April and early May 1967, when our classroom schedules allowed, we surveyed as many islands possible that had at least some soil coverage. Weather, always a factor in any outdoor sport, including patrolling for petrels, was something we had to watch closely. In addition, I was learning the behavior of the sea was not only dependent on current weather, but also what happened earlier. A rough sea, perhaps with whitecaps, might persist hours or days following calm weather. Relatively serene water surrounding an island being surveyed one hour might turn ugly an hour later. Bill could read the sea. Some days we were stuck at our littoral headquarters, his parent’s hospitable home just off U.S. 101 in Brookings. While we waited, we birded the region, discovering an Anna’s Hummingbird, which in the 1960’s was just setting up housekeeping in southern Oregon. Views of the ocean were never far and suddenly Bill would announce, in so many words, an “all clear,” and we could get back to work.

We surveyed Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach by staring up from the beach at a low tide. Perhaps we could have dangled from the steep sides of the aptly named monolith, but we did not. Standing there on the tourist sand made us feel inadequate. It is near 200 foot height and grassy slopes would keep its mystery insofar as petrels. Hurrying about 45 crow-flying miles south, we found ourselves looking up at the other Haystack Rock near Pacific City. Like Whalehead Island, Bill rowed up to the side of the island with perfect timing. About 100 feet taller and less rounded than the other Haystack, its six plus acres were home to a few storm petrels and some tricky climbing requiring my mountain goat genes to work overtime.

Hunter Island, second largest island on the Oregon coast is just short of 8 acres, and stands about 100 feet above sea level. It also is around 7 miles south of the mouth of the Rogue River. I could not help but feel at home being so close to my river. We spent one night on Hunter Island and estimated the density of breeding Leach’s Storm-Petrels as similar to that on Goat Island. We also discovered two Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels outside the Leach’s colony and among burrows of Tufted Puffins.

Babes that Bill and I were, the wet-behind-the-ears newbies we hoped to grow out of, at the time we did not know that our work, along with aerial photographs by Ray Glahn and Dave Marshall would, in 1968, help include some 1400 offshore islands into Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Pilot Ray Glann may have been the second person in that meeting for the grant, but 45 years obscures my memory.

In 1979, another survey sampled the breeding birds on Oregon’s coastal islands. Although the two investigators, aided by a third person, helicopter time from the Coast Guard and sufficient hours on the islands helped provide more complete information than Bill and I could dream of gathering. The difference in their budget compared to ours is ridiculous to compare. Our stipend was only a paltry $500, an amount Bill and I believed would be too much to ask for, in 1979, would barely pay to hit the ignition switch on their helicopter.

In slightly over 10 years, the little beach on Goat Island became unsuitable for landing, even for a Zodiac at their disposal. The new crew came ashore near the north end, a location, in the 60’s, we thought too dangerous. The later study confirmed much of what birds we found and refuted a few things, especially our estimates for breeding Leach’s Storm-Petrel. For example, the 1979 study estimated the population to be 116,000 birds compared to our 535,800 individuals. In determining population, we used the number of acres of suitable habitat and the number of burrows within that habitat to estimate the number of birds. Regrettably, we must have overestimated the amount of suitable habitat and not realized the birds use multiple burrow entrances. Despite our errors, a still later report stated belief that the breeding population of Leach’s Storm-Petrels was nearly double that of the 1979 survey. Surveys in 1988 indicate a drop of 14,000 birds, a less precipitous decline than between 1966 and 1979. Obviously, there may have been sample errors and fluctuations in the real population of the storm-petrels.

Late in 2007, an email from Ray Lowe, project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge, the evolved name for the offshore islands, informed me of a survey that will take place in 2008. He asks me if I would I like a copy of the latest cataloging of the birds on the islands. What I would have liked was an invitation to participate in the pending survey. However, Roy must have dusted off his calculator. He would have subtracted 1966 from 2007, added at least 20 more years and possibly conjured up someone in the realm of old fartdom. Perhaps I should have written back and said yes, send me the catalogue and where do I sign up.

The survey was conducted in late summer 2008 by people decades my junior. Several interesting results discovered among them were an estimate for the size of the petrel colony on Goat Island. The new estimate, provided in square meters, a language only scientist might love, came to only a half-acre smaller than what Bill and I estimated. The size is 1.7 acres larger than the estimate from the 1979 study, the one doubting our estimate. Perhaps the colony sizes changed from environmental causes such as habitat loss. Whatever the reason, it seems size does matter. The 2008 survey found 219,210 petrels breeding on Goat Island. That survey was just a few days before Dick Banks stopped by my Medford home. Those same few days Linda saved my life by driving me to ER for an unscheduled stay in the hospital. Luckily, several blood clots in my lungs stayed put and by October, I was chasing a vagrant shorebird near Eugene. So much is in the timing. Had I been invited, the survey on Goat Island could have been my last.

That was not the only time I might have seen the other side. The fickle ocean that pounds the Oregon islands almost got me one day. It was  tide at Coquille Point when I hopped onto a rock. Scampering up the side, I found soil and sparse grass. Knowing the tide was on its way in, I hurried from the south end of the island, finding about 100 Leach’s Storm-Petrel burrows. By the time I reached the north end, water was surrounding the island. Only minutes had passed and the tide was rising. Bill ran back to get a rope, a life line, from the car while I inched down a rock to a spot of sand and rock not yet engulfed. With Bill standing at the ready, I jumped a couple of feet to the spot, but just in time for a rogue wave to crash over me. I was partially convinced I had seen my last Rogue bird, any bird, for the last time as the freezing water attempted to smother me. As the water ebbed, I struggled to a rock and eventually pulled myself to safety. It is too bad Bill did not take a picture. It was not only a Kodak moment, it was another sand in the shorts time of life.

During the surveys, Bill and I rightfully worried at least a little about getting back to dry land. I know I had a greater respect for the water after the Coquille Rocks incident. What if I had not been able to get out that predicament or needed help when Bill fell on his noggin on Goat Island? Cell phones were not growing out of heads, as they seem today. We could have had walkie-talkies to save our hides, but we did not. In the 60’s, tourist did not comb the beaches to perfection; any onlooker might not be present to see us spill in the surf when making land on the sandy mainland. Humans now easily out-compete Sanderlings on most beaches. Forty some years ago, people just do not venture into the ocean with a 10-foot dingy unless they were… dingy. From the beach, since retiring, I witness people turning red then blue in their attempts to swim in the icy waters. The more adventurous are in wet suits on surfboards and jet skis. I hope that the birds nesting on the islands remain unnoticed.

As for the incidences involving rocks, heads and almost drowning, they were not included in our report to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those littoral days on the Pacific Ocean with its water mixed from the Rogue River were great times that I hope my companion Bill English, wherever he is today, enjoyed as much as me.

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