Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Mini-Pelagic out of Mini-Depoe Bay

Head-fake! Just when you think we're gonna start posting dispatches from our France trip, we hit you with a mini-pelagic instead. Thanks to Stephanie Hazen, who organized the outing, we were able to join a group of fellow Salem Auduboners heading out of Depoe Bay on zodiacs to get up close and personal with seabirds and Gray Whales.

Collectively, we were led by marine biologist Carrie Newell, owner of the Whale, Sea Life and Shark Museum, who studies Gray Whales and who's made important discoveries about their local feeding habits. Her dog joins her on the boat and barks whenever he smells a whale nearby. It's awesome. Our zodiac was captained by Captain Joe, who led us farther out to sea than the other boats, which allowed us to pick up some really excellent birds that the others didn't get to see.

These are our marina buddies. We spotted this Harbor Seal on our way out of the harbor.

And this Pelagic Cormorant came right up to the boat as we were docking on our way back in. It was easily just an arm's length away outside the zodiac.

The bay is the world's smallest navigable harbor (or so the claim goes). You would know it as the scene of the fishing trip in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On the way out of (and back into) the harbor we passed dozens of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, mostly looking drowsy.

Surfbirds and Black Turnstones

It wasn't long after we hit the open sea that the whales started popping up. One of the other zodiacs radioed in so we could zero in on the location, and in the process of getting the boat oriented we came alongside a Lion's Mane Jellyfish, which is among the largest jellyfish species, if not the largest altogether. As someone who's read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon more than once, I'm starstruck having now met the antagonist of "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane". (Sorry about the spoiler).

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

When we managed to get on a whale, the experience was a lot more intense than past sightings. For one thing, the zodiac brings you a lot closer to the level of the water than when you see them from a fishing boat. The boats are prohibited from approaching within less than 100 or 150 yards, but with an animal this large we certainly didn't feel like we were out in the nosebleed section.

Gray Whale

It was perfectly thrilling being as close as we were, and getting to see the entire tail fluke rise out of the water was the absolute best. Even the spray from the blowhole put on a show for us, turning into a rainbow for one spectacular moment.

Steller's Sea Lions were the only other mammals out there, hanging out on a buoy. Steller's Sea Lions tend to hang out farther from shore, so pelagic trips are the only time we really get to see them.

Steller's Sea Lions

Clusters of half a dozen or so Common Murres consisted of dads and their young, the fathers spending this time feeding the chicks out on the water, instead of back at the nest. Very occasionally, we chanced upon Marbled Murrelets, adorably tiny, and whose constant diving made it difficult to watch for any length of time.

Common Murre

Marbled Murrelet

The auklets were the particular specialty the zodiac we rode on. At first we started getting looks at Rhinoceros Auklets. A bit later, a Cassin's Auklet took off before we got a proper look. We weren't content to count it, as a would-be lifer, but fortunately, we were able to find another not long after.

Rhinoceros Auklet

So long, Cassin's Auklet

Our most numerous seabirds were the Sooty Shearwaters. From several places along the coast you can watch them migrate in tremendous numbers, but this was our first time getting out among them. I'd conservatively estimate we saw at least 50. You can see seven just in the photo below. Several of them came close to the boat, but none settled on the water.

Sooty Shearwaters

When we arrived at the museum before the trip out, we heard a Wrentit calling from some low trees up against the bridge. It came right out in the sun, and was way more cooperative than any Wrentits we've seen. Unfortunately, our cameras weren't ready, and we thought we'd blown our chance. Fortunately, it just happens to be a really friendly Wrentit, and there it was still singing to welcome us back to shore.

A sinister-looking Wrentit

From the harbor we traveled down to Hatfield Marine Science Center, but it was uncharacteristically slow. Aside from hundreds of Mew Gulls, about the only thing it had going for it were the Least and Western Sandpipers along the shore.

Least Sandpipers

Western Sandpipers

This happened to be the same day that Dave Irons discovered Oregon's fourth Yellow-throated Vireo, just a few miles up Hwy 101. The sighting was a few hours old by the time we got there, and we ran into a few folks who had been hanging around without any luck. We gave it a go, but apparently weren't patient enough -- it was seen later that day, and everyday since. C'est la vie (that's a teaser for the next post).

Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Heeey Yooouuu Guuuuuuys!" - Birding in the Footsteps of the Goonies

In July we took our first trip to the Goondocks, where we'd follow in the famous footsteps of Chester Copperpot (Goonies), Det. John Kimble (Kindergarten Cop), Johnny Utah (Point Break), and Johnny 5 (Short Circuit) -- (why so many Johns?). Believe it or not, there's actually more to do in Astoria than visiting the sets of '80s movies.

We camped at Fort Stevens State Park, which was loaded with historical artifacts like a WWII battery, and the 110-year old remains of the Peter Iredale shipwreck. It's also got some pretty righteous birding opportunities. We started our morning by heading over to South Jetty, hoping to wrack up shorebirds and gulls. Auspiciously, an Elk walked across the road ahead of us on the drive over, and when we pulled into the jetty, three bull Elk feeding along the edge of the parking lot. We were no longer thinking about gulls.

An elusive Two-headed Elk!

The Elk casually grazed and paid us little attention, other than occasionally looking in our direction. We only had our first, brief, Elk encounter earlier this year, and had hoped we'd get a chance to see and enjoy them like this. Eventually we went up the observation tower that looks out over the jetty. We couldn't find much out to sea, we did see a gull harassing a Common Murre that somehow found it's way on shore. It wasn't a great sight, so here are more Elk shots instead.

On the observation tower itself, Barn Swallows had built several nests, and were periodically returning to feed their little ones, nestled right up against the stairs.

Barn Swallow

Over at the insipidly-named Parking Lot D, Caspian Terns flew past with some regularity. We counted ourselves fortunate when a handful swooped and dove not far off from us, along the river. After several minutes, we crossed the parking lot and walked a short path and found ourselves surrounded by that tearing call of theirs. Spread out over the mudflats where close to 50 terns along with a good number of Semipalmated Plovers and some peeps.

Caspian Tern

The conventional wisdom is that if you want to see Tufted Puffins, you go to Haystack Rock. Since we've found puffins at other spots along the coast we didn't think about it too much. Our mistake for being so dismissive. As soon as we set up the scope, we were staring at groups of 3 or 4 puffins at a time, and close. Occasionally one would dive off its ledge and circle over our heads before heading out to sea. If you want to see Tufted Puffins, you go to Haystack Rock. Got it.

Tufted Puffin and Common Murres. You can see a nesting burrow center-left

Diving off Haystack Rock

The puffins were joined on Haystack by countless other seabirds, mostly cormorants and gulls, but also decent numbers of Pigeon Guillemots. A male Harlequin Duck came in closer than I'm used to, and I almost got stranded taking snapping photos as the tide kept creeping in around me.

Haystack Rock

Pigeon Guillemots

Harlequin Duck

At low tide, this is a good spot for tide-pooling, and several volunteer naturalists were showing off the anemones and keeping people from climbing where they aren't supposed to.


I'd wanted to swing by Del Rey Beach after checking out eBird reports, but it was pretty quiet when we got there. But we did pick up a lifer moth in the parking lot, where Red-shouldered Ctenuchas had swarmed all over the ragwort and the dune tansy. We pushed onward to Ft. Clatsop to visit a recreation of Lewis and Clark's winter camp (1805-6) and picked out some Red Crossbills kip-kip-kipping high overhead. I guess we lucked out -- of all the animals Meriwether Lewis described along their journey, Red Crossbill wasn't one of them.

Red-shouldered Ctenuchas

We started the next day back at South Jetty, but only saw one Elk this time. We took the trail that leads to the beach and came across hundreds of Heermann's Gulls congregating on a sandbar. Farther off was a massive mixed flock in the midst of a feeding frenzy. Assorted pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and terns were gathering up whatever they could find, and there must have been plenty of it, whatever it was. On the way out, an Elk family crossed the road just ahead of us, and we got our fist glimpse of an Elk baby!

Heermann's Gulls

Baby Elk!!

We'd heard that Seaside Cove was worth checking out, and it was indeed. Right along the shore were several adult and first-summer Heermann's Gulls -- the closest we've managed to get to these handsome larids. The water was relatively calm, and we were able to pick out a lone Marbled Murrelet and a good 80 or so Western Grebes.

Heermann's Gull

While we were there some guy asked us if we'd seen any Harbor Seals or sea lions anywhere at Seaside Cove (we hadn't). Then he asked if we'd seen the Walruses back in Astoria. He obviously knew the difference between seals and sea lions, so I wanted to believe he knew what he was talking about while also remaining cautiously skeptical. PRO TIP: there are no Walruses in Oregon. But we were heading into town anyway, and there might have been something good -- Maureen suspects he meant Elephant Seals, which would have been great, but instead there was nothing.

Great Blue Heron