Sunday, January 4, 2015

A November to Remember: Tundra Bean-Goose and Other Rarities

"Chasing," or "twitching" -- whatever you call it, we haven't done much of it. In the past it would have taken a pretty extraordinary specimen to make us travel even an hour out of our way. Two times that come to mind are an unsuccessful run at a Snowy Owl in 2012, and a Northern Lapwing just a couple of months later that had a happier ending. My, how things have changed!

While I'd never thought of Oregon as a particularly big state, it's nearly twice the size of New York. I like to brag that we're about an hour from desert, rainforest, ocean, or mountains… but when you try to see these things as often as you can, as well as do a fair amount of exploring, it adds up to quite a bit of driving. Throw in my ridiculously long daily commute, and it makes for a radically altered sense of how far is too far to be worthwhile.

Black Turnstones

We had the chance to put this new perspective into action in November, when a couple of drool-worthy rarities popped up along the coast, an hour-and-a-half to two hours away. The first was a Brown Booby, down in one of our favorite coastal hotspots, Newport. This was a banner year for Brown Boobies, and Oregon had hosted at least two this past fall. This one was waiting for us on a big green range marker, in precisely the spot it had been reported a week earlier.

Brown Booby

At first, it was almost entirely obscured by a big white panel, but sometime after Maureen spotted it it took off and put on a magnificent show for us. It flew around and around in sweeping circles between the pier and the range marker, plunge-diving wherever it zeroed in on sufficiently tasty prey. It would pass right over a big pile of oblivious California Sea Lions ingeniously disguised as the very jetty they lazed on, before turning in toward us, and restarting the route along its aerial track. It must have circled for for whole five minutes before resuming its perch on the range marker, and sat where we could see it much more clearly than before. A Double-crested Cormorant struck its most regal pose beside it, but to no avail -- we only had eyes for the booby.

That's one acrobatic sulid

A closer group of sea lions provided an incongruous barking soundtrack. Dozens of males (only the males migrate to Oregon) laid out on the temporary docks provided for them, and belted out a riotous chorus to an appreciative audience that couldn't get enough. The most raucous among them were the star performers, who had everyone in hysterics for the entire hour we were there.

California Sea Lion

"I'm gonna bite you"

"Ahh, you really bit me!"

Afterward we moved on to the Mark Hatfield Marine Science Center, hoping to catch flocks of Brant that had been reported there. There were no Brants, but as we were scanning through thousands of Northern Pintails and American Wigeon, we chanced upon something we knew statistically that we had a decent chance of finding sooner or later, but it was another thing entirely to actually come across one in the field. A cinnamon-headed wigeon stood from the drab grayish-brown crowd, even at a distance, and in the gloom of an impending rain. Eurasian Wigeons pop up along the coast with some regularity, but this, our first, was a pleasant surprise after freshly coming off our lifer Brown Booby.

Eurasian Wigeon

Our November was already shaping up to be a memorable month of birding when the listservs exploded. A Tundra Bean-Goose -- the second ever recorded in the lower 48 and first in Oregon -- was reported at Nestucca Bay NWR. We had camped nearby over the summer, but the refuge hadn't been on our radar. Even when we did visit, we didn't actually get very far since Maureen managed to spot the goose from the road on the way in. It was on an open field among a lot of Cackling and Dusky Canada Geese, right where it had first been seen a week earlier.

Tundra Bean-Goose

Striking its best Audubon pose

We moved up the road to the refuge's observation deck, which gave us a commanding view looking down on the geese. Our new station brought us even closer to the Tundra Bean-Goose, but with a lot of bare branches in the way. Still, we could see well enough each time it assumed a threatening posture to scare off non-bean geese, lesser beings that they are. Without a doubt, this is the rarest bird we've ever seen. I feel spoiled, since even the expected birds are still new to us, but I'm glad that, throughout November, we were able to share in the common excitement generated by some awesome rarities.


  1. The Bean Goon is nuts, just totally nuts.
    Nice work with the other vague runts too. Keep on a killin' it in your hip hip way.

    1. Thank you, kindly! Not only was the Bean-Goose nuts, but it's still there, in the same refuge. You just couldn't ask for a mind-blowing bird to be any more cooperative.