Friday, February 20, 2015

Winter at the Coast

I really can never quite get enough of the coast. It seems like we go at least once if not twice a month. We’d probably go more often if it weren’t a bit of a drive. But when we get there, it’s totally worth it. We have yet to explore more of the northern coast and any of the southern coast of Oregon, but we’ve been very happy with the central coast in our usual spots in Lincoln County. (And we're totally psyched about an upcoming pelagic trip!!! But more of that another time.)

One cool Surf Scoter

Rocky cliffs at Depoe Bay

We usually make a run to three nice birding spots – the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary trail, the jetty on the Yaquina River, and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. And we’ll also pop over to a few of the many bays and state parks along Highway 101 if there’s time.

Northern Pintails coming in for a landing

Pintails and Brant

The last time we headed over to the coast, we were on a mission to find a lifer and a state bird. The first was a reported Ross’s Goose that had been hanging out in a little lake at Beaver Creek State Natural Area. I looked at every “big white bird,” but all I could find were Great Egrets. We waited awhile and checked out a little fussy Marsh Wren and the other geese and ducks around. Finally, in a big flock of Canada Geese that rose up and over to the little lake, I scanned and found THE big white bird I was looking for! The Ross’s Goose was too far to get good photos, but he’s on our list, and that’s what matters.

Marsh Wren in the reeds seeing what all the fuss is about

Although nothing else new at this spot, we did get a great view of a Fox Sparrow and a reliable little Anna’s Hummingbird that zipped by us and politely posed while at the feeder at the nature center at Beaver Creek.

Fox Sparrow looking foxy

Male Anna's Hummingbird

(by Nicholas)

Onward we went to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area where a Burrowing Owl has been hanging out since about November. Although they are not rare for the state, they are rare on the coast. They usually hang out in Eastern Oregon, but this one has strayed away, but seems content. We dipped or missed finding him our trip to the coast the time before, but with a little help from one of the naturalists on staff at the nature center, we were able to locate the Burrowing Owl in a little nook in the rocks. We have a special place in our hearts for Burrowing Owls as they are the mascot of our grad school alma mater.

Digiscoped pic of the Burrowing Owl

Although the coast of the Pacific Northwest is amazing, one thing I miss about birding the beaches of Florida and Georgia is seeing dolphins just about every time we went out. Luckily, I can get a marine mammal fix with the Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions here. The Harbor Seals are especially adorable and playful. And who couldn’t swoon over an adorable seal pup? Seals and sea lions seem to really know how to live the beachy life – lounging around in the sun or splashing around for fun in the water.

Harbor Seal

Harbor Seals frolicking

The waters have been dominated by black and white and gray this winter, with a splash of brown and buff every so often. We’ve enjoyed watching and hearing the odd sounds of Brants along the estuary trail. They are such dapper geese indeed. And we’ve also picked up a long sought-after duck this winter – the Common Goldeneye. We’ve seen both male and females, but the females usually seem to swim closer. They aren’t as flashy as their male counterparts, and not nearly as devious as their James Bond character-like name suggests. ;-)


Female Common Goldeneye

I have also loved seeing so many grebes – Eared, Horned, Red-Necked, Western, and good ole Pied-Billed. Of course they’re not showing off their spectacular breeding plumage right now, but still a treat to see so many out and about.

Eared Grebe

Two Horned Grebes and One Eared Grebe

Western Grebes up front, Red-Necked Grebes in the back

The Loons have also been awesome to see so close. The first time we ever saw one was for a split second on a pelagic trip, and other times we saw them off of the beach in Savannah, but far away and not very numerous. But this winter, we’ve seen them fairly close, and up to about a dozen of them along the jetty. Again, their keeping things muted with their winter plumage, but who can complain when they show off the way they do?

Common Loon Splashing about

Common Loon

*Common Loon

And then there are gulls – the bane of my birding life! Well, we recently attended a gull ID workshop to try to get a better handle of the multitude of gulls we see here in the west, which has helped a great deal. But then there are those pesky oddballs that make me pull my hair in frustration! (Figuratively, that is). The parking lot at the jetty is a great place to look at gulls that sit still for you while you study them as they wait for food to fall to the ground.

Brown Pelican 

"Look into my staring lemon eyes!"

We could easily identify an adult Herring Gull with its “staring lemon eye” as stated in Gulls of the Americas by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn. And we were almost sure we had a first cycle Thayer’s Gull in our midst. But when we posted the photo below to a North American Gull ID Facebook page, we caused quite a stir amongst gull experts. Amongst the seventeen comments, some were fine calling it a Thayer’s Gull, others say that the field marks visible were not completely reliable, and then there was the proposition that it was a Glaucous-Winged x Herring Gull Hybrid… WTF?!?! Ugh, I give up! Ok, I don’t really. But gulls are and will probably always be an enigma.

Thayers or Glaucous-WingedxHerring Gull Hybrid… Eh, who knows for sure!?


  1. Jealous you saw the Burrowing Owl! We went to Newport three times in November and December and looked for it every time, but never found it. Impeccably BAD timing - they were all days no one else saw the owl either.

    You definitely should head north more - so many great spots in Clatsop County.

    Where did you take your gull workshop? We are hopeless at gulls and no amount of studying field guides has helped (yet).

    1. Julia, you should give that owl another go! He's so great. =) As for the gull workshop, it was through Portland Audubon Society. They've had a few different workshops lately, and I'm sure they have more coming. The gull one was very much needed.

  2. Very cool. I would love to be surrounded by Brandt.

    Coastal life seems like the good life.

    1. Indeed it is, Laurence! Love those Brants.

  3. That owl looks truly curmudgeonly.

    Well, I see a lot of THGU and a lot of GWGU X HERG, and from that one single photo I think its ok for THGU...I think that gull workshop may have paid off. However, I must be the bearer of bad news for a different bird in the post...that last loon is actually a COLO. PALO has a dainty, slender bill in comparison and won't have a white notch biting into the gray on the side of the neck.

    Glad youre enjoying the west coast!

    1. Thanks for the input, Seagull Steve. That head shape must have thrown us off, but I see it now.

    2. Nice! I'm glad to know our possible Thayer's just got even more possible-er. The gull workshop paid immediate dividends -- now we just need a loon workshop and we're all set!

  4. Great blog... the Wet coast and its birds/wildlife is indeed great!

    1. Thanks! I agree wholeheartedly about the coast!

  5. As a MN birder, my mind is reeling right now that Brant are so numerous there yet Common Goldeneye is a prize. Also, the Surf Scoter is quite the looker.

    You can never go wrong with a coast post. Delightful.

  6. Isn't it funny when the birds you get excited about are all about where you are? Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the post.