Posted by: atowhee | January 21, 2008

Coasting in Oregon


Pintail pair by May Woon. 

Bandon’s a small town at the mouth of the Coquille River Estuary.  Our room faced north across the Coquille Estuary with the old lighthouse on the left-hand side of the frame.  Further north the coastal dunes rolled ever higher as you looked eastward from the Pacific.  Not many feet back from the breakers the dunes were hirsute with stubby pines. These wind-blown and salt stunted trees are called “bull pines”  by the locals.  They are same species that here in Ashland Creek Canyon can grow to a hundred feet or higher. Their downward drooping branches can shed the damp winter snows.  Their two-inch round cones look under-sized for such towering height.  But what the cones lack in size they make u[p for in number.  Even in the pygmy forest of Bullards (no apostrophe) Beach near Bandon the trees were festooned with cones.  Even on trees shorter than I am, with trunks a foot or more in diameter. The tree: the adaptable Ponderosa pine. 

One evening in Bullards Beach State Park I stopped at the edge of the pine forest, no tree more than fifteen feet in height.  Two hundred yards to the west the Pacific surf came onto the sand.  Just another hundred yards tothe east the brackish waters of the Coquille Estuary washed to and fro with the rise and fall of tidal currents and the force of water drained from mountains that rise over 5,000 feet just a few miles further east.  The wind blew, the sun was setting, the air was cold and damp.  But the pines were alive with small birds.  A large flock of White-crowned Sparrows, a few Juncos, a Varied Thrush hid in the densest needles, Pretending not to breath.  A Hermit Thrush skulked in the darkest shadow.  And flitting about were a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The Ponderosa provided food, canopy, shelter and windbreak for the busy population of birds.  And keep them safely through the imminent winter night.

Each evening a sunset of gold and orange and rose brought the only bright colors to the scene which was largely brown sand, green hills, pale gray sky, darker gray fog off the land.  The most distant hills gave the thinnest edge of purplish gray to the line where sky meets land.  At dawnthe sky anbd estuary water were both a murky blue-gray.  Though the sky would turn bluer as the day aged, the waters never lost their muddy hue.  Yet feeding must have been good despite turgid winter run-off.  Pelagic Cormorants commuted upstream every morning, returned toward the Pacific at night.  Bufflehead, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter and the less common White-winged Scoter ranged the estuary.  Grebes dove for fish: Clark’s and Horned.  Every exposed beach bore its rhinestone collar of pale gulls.  From Glacous-winged down to California. The inevitable Canada Geese came and went to much honking.

Even from our motel room window you could pick out the blunt conical shape of the harbor seal snouts.  One or more were always visible, bobbing along just above the water.  Presumable the blimp bodies and the tail flippers hung directly beneath the nose and eyes, eyes which would follow and boat or pedestrian.  Not with concern but curiosity it seemed.

The Black Turnstones were strung along a forty-foot stretch of pebbled beach.  They were just above the wave line as the tidal surge rolled out toward the ocean, lowering the level of the Coquille Estuary. There were about a hundred turnstones. I was standing on the breakwater at Bandon’s little waterfront, about twenty above the Turnstones.  They ignored anything not on the beach.  That included the passing gulls: Glaucous-winged, Western, Herring, Thayer’s. Often a Black Turnstone flock will include a Ruddy or two, even some Surfbirds.  This flock was pure BT.  And they were doing what they should be doing.  They were turning stones.  Every few seconds one of the foraging birds would flip a pebble hard enough that it would seem to jump from the rest of the scree.  Some of the jumping pebbles seemed to be half as big as the plump little turnstones themselves. In all the flipping and feeding, it was clear how well-suited was the inch-long, chisel beak. With the busyness, the bustle, the shuffling through the loose pebble beach of mostly dark rocks, the dark birds themselves made the whole beach appear to be in motion.

I realized that viewed from the rear, the turnstones shows plenty of pale fringing on each back feather.  Viewed head-on the birds look more uniformly blackish-brown.  At this close range a dark brown eyebrow showed as one or two shades lighter than the blacker face and neck feathers. The white side flecks and the white belly were paler than even the small whitecaps out in the estuary.

I watched the feedeing turnstones until the ocean cold soaked through four layers and made me shiver.  My bare fingers had long ago turned numb.  Even though my hands were in my pockets and and binoculars were not needed at this close range.  My eyes watered from the wind off the water.  But the turnstones kept at it.  All the while several of them would be trilling at once.  They seemed to be reassuring one another that this was a fine meal.  Much like Bushtits or goldfinches in a feeding flock.  The turnstone voice was soft, almost a purr, the trill would last about ten seconds each time.  One would begin, several more join in and then this particular chorus would fade away after a dozen trills.  Then a single turnstone voice would start another round.  “Umm, good stuff,” they seemed to purr.

The other shorebirds were all found on the sandflats of Bandon Marsh which lines the eastern shore of the estuary, about a half-mile in from the coast.  Dunlin.  Willet.  Sanderling.  Black-bellied Plover.  

On one forest-rimmed small lake we spotted a few ducks.  Pulling over we scanned the lake and found five Hooded Mergansers.  They were diving for fish.  The two males would circle one another, opening and closing the white curtainson the side of their heads. One offshore rock was alive with roosting Common Murre, in the hundreds.

The land birds included numerous Robins,  Hermit and Varied Thrush, Townsend and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Steller’s Jays and American Crows but no Ravens did we see along  the coast.  They were common in the mountains to the east.  Red-tailed Hawks.  Anna’s Hummingbirds including one juvenile.  Juncos,  WC and GC Sparrows, Fox Sparrows and Song Sparrows.  Spotted Towhee and even a Towhee Lane near the town of Tenmile.  We have a picture to prove it.  Starlings. Bewick’s Wren.  Bushtits.  Black Phoebe.  Ruby-crowned Kinglegts. Blue Heron.  We missed the icterids, chicakdees, woodpeckers except for Flicker.

This was my first time on the Oregon Coast so that meant some lifers though most are common enough along the Pacific: Black Turnstone, Horned Grebe, other shorebirds, Common Murre, Greater Scaup, two scoters including the less than common White-winged.  Oregon lifers now at 194.

East of Bandon, about fifteen miles from the coast, is the town of Coquille on its namesake river.  There the valley widens out to a couple miles and level fields are flooded for the winter. There was a lone Great Egret. Waterfowl abounding.  Tundra Swans.  Canada Geese, of course.  Shoveler, Green-winged teal, American Wigeon, a zillion Coots.  But the greatest delight were the thousands of Pintails.  Often dozens would be tails-up, white rumps reflecting the daylight.  The males floated produily with their elegant, slender necks erect, the fine angle of white  pointing to the top of the green crown.  I’ve never seen as many Pintails in one place before. 

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