Saturday, September 20, 2014

Wild and Exhilarating


August 4, 2014:  Yakina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Newport, Oregon -- also home to Yakina Head Light. 

                        Pewter sea and pewter sky
                                    Sandwich filling
                                                Gull and I.

                                                         .... by Phyllis Lesher

           ..... only here it is a thick slice of common murres between sea and sky. An island, just offshore from Yakina Head, holds a murre colony on its flat top.  Beyond, the ocean blurs into sky.  Today the wind has the strength of the Pacific Ocean behind it, roughing up white caps on the waves.  Nearby whitecaps are crisp and white and full of life.  Farther off they fade into light fog.

Dale and I have come to the common murre colony at Yakina Head Natural Area just north of Newport, Oregon -- one of my treasured spots on the face of this earth.  I can't help but wonder if some of my appreciation has its roots in an experience I had when I was 14 or 15 years old.  I was visiting my Uncle Putnam at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  That day was breezy and warm and full of puff ball clouds -- not like today!  At low tide I waded out to a tiny offshore island, all by myself.  No people.  No buildings.  Just a scruffy island full of screaming gulls and big fuzzy gull chicks.  Life swirled around me.  I felt young, free, and independent.  I felt as though I was soaring with the gulls.  Today I'm at a very different stage in life, but standing here hearing and watching thousands of birds stirs me in much the same way.  So alive!  I'm just a small part of it, not much more than the kelp flies that stick to me, yet I feel part of it.

Day after day it has been in the 90s where I live in Oregon.  Today I'm just 140 miles from home.  I've got on two shirts and a fleece lined jacket.  The wind is undoing my braid and blowing hair all over my face.  A fine salt spray mists my glasses;  my fingers have become numb sticks that hardly hold my pen; it's so noisy I shout to talk to Dale; the air stinks ...... I'm loving it!


I can almost imagine I'm visiting a colony of penguins in Antarctica.  The murre's constant yammer rises above the brisk wind and splashing waves.  The sound reminds me of penguin colonies I've seen on TV, only these 'penguins' fly both underwater and in the sky.  In other respects they look very much like penguins -- standing upright and wearing black and white tuxedos.
I wanted to meld these two full sketchbook pages together, but I'm flummoxed -- so just imagine them as one.  It's an older sketch, done at the same colony on June 6, 2000.  I'm inserting it because it gives the feeling of the thousands of murres on the island top.  The text says, 

"First the top of the dark rock is throughly bleached with copious drenching of whitewash.  Then thousands of murres are heavily salt and peppered onto the available top surfaces.  The larger, all back cormorants, stand out as darker spots amongst all the black and white.  Constant yammer rises above the wind from all the murres."

When we first arrive I walk around Yakina Head, scouting where to sketch.  Thousands (3000 ?) of murres crowd on the flat tops of two islands just offshore from the mainland.  The murres need flat areas because they basically plop their one egg onto the rock.  Mixed among the murres are a few Brandt's cormorants. My first choice  to draw is the main colony of birds, but it is also the most exposed.  I opt for a smaller group where I am partially sheltered from the wind.  Fortunately I brought clips to hold my pages down and gloves if I need them.  I soon realize I'd better not paint, just sketch.  The air is too damp.  Water just doesn't dry.  Even ink is slow. 

Common Murres

Brandt's Cormorants

Many more cormorants are on a lower, lumpy island.  Their nest are sturdy mounds built out of seaweed and soggy vegetation.  The bowl shaped depression in the center is designed to hold two to four eggs.  Many of the Brandt chicks are already large and mobile.  They wander on the slopes around their nests. 





A second species of cormorant, the pelagic cormorant, uses another niche -- the steep slopes on both the mainland and some of the islands.  No wandering around for those chicks!







The murre chicks are good sized.  They look like small versions of their parents.  Many of the cormorant chicks are downy, but also good sized.   I estimate I'm looking at 3000 murres on the rocks and hundreds more on the water.  Birds are coming and going constantly.  Some fly in bringing fish to the colony, long , skinny fish.  Probably grunions. Sometimes an adult struts about holding the offering. Is it a female and her chick has fledged and she don't know it?   Murre chicks are called to the water long before they can fly. They head out to sea in the company of just their father.  Maybe it is just hard to find the right chick in the mass of birds.  Good sized chicks wander about in noisy groups, away from their nests.

After four hours of watching murres, cormorants, gulls, pigeon guillemots and even a few seals and a sea lion we are happy and tired.  Fog is thickening.  We head into town for a hot supper and a motel.  What will it be like in the morning?
Yakina Head Lighthouse