July 28, 2010: Yakina Head, Oregon Coast
Full of anticipation we wind our way north along the coast of Oregon on Highway 101. Sometimes we’re exposed to the vast grey expanse of Pacific Ocean. Long strings of combers stumble and crash along the shoreline. The horizon is lost in a foggy blur between sea and sky. A curve to the right and we are swallowed by thick, knarled stands of Sita Spruce. It is a dark, damp forest where elf stories might brew. A curve to the left and the ocean welcomes us again.
Will the murre colony we are heading for be buried in fog? Or laid out on a platter for us to watch? Thousand of common murres come to a handful of Oregon’s offshore islands just separated from the mainland at Yaquina Head. Most people go to Yaquina Head to climb the lighthouse, but we go to see the birds. We spent a magical morning at the murre colony ten years ago. Now, with Dale able to camp and walk the trails, it is time to return. We camped in an Oregon dunes campground last night, and are now finishing the trip to the colony.
We’ve arrived! Yaquina Head is a raucous place. Cool. Windy. Spits of drizzle. Downright chilly. I remind myself that Roseburg is supposed to be 92 degrees today. Be thankful for the need for a long sleeve shirt, plus polar fleece jacket, plus a lined windbreaker. I’ve even been sketching with my work gloves on since I forgot my lighter weight ones.
I love this spot. We’re on an exposed location with tall grasses, yellow mustard and Queen Anne’s lace blowing in the wind. A few pelicans fly by, skimming low over the water. The surf and the constant yammer of thousands of murres fight for my attention. The island before me is relative flat on top and well dotted with penguin like murres and a few Brandt’s cormorants. Smaller pelagic cormorants nest on the steep slopes of the islands, and occasionally a pigeon guillemot flashes its red feet as it disappears into a rocky crevice where they hide their nests.
I spent hours sketching, first one bird and then another. By the end of the day I felt blown to bits and deliciously happy. Here is a selection of my field sketches…….
The painted sketch at the beginning of the post is one of the smaller islands. The big island has thousands of Common murres, but was too exposed to the wind for good sketching. The murres just plop one big egg on the rocks and take turns brooding.
The murres are actually packed much tighter than my sketch, but I wanted to show birds and not just a mass. One parent or the other stays with the chick unless food is scarce. The little chicks can soon sit tall like their parents. We had to look hard to even see a chick amongst them. Look carefully on the right side of the sketch.
Parents bring one small fish at a time. The little fishes are aligned parallel with the parent’s bill – not easy for a neighbor to steal. When the chicks are about half grown, they glide down to the water and finish maturing in the company of their father. Some had already glided down to the water where hundreds more bobbed.
Scattered amongst the murres are a few Brandt’s cormorants. They are much larger and all black except some still showed blue on their throat, left over from breeding season. The habits of the two birds are very different. Brandt’s cormorants build a big, sloppy nest glued together with copious amounts of guano. I saw up to four chicks per nest. When small, the chicks are brooded, but by the time we were there, they were often left alone while the parents foraged for food.
Cormorant feeding habits are very different. The parents arrives with a belly full of partially digested fish. Chicks eagerly peck at the corner of the parent’s mouth until the parent is ready to regurgitate – then a chick put half its head into the parent’s throat while the adult regurgitates. Yummy! Cormorant chicks will stay at or near the nest until ready to fly.
Pelagic cormorants are quite a bit smaller than Brandt’s cormorants. They find the tinest ledges on the steep side walls of the islands and build themselves are little platform. Seaweed and guano and glued into a fairly firm ledge. One platform was too small. I saw a half grown nestling tumbled down the steep slope and disappear into the rocks beneath. I suspect he was pushed out by his siblings.
The last bird in my cast of characters is the little pigeon guillemot, the smallest of them all. He mostly black and sports the bright red feet, which he flares when coming in for a landing. Guillemots aren’t much to brag about on land, but on and in the water they are masters. They choose to nest in vertical rock crevices. Round and round they fly, and then, zip!, they disappear into the rocks.