Feb 3, 2011: This is a follow-up to my two elephant seal posts, both posted last month, "Making Whoopee in the Sand" and "Return to Shell Island."
The sun has just slipped beneath the horizon. Thin wisps of cloud catch orange, bright against turquoise. Soon the clouds will grey and the sky deepen, but for now color is reflected in the half flooded Coquille Valley. I’m scrunched in the back seat of our little RAV, Dale drives, and our friend Eleanor sits in the front with him.
The Coquille Valley lies flat, about half a mile wide and several miles long. Occasional farms snuggle into the forested hills lining the valley. During wet winters, such as now, the cattle are brought to high ground and ducks take over the pasture land – puddle ducks (mallards, shovelers, teal, ring-necked ducks, pintails, etc). These are the ducks that feed on submerged vegetation. Great egrets come here to winter too and a few great blue herons. At least sixty egrets strike picturesque poses as they hunt for frogs, tadpoles, and any minnows that have strayed from established waterways.
Eleanor Solved a little mini mystery for us today. Two days ago I was loading the car when a new song caught my attention – but what was it? Soft. A couple of sweet notes and then garbled gurgles. I knew our four black-capped chickadees were flitting about in the dense ivy, but this didn’t sound like a chickadee.
But it was! Both Dale and I found one tucked amongst a canopy of ivy leaves. He sat quietly, quite fluffed, and singing his heart out. How could we have never heard this before? Virtually every place we have lived we have had chickadees in the yard. It is a very soft song. Easy to miss.
Eleanor Pugh, Oregon’s grand dame of bird recordings, now enlightens us. We did our best to describe this soft, rambling-on song to her, and that we were surprised it came from a chickadee. She knew immediately -- “Whisper song.” This is the time of year when young males are tuning up, learning how to sing. Not just chickadees, but several species of birds experiment with sound before they launch into their normal sound patterns. What a perfect name for this quiet melody.
It has been a good day. We came to the coast to check on birds and to check on the baby elephant seal we first saw a little over a month ago at Shell Island. At first we could only find eight adult elephant seals including the beach master and two, possibly three very small pups. No sign of the ‘weaner,’ the pup we hoped would survive the high tides and high surf that drown most pups born here.
Just as we were preparing to leave we talked to two of State Park Naturalists and they pointed out another place to look. Sure enough. The weaner is doing just fine. He was snoozing on the beach. He has ballooned out since he was born on or before Dec 31. Frankly I wouldn’t dare to call it the same pup, but the park has been keeping track of him. He may well weigh over 200 pounds now. His mother has abandoned him as all good elephant seal moms do; but, before she left, he filled out and now looks well prepared for two months on the beach by himself before he heads out to sea.
As we left the coast, late afternoon sun still reached the weaner. We drive home happy, thinking about how this pup now has survived the first big hurdle of his young life.