Friday, August 15, 2014

Watching Guillemots

I've combine two wonderful, foggy days of pigeon guillemot watching at Coos Head, the southern side of the Coos River where it flows into the Pacific.  On the first day, July 17, it was obvious some of the nests had hatched; by July 29 there was a lot of feeding activity.

July 17, 2014
 I'm sitting on the rip rap bordering the Coos River just south of Coos Head, the mouth of the Coos River).  It's cool and foggy.  No wind.  Near rocks are damp and rich with color.  Farther off they soften into mellow greys.  The far bank of the Coos River is lost in greyness.  Somewhere out there two foghorns call.  The nearest blows to a steady beat, maybe just a channel marker.  The other is stronger -- a single blast 30 seconds apart.  It is my understanding each major lighthouse or important marker has a unique sound and unique pattern of blasts of light so the captains out at sea can tell where they are. 

Tide is nearing high.  The ocean swell laps on the boulders beneath me.  An occasional swell is higher, splashing into the rocks and spattering me with saltiness.  I savor the coolness and breath deep, enjoying every breath.  Inland, where I live, it's beastly hot.  Here I look forward to letting the chill seep in.  Maybe if I get cold enough I won't mind driving back into the furnace when we go home. 

All too often our impression of this spot is of dogs, people and litter.  It is the only place I know of on the Oregon coast where people can camp overnight for free. But I just have to hop out of the car, cross a tiny dune, and climb on the cement pathway that runs on top of the rip rap that boarders the mouth of the Coos River.  Once there I leave the grunginess behind me.  On my side of the river there the small cove between me and Coos Head, a promontory. On sunny days a variety of birds are usually off in the distance ... gulls, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, sometimes brown pelicans, grebes and maybe a great blue heron or an osprey. 

On foggy days the birds are apt to be much closer to shore.  Today three guillemots sit on a rock just a few yards from me -- near! I'm so close I can hear their high chittering. I hurry back to the car to get my camera and sketchbook.

Guillemots nest in rock crevices; sometimes in the cavity of a rotted out piling. This cove is surrounded by steep rock walls and several suitable crevices.  Here comes an adult with a fish flying towards one of the two nearest cavities.  The birds are such klutzes!  Navigating into the nest hole is a challenge. The bird swoops up, almost on target, then chickens out and drops down low over the water. I've even seen them miss-judge and crash into the rock wall.  This one swings a huge arc around the bay before attempting another approach.  This time it lands precariously on the edge of the opening, then disappears into the dark interior.  Out again soon.  That was a quick feed.

Today Coos Head is a busy place. Every few minutes an adult guillemot flies up to a nest.  Most nests are so far away I can barley see if the adult has a fish. Even more often a guillemot plops down on the rocky ridge near me.  The guillemots particularly like this ridge and one across the bay. No finesse in their landings!  They fly in, plop down a little too fast and stumble.
They've got big bright red feet, well suited for propelling themselves in the water, but on land they remind me of a toddler playing with a pair of oversize bright red fireman boots.  Clumsy.  When guillemots walk on land, they rear up and plop one red foot after another until they are ready to rock back onto their heels.  They like to congregate in small groups, often resting on their bellies.  They are a social, talkative bunch.

July 29, 2014 Back to Coos Head
Foggy again.  I think we've come at one of the best times -- lots of feeding of youngsters.  Two nests are relatively close to us, both dark crevices in the steep cliffs that reach down to the salt water.  I'm standing on the rip rap again, along the river edge.  The nests are just a little above my eye level but about 50 feet above the water at low tide.

Here comes a guillemot.  No fish.  The bird zooms up to join another on the tiniest of ledges.  They call out briefly, revealing the fire engine red interiors of their mouths, then settle on their bellies. 

Another guillemot is heading my way, with a fish, this one a very slender fish maybe six inches long -- a gunnel or a sandlance? We've also seen them bring in sculpin.   The guillemot zooms up to the left crevice, losing momentum at the base of the opening.  It quickly disappears into the darkness and out again a moment later.  Feeding the chick happens so quickly I almost think the adult just tosses the fish inside.  But I know better.  I imagine a chick greedily grabbing. Every so often I see a tantalizing bit of movement in the darkness of that crevice,  then a babies' tush  backing out to poop!  How tidy.  A long squirt of whitewash splats on the rocks below. 
And then I get really lucky.  First one head and then another peers out of the nest hole.  The babies look nearly adult sized.  Unlike their parents, their throat and bellies are light grey, their upper sides dark.  These two will soon be ready to jump.  They'll leave the nest before they can fly.  Once on the water they can swim and dive and will have to fend for themselves.


  1. What a fantastic time this would be. Love your sketches.

  2. Loved your post, that's a unique location for sure.

  3. Makes me want to head to the coast although by now they have all fledged or fallen into the water, ha! Great sketches and lots of action within them.

  4. Nice catch of the red mouth lining....matching the feet...a surprise.
    And two youngsters "aligned" looking out into their new world. Good, good.