Sunday, October 30, 2016

Urps, Burps, and Splashes: Brown Pelicans and Harbor Seals

Bandon Oregon ... at the mouth of the Coquille River:  October 23 

It has been about three weeks since the last hot day of summer, but I’m still savoring every cool, damp day that comes along.  This morning was mostly grey, damp, hardly any wind, and cool, but not cold.  We hiked a path at a coast campground in the morning and now, after lunch, have parked on the jetty at the mouth of the Coquille River, just across from the Bandon Lighthouse (correctly known as the Coquille River Lighthouse).  I jump out of the car full of expectation. The sky is still grey and damp.  A breeze is just starting to kick in.  A quarter of a mile away I see big breakers stumble into an aqua roll as they crash into the shoreline.  Their sound is muffled, blown away by the breeze.  

The pelicans are here!  I see at least a hundred brown pelicans: on the river, perched on rocks and pilings, and a few in the air.   When I look towards the ocean I see half a dozen more trickling their way south along the coast.  These fly by the mouth of the river and head to Table Rock, a big island just off shore.  It is hard to find a pelican along the Oregon coast in the summer time.  They nest far to the south, but, after nesting, many come north for late summer.  Now it is time for them to head back to warmer waters. 
Five pelicans come flying upriver and splash down across from me and next to half a dozen other pelicans.  It is splash and bath time.  Water flies as their monstrous large wings whop the water.  Lots of head dipping and ruffled feathers.   
Three more join.  The pelicans still have most of their breeding colors – their gular patch (throat) is red; lemon yellow glows on their heads; their upper bill is reddish and their lower bill is dark bluish grey.  Beautiful!  Soon the bright colors will dull until the next breeding season.

I realize there is a pattern to what is going on in front of me.  Every so often a small group flies in from the coast and on up the river where they splash down in front of me.  After a through splashing in the relatively fresh water (versus the salt water of the ocean) the pelicans lumber back up into the air.  Brown pelicans are a heavy bird. They are the smallest of the pelicans, even so they weight up to twelve pounds and can have a wingspan of eight feet.  Big!  Their long wings give them the amazing ability to fly just above the surface of either the big waves or the river with only an occasional flap. 

Off goes one, splashing with his webbed feet until he is air born.  But he doesn’t head back to the ocean; instead he flies a little farther upriver joins about a hundred others where low tide has exposed multiple rocks and old pilings. The one I’m watching, along with three buddies, splash down near the rocks and quickly climb onto the rocks.  Time to preen.  Keeping feathers in good shape is an important of part every bird’s day.  The pelicans take their time fluffing and buffing. 

Near the pelicans a harbor seal is acting in a most peculiar way.  He come up tail first and crashes back down.  At first I think it is just an anomaly.  Three or four big thrashes, and then all is quiet again.  But there he goes, doing it again.  Lots of seal grunting going on over there too:  grunts, belches, burps.  Noisy fellows.    Twenty or more harbor seals are hauled out on low rocks nearest the river channel. 
The tide is coming in, easing the seals off their rocks one by one.  I chuckle at how the seals try to stay as long as possible on their haul-out rocks.  They look like fat potato chips curling their tail flippers and head up more and more, trying to keep tender parts out of the water.  Finally one wave, just a little higher than the last floats the seals off one by one.  The seal on the highest rock is last to go.  Seals are well insulated, well prepared to cope with the cold Pacific water; but they obviously enjoy their cozy sleepy time too. 

I switch back and forth between seal watching and pelican watching.  Pelicans continue to fly in for a quick bath on the river, then fly over to the low rocks for the fluff and buff time.  Finally, small groups of pelicans head back out to the ocean, probably heading to Table Rock where they can safely spend the night.   The preening spot is a busy place, but the numbers of birds doesn’t change much.  Some come.  Some go.  Herrmann’s gulls and western gulls are out there too.  The seals keep on splashing and growling.  I’m still wondering what that is all about. 

Dale and I concentrate on the scene before us for a good two hours.  Still grey, but then the sun lowers just enough to send brief rays of sunshine slipping underneath the clouds above.  Suddenly the water is bluer, the yellows and reds on the pelicans glow, and the lighthouse is warmed.  The lighthouse was painted cream and rusty red just a few years ago after years of being white.  These are the original colors of the light house ….. beautiful in the late afternoon sun. 

At home note:  After several seals were washed off the rocks I saw three were out there thrashing and splashing.  I realized there must be a reason for this behavior I had never seen before.  When I got home I looked up seal behavior.  It is seal breeding season.  Harbor seals are well known for their underwater vocalizations and thrashing behavior during courtship – always something new to learn. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hanging out with a Great Horned Owl

October, 2016:  Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge
I close my eyes and remember the sweetness of slipping my cold fingers into the feathers of my great horned owl.  Bacchus especially likes it when I nuzzle into his head feathers – soft, warm.  My fingers are half buried a little forest of feathers that look smooth on the outside but have a cozy pocket of air and fluff underneath.  Bacchus loves a gentle scratch.  He turns his head a little, inviting me to work on another spot.

Back to reality: Have you ever seen birds preening each other?  It looks cozy and affectionate.  Just think about it.  A bird can reach most of its feathers with its bill for a good preening / cleaning, but not its head.  To groom its head, the owl has to resort to using its feet and work with one claw at a time. Well, a human and a bird can do that too if you have the right relationship with each other.  For it to work, there has to be trust between the both of you.  It has been my privilege to have that connection with a great horned owl, actually two of them, but at different times in my life. 
These memories came bubbling up last week when I spent over three hours, over a span of two days, with a relaxed, wild great horned owl.  My owl watching started the day before, on Thursday, at the tail end of the last hot day of summer.  Our first sighting was in the early greyness of approaching dusk. An owl perched in one of the gnarly willows that are dotted along the toe of Sheepy Ridge, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  We found three great horned owls in a span of about ¼ mile along the road that parallels Sheepy Ridge.  They may well belong to the same family.  The first owl was a bit far away.  A stiff wind was blowing his ear tufts and even slipping into his breast feathers.  He was awake, ready to start his day, or rather, his night.
On Friday the real owl watching started.  We passed the owl spot midday and were surprised to find a great horned owl perched on an exposed limb.  Odd to see an owl perched out in the open during the daytime.  Maybe he is enjoying the switch to fall weather as much as I am.  He sits on the bare branch of a gnarly willow – the willow leaves are still green, just a suggestion of gold starting.  Bits of rusty colored lichen brighten the rough bark.  Beneath the willow is a mix of long golden grasses and bright yellow rabbit brush glowing in the clean air.

He is a sleepy fellow.  When sleeping an owl pulls lower eyelids up, his forehead feathers down a little, and he tucks his head until he has no neck. He sits fluffed just a little.  An annoyed owl skinnies down.  An alert owl looks at you with those big yellow eyes, or maybe glares at you with squinty, half closed eyes.  I find their body language is more expressive than that of a lot of birds. 

The owl stirs, then fluffs out his breast feathers.  Time to preen a foot.  He raises a furry foot and carefully nibbles on it.  The foot really is covered with feathers, but it looks like fur.  Their feet are furry right down to their claws.  Soon he settles his feathers again and his eyelids slowly close.  Three yellow-rumped warblers fly into his willow.  One flits to within two feet of the owl, but the owl doesn’t stir. 

Dale and I both watched the owl for a while from the car, but now Dale has dropped me off for half an hour.  I stand on the roadside just a few yards from the sleepy owl.  The owl gives me a scowly peek and then goes back to sleep.  I savor the opportunity to stand out here in the fall sunshine and soak up the ambiance of his world.   I have the ridge rising behind the owl and can see for miles in the other direction.  A mile away are some potato harvesters, otherwise I have this huge chunk of the world to myself.  I become aware of a soft, constant buzz.  Midges have gathered above me, just like they often swarm over the tip of a tree or bush.  None come close enough to touch me and midges don’t bite.  It’s rather nice to have become part of their landscape.  I put my camera on the ground and start sketching. 
Saturday:  5:30 PM:  We’re back watching the great horned owl.  We were here this morning too.  He has moved to a different willow, about twenty feet to the left, but still sits in the open.  Beautiful light!  The trees are already in the shadow of Sheepy Ridge, but just a little farther out, bright sunshine falls on golden stubble fields.  The end result is a soft, warm, reflected light on the owl.  The owl is beautiful ... and awake.  Bright yellow eyes look us over.  Then he turns his head, as if purposefully dismissing us.
Dale and I watch while the owl looks one way and then another.  For awhile he watches the ground, then stands on his left leg and stretches both his right leg and right wing – way, way out.  A little careful scratching is in order too.

We’ve been watching and photographing for half an hour when Dale says he thinks he has photographed about all the owl’s poses possible.  We’re heading home today and have over three hours of driving ahead.  Of course I say, “There is always another,” but, I, too, know we need to get headed home.

But … the owl is intent.  He watches one spot beneath him on the ground.  Down he goes!  And disappears into tall grass.  When he raises his head, I can just see the top of of it.  Did he catch something?  A vole?  A lizard?  He stays mostly hidden for over a minute, long enough to swallow his prey.
Up he goes, back to his perch ... and all I get is tail feathers with my camera.  Beautiful tail feathers. 
There he sits, looking very smug and a little fluffed. 

And it really is time for us to head home.