What to do on the People’s Coast

Birding

Photo by Steve Dimock

The small group of birders, equipped with birding books, binoculars, and a couple of scopes, headed for Devil’s Elbow beach at Heceta Head State Scenic Viewpoint north of Florence, expecting to see the usual assortment of gulls, flocks of sandpipers and other shorebirds, and a few surf scooters diving in the waves. Boy, were they surprised!

Instead of the usual suspects, the beach and offshore rocks were covered with brown pelicans—hundreds of them with more circling in the sky. Yes, pelicans, those large birds with HUGE bills that you usually see flying in formation along the coastline several feet above the waves. This scene was all wrong. You expect to see gulls on the beaches and offshore rocks—not pelicans.

It didn’t take the birders long to get over the shock and set up the scopes, in which they caught amazing close-ups of these endangered California brown pelicans preening, sleeping, and feeding. They also had several sightings of classic pelican behavior. Through their binoculars they watched pelicans fly by in formation, peel off one-by-one, and as field guide author David Allen Sibley describes it, “hunt fish by spectacular twisting plunge dives.” The group watched pelicans dive head first and come up with full pouches. While out of sight underwater, they use those huge pouches as dip-nets to catch fish. The clever birds then forced out the water, tipped back their heads, and swallowed their catch.

Pelicans look majestic in flight, but on land with their over-size bills, they can look downright ungainly. A cartoonist would’ve had a field day. This lucky group of birders had the opportunity to see pelicans in every conceivable pose as these big birds took a break in their spring migration.

This proliferation of pelicans showed that even experienced birders can be surprised when birding the Oregon Coast. While birding is a year-round activity here, the best birding is during migration in the spring and fall. Some of the largest most noticeable birds, such as the brown pelicans and bald eagles, ospreys, and turkey vultures, spend their summers on the coast. A number of songbirds nest here and are heard through the summer. In the winter, many ducks and other waterfowl gather in single species or mixed groups on coastal lakes and estuaries.

Birding poses more of a challenge in winter and not only because of the weather. Between September and March, most birds have a duller plumage than in the breeding season, and some birds change their appearance completely. For example, the black-bellied plover and the dunlin lose their black bellies, and the red-throated loon and the red-necked phalarope lose their reddish coloring. They don’t make it easy. Fortunately, a good field guide to birds will illustrate both breeding and non-breeding plumage.

Birders thrive on the challenge. The appeal lies in the sleuthing skills and intellectual analysis involved, combined with the aesthetic appreciation. As an activity, it is relatively risk free (as long as you avoid hunters during hunting seasons), doesn’t require a license, and is not harmful to the birds or the environment. And besides, it’s a great excuse to get away for a day or a weekend.

When first starting out, it’s helpful to accompany an experienced birder. If that’s not possible, check to see if there’s an Audubon Society chapter or other birding group in the area. (See sidebar for coastal birding groups.)

Also, attending a birding festival is an enjoyable way to combine a weekend getaway with birding. Compressed into a two- or three-day period will be numerous opportunities to go birding in the field with experts, as well as attend workshops and lectures. Before heading off, find out if you need to preregister for field trips because the most popular ones fill up fast. In the Northwest, there are at least 30 major festivals and three of these occur on the Oregon Coast. The last weekend in February is the Birding and Blues Festival held in Pacific City on the north coast; in late March and Early April, it’s the Aleutian Goose Festival held just across the state line in Crescent City, California; and in early September it’s the Oregon Shorebird Festival held in Charleston in Oregon’s Bay Area. (See sidebar for festival contact information.)

The coast is popular for birding because of the variety of habitats: open ocean, beaches, estuaries, old-growth forests, and river valleys. Pelagic birding involves going out on the ocean by boat to observe seabirds such as alcids like common murres and rhinoceros auklets, as well as the long distance fliers like albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. The Shorebird and Aleutian Goose festivals are two events where pelagic birding trips are offered with birding experts onboard. Marine Discovery Tours based in Newport offers two-hour Sea Life Cruises on the ocean with a naturalist onboard pinpointing all types of sea life including seabirds.

Along the beaches expect to see gulls, shorebirds, birds of prey, and in the offshore waters sea ducks (except during nesting season) and alcids. The headlands and offshore rocks, protected by the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, provide nesting habitat for 13 species of seabirds including gulls, pigeon guillemots, three species of cormorants, common murres, and tufted puffins.

Puffins at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

Wherever rivers enter the ocean, freshwater mixes with salt water for some distance upriver. These estuaries provide great birding for a variety of birds: sea ducks, cormorants and other birds that nest on the headlands, as well as non-seagoing birds like mergansers. Estuaries, such as Tillamook Bay and Yaquina Bay with large protected areas of water and South Slough and Bandon Marsh that have large areas of exposed mudflats each day, provide some of the best birding on the coast much of the year.

In the spring and fall thousands of shorebirds migrate along the Oregon Coast, stopping at estuaries to feed and rest. Shorebird numbers peak in April on their way north to arctic breeding grounds and again in September on their way south to warm tropical non-breeding habitat. Nestucca Bay, Siletz Bay, and Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuges are great places to watch for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

In winter just offshore and in estuaries, sea ducks and other waterbirds are abundant. Many ducks and geese winter on coastal lakes and can be seen on casual (temporary) water that covers sections of pastureland. These in turn attract raptors.

The river valleys with their mix of streams, marshes, pasturelands, and mixed riparian forests are rich birding areas for songbirds, and raptors much of the year.

The new Oregon Coast Birding Trail, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2006, is a self-guided driving tour that will make all but the pelagic birding habitats more accessible to coastal residents and visitors. The route will trace more than 700 miles of existing highways and roads and highlight approximately 300 prime birding locations. The primary route will be Highway 101 stretching 400 miles from Astoria to the Klamath River in California, and will have at least eight secondary tour loops. The Oregon Coast Birding Trail follows a growing trend of birding trail development across the United States that began in Texas about 10 years ago. Birding trails now total approximately 40 in 25 states.

The Oregon Coast Birding Trail is on track for a fall dedication with a trail guide to be distributed at the same time. In the meantime, here are three coastal birding field trip suggestions.

Birding Around Tillamook Bay

In the winter, thousands of birds winter in Tillamook Bay, but all year long this area has good birding. About seven prime birding locations nominated for the Birding Trail are around the bay. Bay Ocean spit juts into Tillamook Bay with birding on both the bay side and the ocean side. In the winter look for surf scoters, common murres, western grebes, and western gulls on the ocean side and common loons, buffleheads, pigeon guillemots, American wigeons, and mallards on the bay side during the cold and rainy months. The seabirds can also be seen nesting offshore in the spring and summer.

On the inland side of Tillamook Bay, in the Bay City area are the Bay City Sewage Ponds with nutrient rich water. Expect to see buffleheads, ruddy ducks, Bonaparte’s gulls, violet-green swallows, and purple martins. Bay City Oyster Plant attracts a variety of birds. In the winter, expect to see American wigeons, mallards, black brants, and northern pintails and swallows, killdeers, and mallards in the summer. Between Garibaldi and Bay City and between Bay City and Tillamook Highway 101 hugs the bay, which makes for easy birding. Here expect to see common loons in winter and bald eagles, great blue herons, and great egrets year-round.

Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint to Yachat’s Ocean Beach Drive

This field trip includes the headlands, beaches, and offshore rocks of the shore habitat. Check a tide table, and try to arrive between high tide and low tide. As the tide heads out, the birds come in. Expect to see gulls, cormorants, murres, and guillemots year- round. Scoters and shorebirds are seen in winter, but breed in the far north.

At Devil’s Elbow Beach at Heceta Head Lighthouse SSV, expect to see a variety of gulls with some bathing in the fresh water of Cape Creek. There will be Brandt’s and pelagic cormorants on the offshore rocks and nearby headlands. Offshore in the waves watch for surf scoters and white-winged scoters. Flocks of “peeps,” a generic name for small shorebirds, might include sanderlings, dunlins, and least and western sandpipers. Around the tide pools, black turnstones and surfbirds are often seen together. Surfbirds have yellow legs and paler coloring. The well-named turnstones use their slender bills to flip aside pebbles and shells in search of food. The sandpipers, surfbirds, and turnstones fly in separate flocks with each flock moving as one. These flocks are fascinating to watch and both the ruddy and black turnstones have bold wing and back patterns that are visible in flight.

Head up the coast and stop at any of the following places: Ocean Beach Picnic Area, Stonefield Beach, Bob Creek, Strawberry Hill, and Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint. Look for the same bird species. At Bob Creek also look for harlequin ducks swimming around the offshore rocks and at Strawberry Hill look for black oystercatchers (they are here year round) with their bright red bills. And you might also see harbor seals lying on the offshore rocks.

Just before Yachats turn on the south access to Yachats Ocean Drive. Expect to see some of the same bird species. If the tide is in, you’ll see a couple of spouting horns where the water, forced through lava tubes, erupts into a geyser-like spray.

Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Bandon Marsh was established for its value as habitat for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, and has since become renowned for its shorebird viewing. To see the most diversity of birds plan your trip in spring or fall.

Turn on the first road to the right, Riverside Drive, after crossing the bridge over the Coquille River just north of Bandon. Notice the signs and take the trail to the viewing and interpretive decks. Stairs lead to the edge of the marsh. If you time your arrival just as the water starts to recede after high tide, you’ll see flock after flock of birds arriving for good pickings on the freshly exposed mudflats. Gulls, waterfowl, and flocks of a few thousand peeps land and take off and longer legged shorebirds like whimbrel, dowitchers, and yellowlegs either individually or in small groups carefully probe for small crustaceans in the mudflats with their long bills.

This mass of shorebirds attracts the attention of raptors, so keep an eye out for peregrine falcons or a smaller merlin swooping down and causing panic among the flocks. Low-flying northern harriers working the nearby grasslands won’t disturb the birds in the mudflats.

Last fall at the Oregon Shorebird Festival field trip to the marsh, birds spotted included black bellied plovers, semi-palmated plovers, black turnstones, surfbirds, western and least sandpipers, long-billed dowitchers, marbled godwits, black oystercatchers, and band-tailed pigeons in nearby trees. Peregrines and northern harriers were hunting the area and ospreys and turkey vultures flew overhead.

Birding on the coast can be a part of every trip to (or up or down) the coast. You’ll see birds you expect to see, but you may see those you don’t expect and therein lies the thrill of birding. You may see the threatened snowy plovers dashing about the beach, the hard to spot red knot or wandering tattler almost hidden among jetty rocks, a bald eagle diving for a fish, an osprey flying overhead with a fish in its talons, or a beautiful male wood duck strutting along Highway 101. . . . Or you might be in the right place at the right time to see hundreds of migrating birds, like the hundreds of brown pelicans hogging Devil’s Elbow beach, taking every available spot on the sand and offshore rocks. So grab your binoculars and bird book and join the fun.

Birding Groups

  • Audubon Society of Portland 503-292-6855 www.audubonportland.org
  • Yaquina Birders & Naturalists, Newport Range Bayer 541-265-2965 rbayer@orednet.org
  • Cape Arago Audubon Society, Coos Bay Eric Clough 541-266-7382
  • Birding and Blues Foundation, Pacific City Gary Lesniak 503-965-6994 info@birdingandblues.com

Visit the Oregon Coast Birding website.

Written by Judy Fleagle

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