Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Like Water Off a Puffin's Back

This year marks our 10th Birdathon to raise money for Portland Audubon. Hot weather had kept our last two trips under the 100 species mark, so we were excited to head to the coast and reach that magical number. Our group of ten started under cloudy skies at Gabriel Park, quickly adding must-have suburban birds like Lesser Goldfinch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Bushtit, and Anna’s Hummingbird to our list.

Temporarily renaming our team “Grouse, Guns and Glory” we ventured, unarmed, up Storey Burn Road in the mist-shrouded coast range.  Success greeted us at our first stop, where our “target” bird, Sooty Grouse, boomed from the forest despite the nearby recreational shooting. Hermit Warblers sang, unseen, from the canopy, and a lone Varied Thrush made itself heard during a brief reloading period.
Tillamook Forest Center is well known for two things and it delivered on both: nesting dippers and the nicest bathrooms on Highway 6. The rain had turned soaking and our search for dippers was thankfully brief. As we continued west, we started wondering how long the deluge would last.

Our itinerary was set aside in favor of a drive out to Bayocean Spit, given the unceasing rain. The route turned up some Ring-billed Gulls in a dairy pasture and a single Belted Kingfisher on ancient pilings. A short, soggy hike produced a Bufflehead and a couple Common Mergansers. A tantalizing flock of dowitchers sped silently by, confounding our ID attempts. Swallows surrounded the van on the dike road, their migration slowed by the storm.

Despite almost comically bad weather, the intrepid team piled out of the van again at the Pacific Oyster Company along Tillamook Bay, finding Purple Martin, American Goldfinch, and California Gulls. We tried unsuccessfully to turn a Killdeer into a Semipalmated Plover.

Sodden and hungry, we drove north to Twin Rocks, where Sarah’s (fairy?) godmother offered up her house for our lunch break. We took our sweet time enjoying the hospitality and spotting Brown Pelicans and Pacific Loons flying over the sliver of ocean that was visible from inside the cozy living room.

As we drove up Highway 101 through Wheeler and turned onto Highway 53, the rain began to lessen and we found Black-headed Grosbeak and a flock of Whimbrels. Nehalem Meadows held Canada Geese with a Cackling companion, Turkey Vultures and more swallows. The Nehalem Bay Sewage Ponds were magical with Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwall, Cliff Swallows, Spotted Sandpipers, and Lesser Scaup.
With over 75 species on our list, we felt optimistic about making it to 100. We made a beeline for Cannon Beach and found our lucky parking spot, right in front of Haystack Rock. Under slightly brighter skies, we tallied up the bounty of birds: Tufted Puffin, Common Murre, all three Cormorants, flyby Harlequin Ducks, Bald eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Surf Scoter, and a distant Black Oystercatcher.
Trees full of spring migrants lined the parking lot of the Cannon Beach Sewage Ponds. Recently-arrived Western Tanagers, Western Wood Pewees, and warblers of all kinds foraged in the spruces. Duck diversity was low, but Northern Rough-winged Swallows posed cooperatively on the fence and Vaux’s Swifts twittered overhead.

It was getting late, but we were over 90 species, so we decided to race up to Seaside to squeeze a few more birds out of the coast. In a bizarre turn of events, Max turned onto a gravel road to see if the tall, long-necked bird he’d seen from the highway was really an emu, which would have netted the team an extra $5 pledge. Alas, the mysterious bird was a Canada Goose perched on a small hill. On the plus side, we found our only Orange-crowned Warbler and Purple Finch of the trip without even leaving the van.

Seaside Cove held plenty of surfers but no shorebirds at all. Diligent scoping of the ocean was rewarded with two more new birds: Red-throated Loon and White-winged Scoter. Sitting at 96 species and hoping for shorebirds, we made quick stops at the Necanicum Estuary and Stanley Lake. Greater Scaup, Least Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs brought us up to a tantalizing 99 species, with a long ride back toward Portland to plan our final strategy.

Dawson Creek Park is best known for one particular species that is as close to a sure thing as birds can ever be. We made this our last stop and headed for the cluster of snags along the creek. Acorn Woodpeckers didn’t keep us in suspense for long. As we celebrated bird #100, two of them peeked around trees, showed their white wing patches, and made their distinctive laughing calls.

After an awards ceremony in the parking lot for the best fundraisers and bird spotters, we returned to our starting location, adding a Mourning Dove on a power line for species #101. Birding for 13 hours on a day with an inch of rain is not for wimps. We are extremely proud of our intrepid team for keeping their spirits and binoculars up all day long. We raised thousands of dollars for Portland Audubon and enjoyed some wonderful birds. See you next year!

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