Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sept 1 (Day 244) - Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.........

So after much deliberation, I decided to pass on the Oyhut Pacific golden-plovers and instead head south to Cannon Beach, OR and Haystack Rock. Given that I had tried for these birds and missed two days in a row (while everyone else succeeded!), doing this felt like leaving business unfinished. I realize that there are no guarantees in birding, but I would have had a very good shot at these birds had I backtracked. My heart was telling me to chase the plovers, but my head was telling me to make ground toward the puffins. I realized that I would have to lose the battle with the Oyhut plovers in order to potentially win battle with the more important puffins. I will ave more shots at the plovers further south.

With this in mind, I set out at 6:50am to make an all-out assault on Haystack Rock. At 108 miles, today's ride was going to be incredibly challenging. It was made even more so by the time constraints I placed on myself; I wanted to arrive in time to bird Haystack Rock today. The light was going to get progressively worse later in the day as the setting sun would continually backlight the rock where the birds hang out - well, might hang out. There was an added layer of risk/complexity to the today's big puffin hunt. While numerous puffins breed on Haystack rock, most of these birds have headed out to sea for the winter by mid-August. Some stragglers take a bit longer to disperse, but, by the end of the month, the birds are normally gone. It was completely possible that I was racing to chase birds that weren't even present. The last solid report came from 4 days ago when 2-3 birds were observed. Who knows if those birds had moved on.

108 - a strong start to September!

Stock photo of Haystack rock I pulled from online.
I would estimate that its @200' high.
At low tide a sand bridge connects it to the main beach.

The actual ride south was fairly uneventful. The first third of it was quite scenic with beautiful coastal views, but the rest of it was much less so as it basically ran through thick forest. Crossing the Columbia River at Astoria was exciting and a bit hair-raising on a very skinny two-lane bridge! I made decent time and arrived in Cannon Beach at 4pm. I immediately dropped my bike off at the house where I am staying and headed down to the beach to begin the big puffing hunt. The town is very nice and is current filled with tourists. The beach is beautiful, and many folks were out enjoying it when I arrived. Showing up with a spotting scope, binoculars, and camera to bird an area like this always ends up going the same way. I was asked "What are you looking at" ten thousand times today. I try to give very short, concise, boring answers so that I can focus on birding. If I didn't do this I would have taught the same puffin ecology class 100 times today. 

The rock was backlit as I surmised it would be, but patches of cloud gave me the chance to periodically scan through the hundreds of murres in hopes of spotting the all black, red-billed, target bird. On the alcid front, it was just murre after murre after murre, all afternoon. 2 hours came and went, and I had seen nothing puffinesque either on or flying over the cliffs. I was starting to wonder if the few remaining birds had moved on. Another 1.5 hours of the same pattern seemed to confirm this suggestion. I figured tomorrow's nice morning light would greatly improve my chances of finding this normally conspicuous alcid, but I was not overly optimistic given today's outcome. I could feel my hot normally birding hand cooling off. Yes, I had picked up Slaty-backed gull, but I had also recently missed Sooty grouse, Pacific golden-plover, and now Tufted puffin. I did add 10 birds in Ocean Shores and Westport, but I would have found all those eventually. The plover was the big prize at those locations, but I missed it.

Watching the abundant murres flying over the beach was really nice, and I did find a few other notable birds today. I had 2 Harlequin ducks on the rocks as the tide fell. These were followed soon thereafter by my first Black oystercatcher of the year for bird #542. All had not been lost as I was able to add this really attractive west coast resident to my tally. It was now close to 8pm. My legs were completely exhausted at this stage, and my arms were also aching from the ride and the seemingly hundreds of scans through the constantly swirling murres. Wait....what was hell was that? What appeared to be an all dark alcid just made a sundown pass of the rock. As it turned wheeled into profile, my suspicion was confirmed. The huge beak gave away this Tufted puffin unsuccessfully attempting to reach the rock without my detection! The bird was at least 100 yards out, but it made another 2 large loops before it ducked onto the back side of the rock not to surface again. Thinking quickly, I flipped the camera into manual mode cracked off a few shots as the bird disappeared behind the rock for good.

Puff Daddy! - Tufted puffin for year bird #543.
"The more puffins we come across, the more alcids we see!"
Lighting conditions were TERRIBLE

Lighting conditions at the time of the Puffin flyby

This was an incredible victory and certainly ranks in my top 10 bird finds of the year.  I had scanned the rock for 3.5 hours before this guy showed up right at sundown. I know that alcids normally return from forging at sea near sundown, so my plan to wait until the last bit of usable light disappeared worked to perfection today. Despite my waffling over which bird to chase, we all know that this bird was more critical than the plover. While I certainly passed on what might have been an excellent shot at the plover, I will have more chances for it over the next 2 months as I work my way down the west coast. Haystack Rock was by FAR the best shot I had at the puffin. Who knows if this one bird would be here 2 days from now. The Haystack puffin decision and chase was executed to perfection today! After I found the bird I was able to talk a bit more with beachgoers. I had some really nice interactions and was even given a hamburger! A perfect end to the day.

I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. I spent the whole day biking and birding, and I did not get to organize future plans. I may just kick around here tomorrow and rest after today. I will probably head inland towards Portland to pick up a few remaining inland/forest/mountain birds like Sooty grouse and Mountain quail before heading to Eugene and eventually back out to the coast at Coos Bay, OR. From there its south to Arcata/Eureka/Humbolt Bay. 

I had already planned out an alternative blog entry in my head, but I'm going to save it for a day without so much excitement!

Cannon Beach mascot!


  1. Huge salvage, and amazing documentation given the conditions. Congrats, time to celebrate! The grouse and plover will be yours in due time.

  2. Great nab on the puffin.
    It's still pretty early on the fall migration calendar, and you have time to 'catch up' to California's coastal hotspots. Getting too far ahead might pose a bit of a pacing challenge at times during the next two months.
    Maybe try for some modest additions while you are still in Oregon: White-fronted Goose (see yesterday just north of you at Necanicum estuary, wetlands around Portland, Eugene, etc.), Sooty Grouse, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hermit Warbler, and Purple Finch. Mountain Quail, well maybe, but it's widespread further south.

  3. Congrats! Glad you got the Puffin. I think you made the right choice, and hopefully you'll be able to find a Pacific Golden Plover in Oregon.
    Two heads up notes: first fall Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was just found in Coos Bay, Oregon, today. Also, the Shorebird Festival is next weekend on the southern Oregon coast, so something good will hopefully be found.