Where are all the birds?
Alone cormorant dives for lunch, surfaces amid whitecaps and spindrift, grabs some air and dives again. Back away from the jetty, woodsy Bullards Beach State Park rings with an unseen chickadee's calls: chicka-dee-dee-dee. A gull hovers in the face of the endless wind like a kite, then wheels and shoots off like a pale rocket.
If there are any other birds in the world, there's no sign of them. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
The plan was to visit a friend near Eugene, drive over to the Coast and head south to Crescent City, birding casually for a day or two on the way. Not a "big day" kind of deal, as birders call a single day of seeing how many species you can list. More like if you do some low-intensity birding mixed with other activities, how many species would you see at roadside parks, the beach, campgrounds and the like?
You'd think an itinerary that included such bird-rich spots as Bandon Marsh and Crescent City, Calif., could not help but yield more than 100 species, though that's nothing but a wild guess. As a rule of thumb, you can expect maybe 200 to 250 species within a 180-mile radius of most points in North America. There are exceptions. But on average, even elite birders (which I'm not) would be hard-pressed to see many more than that even on an extended visit.
On the way to Lorane we saw the usual suspects along the road: American crow, scrub jay, red-tailed hawk, Brewer's blackbird, turkey vulture, ubiquitous starlings. The best bird showed up in some trees on a side trip to a winery, a Pacific slope flycatcher, or maybe a Cordilleran flycatcher. The two are pretty much identical. The best way to tell them apart is by their songs, but this one wasn't talking, so I couldn't count him.
My friend's rural digs were awash in flowers, and a tiny calliope hummingbird showed up among the many Anna's and rufous hummers, a beautiful female with a rufous wash on her belly. White-crowned sparrows foraged everywhere. There were song sparrows, too. One that looked "different" turned out to be a savannah sparrow, with its notched tail and prominent mustache.
By the time I hit the Coast, there were only about 20 birds on my list, but bird city, times two, was coming up. But so was the wind, blowing so hard there was stinging sand in it. Along the road to Bandon I saw a spotted towhee in the brush at a rest stop, western gulls along the beach.
I camped at Bullards, where Steller's jays patrolled the trees and chickadees jabbered. No LBJs — little brown jobs — to be seen. Near the lighthouse were a few brown pelicans. I headed for the marsh, where I've easily listed 40 or 50 species, but not in a howling wind.
There's a flock of sandpipers out on the mudflats. Sandpipers drive me nuts, and I spend more time than one should trying to make these into semipalmateds and leasts before finally deciding they're westerns.
As I'm marveling at the unexpected birdlessness of the marsh, a chorus of sreee sreee sreee comes from the brush near an observation deck. Cedar waxwings are swarming the bushes for their fruit, shaking the berries in their bills like dogs, ripping out red hunks of berry flesh. Waxwings are living proof of the fact that wildlife art — no matter how good — can never fully capture the very life of the animal.
I turn in early figuring there's a chance the wind will be gone — and the birds back — in the morning. But no. Large aerial acrobats like gulls and terns dance with the wind, but little passerines — the sparrows and finches and flycatchers and warblers and vireos that are so fun and challenging — hunker down when the wind is up. Except for swallows, and I quickly get three species of them.
By mid-day I'm still short of 50 birds, and the wind is getting old. I head south for Harris Beach early, hoping the wind will abate south of Cape Blanco.
I move slowly, a historical site here, a botanical area there. There's a western tanager on a side road, the first American kestrel of the trip, perched on a power line.
In the Brookings area there is Zola's, a happening pizza place in the Harbor boat basin that wasn't there not so long ago. Great pizza, more than 100 boutique beers and ales and live music from San Francisco on a Wednesday night.
In the morning the wind is down. Yesss! I head down Lake Earl Drive north of Crescent City to where it runs into the lake. The rules of my low-intensity concept prevent me from hiking the extensive trails around the lake, which usually yield lots of birds, but scanning from the shore is OK. Half a dozen banded pigeons take off from a snag as I exit the car, the loud clapping of their wings giving them away.
Once hunted nearly to extinction, banded pigeons are among the birds that feed "bird milk" or "crop milk" to their young. It is produced by both sexes (yup) from the lining of the crop, and it is richer in protein and fat than cow's milk.
Crescent City turns out to be shrouded in fog, at least the parts I'm interested in. You can't see across the harbor. There's a solitary common loon, the usual western gulls and a bunch of sleepy sea lions.
I head for the abandoned mill grounds behind the Safeway store beyond the reach of the fog. But this little birding sweet spot has fallen on hard times. The litter is terrible, and the paths are overgrown. The first two trails I try lead quickly to large homeless camps. The third offers another surprise, trees festooned with letters, a la Shakespeare's "As You Like It." But there's no love-drunk Orlando here, no beautiful Rosalind. One note says somebody's friend has been busted for public drunkenness, another says the cops are looking for somebody for assault.
I call it a trip having seen some 80 birds. Sheesh. You can usually get that in a day at Crescent City. From an outcome standpoint, it was — no hyperbole — the worst birding trip ever, which is still better than the best day in the office.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.