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Puffins on the Haystack

The birds I am seeing way up on Haystack Rock, at Cannon Beach, might be puffins. I’m not sure. It’s 6 o’clock on a gray, wet morning, and there’s no one around with whom I can talk birding.

The tide is bringing in a curtain of mist, blurring my binoculars. Even on a clear day, though, I would probably be doubting myself. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, certainly not as keen as they were 30 years ago, when I started taking bird-watching seriously.

Haystack Rock stands 235-feet tall, the equivalent of a 20-story building. The specks that I am hoping are puffins — six of them — are hanging out close together, standing upright on about the 18th floor.

If they are indeed puffins, they would be the first I have ever seen in the wild.

I detect chubby black bodies, but I can’t make out whether the legs and beaks are orange. You would think orange would show. Are their faces white? None of the birds will look my way and help me out.

The objects of my attention are doing nothing at the moment but gazing out at the ocean. This is in stark contrast to the restless gulls, cormorants and murres that are circling Haystack in dizzying flight patterns. Every second, several birds are either landing or taking off.

Nobody on this rocky aviary seems to be bothering anybody else. Each species goes about its business, huddling with its own kind, not looking to pick fights with the others.

There are three varieties of North American puffins, and they all have webbed feet, like ducks, and large beaks, like parrots. The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata), found along the Oregon Coast, is the most lovable, perhaps, of the three, sporting strands of golden plumes that curl over the back of its head.

But cuteness aside, these are tough birds that spend most of their lives on the open ocean, diving for small fish. They take a break from seafaring just once a year to lay one egg per mating pair, then raise their chick until it’s ready to join the puffin navy.

Most of the steep, grassy islands where they choose to nest are very remote, but not Haystack Rock. At low tide, you can walk safely out to this enormous chunk of volcanic basalt and touch it.

With my Southern Oregon bias, I was prepared to be unimpressed by this massive monolith — created by lava flows millions of years ago. It’s supposedly one of Oregon’s most photographed natural wonders, right up there with Multnomah Falls and Crater Lake. But I have a theory about that.

Cannon Beach is only about an hour’s drive west of Portland, so, of course, Haystack gets a lot of cameras pointed at it. There are simply more people up there.

If the coastline were flipped, awesome landmarks closer to our backyard, such as Arch Rock and Whaleshead near Brookings, would win the popularity contest, I’m sure.

Whaleshead even has a blowhole that shoots a stream of water into the air when waves smack the rock just right. Let’s see Haystack do that!

But I do have to admit that this Cannon Beach bulwark makes a bold, majestic statement. And I like that it’s accessibly close to shore, like a community member rather than an aloof overseer of the sandy beach.

Just don’t climb on it. The entire rock, including its tidepools, is protected as part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a network of 1,853 rocks, reefs and offshore islands set aside for marine bird and mammal habitat.

I approached Haystack from the south, hitting the beach at a state-park wayside, where an interpretive panel said that puffins occupy their nests for about 100 days, beginning in early April.

It was June 13, well within that time range. My mystery birds, therefore, had to be puffins. Right?

When I returned to Haystack later in the day, under a blue sky, my doubts over what I was seeing disappeared. The birds standing on the rock, as if watching a parade, were definitely puffins.

In the brighter light, without the mist, I could make out all their markings clearly. I stopped counting the mob at 20.

Even more exciting, I watched a few take off and fly toward shore. They passed right over my head, their stubby wings beating rapidly.

Though I still couldn’t shake the thought that Haystack Rock is overrated, I could have hugged the big hunk. I owed it my first puffin sightings.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.


Tufted puffin in the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. Photo / 123RF.com
An interpretive display about puffins near Haystack Rock. Photo by Paul Hadella