Monday, August 29, 2011

Oregon Shorebird Festival: Part One

Since Johnny's back surgery seemed to have done wonders and he was sure he could handle my chores over the weekend, I registered for the Oregon Shorebird Festival in Charleston, Oregon. I had no clear idea of where Charleston was, except somewhere on the south coast, or what you do at a bird festival but I was ready to escape the farm chores for a few days and the time seemed right.

I noticed a canoe trip was one of the field trips so I signed up for it. I like birding by canoe. Alas, I had no idea what I was getting in for.

The first phone call from the organizers asked if I'd mind switching to a kayak because the canoes were full. That was fine with me. But I was a little nervous about my lack of kayak experience so I quickly searched youtube for videos of how to paddle a kayak, then launched the little kayak I inherited from my dad in our farm pond and started practicing.

I need not have bothered. The next phone call asked if I'd mind switching to a canoe as someone had back trouble and needed the back support of a kayak. I assured the person that a canoe was fine. I have foldable canoe seats anyway and I added them to my list of things to take.

Phone call number three assured me I had a spot in a canoe paddling but was it okay if we had a rider in the middle of our canoe. I told the nice lady on the phone that that was fine. That if they needed to switch me to a kayak again, that was also fine. I didn't care if it was a canoe, a kayak, if I paddled or didn't paddle, just so long as they didn't make me swim the whole five miles. There was no need to call me back for any more changes. She thanked me for my flexibility.

Friday after morning chores (milking, feeding, cleaning barns), I packed the car with Johnny's help, ate lunch, and left. I was proud of myself for having made a list and checked each thing off it. I had a great time wandering slowly down the coast, stopping at vistas I have not seen in years, if ever. (I rarely go very far south.)

Seals were hauled up on a rocky outcropping just below a house that stood all by itself on a grassy ledge, a little south of Waldport. You'll have to click on the photos below to see where these seals are in relation to the house. What a view from that deck.

Farther south, I was fascinated by Cook's Chasm and the Spouting Horn (which was not spouting when I was there but was a lovely spot near Cape Perpetua, nonetheless.)

I arrived at Charleston without getting lost... a bit of a miracle for me. I felt a little lost, however, being alone when everyone else seemed to be in groups. Happily, I saw my birding friend Carol, who does my winter raptor route with me, and her partner Paul, who lead field trips at this festival every year. I joined them for supper at a nearby restaurant.

The next morning, as I sat in my dorm room happily eating my granola with milk I'd brought from home in the cooler, I wondered why the ice pack had melted so quickly as the milk was not terribly cold. Oh well, it was good. The next morning when I took the lid off the cooler, I realized there was no ice pack in it. I'd left it in the freezer at home. No longer feeling smug about not forgetting anything, I had warm milk on my granola. It tasted fine.

Back to Saturday morning and the canoe trip... We convened at the parking lot and carpooled to the launching spot. The two trip leaders gave us safety and paddling instructions. I had envisioned a quiet stream to drift along on and watch birds. Wrong. This was a very wide, fast moving river. At least as wide as the widest part of the Willamette River. And the morning was windy. Very windy.

We were, with few exceptions, pushing- past- middle-age dames. I was assigned to the stern of a canoe with one similarly-aged woman in the front and another in the middle. Well, not quite the middle as she could not maneuver between the two struts (or whatever they're called).. so she was forward of them. Both my canoe mates were considerably heavier than I, as nearly everyone is (I struggle to get over 110 pounds and mostly fail). This bow-heavy weight distribution proved to make steering, at which I am lousy to begin with, rather difficult... especially in the wind.

One younger woman and her quite young and smallish daughter were in a canoe together. There were three canoes in all plus two kayaks, not counting our two leaders, each in a kayak. We launched and were instructed to practice our strokes in the relatively calm water close to shore. Just before my canoe left shore, three Yellowlegs (birds) flew in to the beach and landed together: two Greater Yellowlegs and one Lesser Yellowlegs (as we could tell by size). Tom, one of our leaders, pointed them out to us, very happy that he had already delivered on the promised shorebirds. I took a photo. It was the best one by far I got all day. (Photo at top of page)

I think everyone except the woman and her daughter saw the 3 birds. Unfortunately, they were already on their way upstream, which was the wrong direction, carried by tide and wind. Joy, the other of our two leaders, paddled after them in her kayak. The rest of us followed Tom, downstream, against tide and wind, to view Black Turnstones by the bridge. However before we could get that far, Tom had us put in to shore while he went to see what had happened to Joy and the missing canoers since he was no longer able to reach Joy by radio. The radios were uncooperative, off and on, for the entire trip.

Eventually he came back, winded from fighting tide and wind, to tell us the missing canoer and Joy would wait for us upstream as the tide and wind were too much for them to fight. This is when I began to realize, I think, that we were embarking on An Adventure. Onward we went upstream, hugging the shore and trying to avoid ramming the many pilings along it. The plan was to cut across the channel and float back toward the bridge to see Black Turnstones that usually hung out on the barnacle-encrusted pilings of the bridge. There was no way I could have followed those instructions. Once we hit the fast moving tidal current, we were off and running upstream. Tom was the only one who could manage the feat that day and, as it turned out, the Turnstones were not where they were supposed to be anyway.

Next stop was a sand bar just being covered by incoming tidal water. On the part still above the water, there were hundreds of shorebirds running about. We were instructed to push our crafts as far as we could to ground them so we could sit and key out the shorebirds. This was not so hard for Tom and his kayak, but for my bow-heavy canoe, it was a bit more difficult. We could get the bow onto the bar, but the stern kept whipping around trying to go with the flow and pulling the canoe off the bar. Meanwhile the rider in the middle was trying to get photos of the birds rather than of the back of the woman in front of her. It was an interesting time. Plus we had splashed water into the bottom of the canoe that was drenching the rider and she was, understandably since the water was very cold, freezing. I snapped some shots in hopes I could key out the birds when I was home in front of my computer. Amazingly, they came out not looking like I was swaying and bouncing and flopping a paddle around, which I was. These new stabilizer cameras are wonderful.

In this photo are 2 Black Turnstones, at least 3 Red-necked Phalaropes and a passel of Western Sandpipers. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Below left has a bevy of Western Sandpipers, three Black Turnstones, and one Yellowlegs. The lone Turnstone in the photo right looks like he's hunched up and fighting the wind. So were we.

Eventually, we left the mud bar and fought to keep our canoes headed upstream instead of following the circling tidal and river currents which were going every which way with the wind blowing in various directions. It was a fun time. We joined the waiting canoers and Joy and proceeded upstream, seeing few birds but lots of curious harbor seals that popped up out of the water to watch us. This photo was taken by my canoe-mate-in-the-middle, Harlean Tobin.

Eventually we fought our way to the lunch stop, a lovely island with a log just right for sitting on. An osprey called and flew over us. From this island paradise we could watch birds in comfort. But we were behind schedule and Tom urged us onward. He assured us the wind would not be so bad from now on and the channel would be narrower, making less turmoil with water going too many directions to cope with. We decided to switch places and let someone else man (or woman) the back of my canoe while I moved to the front of a different canoe. That was lovely. For me. It was a restful time with a young woman in the stern who knew what she was doing. But it was not to last.

Contrary to Tom's optimism, the wind and water were not more cooperative, except occasionally when we turned into a lee spot, and the woman who took over my position could not manage it at all. So we beached again and I went back to fighting wind and water with a new, rested (she had been riding in the middle of a different canoe for the first part of the journey) paddler in the front. I was also rested now and it really wasn't quite so bad as it had been. Unfortunately for one of the kayakers, while we canoers were waiting to change places, her kayak tipped over for some unknown reason and she got drenched. Trooper that she was, she climbed back in with Joy's help and paddled the rest of the route soaking wet and cold.

Tom kept assuring us that it was smooth sailing just around the next point of land and we were almost to the take out spot. Half an hour later, we were, although the challenges never ended. As the channel narrowed, logs and stumps became an issue and we needed to thread our way around them. We all succeeded, amazingly enough, and landed safely at the take out spot where a van arrived to take us back to the starting point and our cars.

In spite of the challenges, it really was quite a fun and bonding time. At least, it seems so now that I look back on it. We became good friends in a very short time.

I'll stop now as it's late and time for chores. The next installment, of the Sunday field trip, will be much less exciting... but with better photos.

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