Sunday, June 22, 2014

Home Alone

Home Alone. That's a joke. I have 3 horses, about 20 goats, 3 turkeys, 18 or so chickens, 2 dogs, 1 sheep, 2 llamas... and 2 pigs. I am *never* alone. While Johnny was gone for a week visiting the California kids, I kept busy feeding and cleaning up after animals, weeding, hoeing, mowing, digging tansy, weeding, mowing... you get the picture. But none of that makes good copy. So I'll confess: I also took off a couple days to go to the coast and survey birds. And sea stars.

On Sunday, June 15, friend Nancy and I spent a long day at the coast, surveying Black Oystercatchers at Cape Meares, Short Beach, and Cape Lookout. The only place we found any were at Short Beach, where I was sure a pair was nesting but could not verify it. However our main focus at Short Beach turned out to be a sea star survey.

I had received an email from COASST, the people in charge of the beached bird survey that Johnny and I do, just before the weekend asking their volunteers to monitor sea stars while at the beach during the low tides of the upcoming weekend. Sea Stars (commonly but incorrectly known as starfish) on the west coast have come down with a devastating wasting disease. COASST, based at the Univ. of Wash., in collaboration with Cornell Univ., is conducting surveys of sites on the northwest coast. So Nancy and I ran a transect on Short Beach and counted sick sea stars. There were lots of them.

The disease begins to rot their arms until they sever and sometimes go walking off by themselves (the arm, that is) while the main body withers, rots, and dies. The arm also dies. It is pretty gross. First, though, the signs may be subtle, with just a bit of shriveled or rotten looking part of an arm. Here are some of the stars we found in various stages of illness.

I left Nancy to do most of the sick sea star surveying, while I tried to figure out what was going on with the BLOY (Black Oystercatchers). At low tide, I can get farther out to hopefully see more of the ledge where the Oystercatchers have nested in the past and I was sure were nesting this year. But not far enough as it turned out. In this photo, an Oystercatcher that had been standing on the ledge is taking off, lower left. Although I watched on and off, I could not tell for sure if the BLOY were feeding chicks, incubating eggs, or neither one.

As the tide came in, we left and headed to Cape Meares, where we heard but did not see BLOY. However, the camp hosts there are keeping an eye out for them and will keep notes. Plus friend John Woodhouse checks almost every day and lets me know any BLOY news.

So on we went to Cape Lookout (back to Cape Lookout as we had stopped in the morning but it was raining so useless to look). We found no BLOY on the rocks but we had a consolation prize of a sky full of skydivers, coming off Gammon Point above the park and landing on the park beach.

We went up to the Point and watched this one taking off.

Nancy, a retired marine biologist, thought the day was great fun, especially the sea star survey, but I was not so thrilled. I wanted to figure out what was going on with those Short Beach BLOY.

So... frustrated at my lack of success, I came back at another low tide three days later, when I was able to walk farther out for a slightly better angle. An Oystercatcher was on the ledge. I could see it apparently sometimes going for food but never could tell for sure if it brought food back for chicks. I definitely could not see chicks!

Note the two little rock bulges in front of the BLOY. Those are what I used to judge what angle I was looking at.

I backed away to where I was farther from the ledge but at a better angle. Note those two rock bulges. I can now see a bit farther left, but not into where the chicks, if there were any, must have been.

After two hours, the tide was coming in and I gave up. On the way back up the mile long beach, three sub-adult Bald Eagles were attacking a gull (or something) that would try to lift off the ocean only to be hit by an eagle and go down again. I watched until the eagles gave up.

As I climbed the long, rustic staircase back up to the road, I remembered that last year I had found a spot on the road where there is a break in the shrubbery allowing a view (distant) of the nest ledge. I set my scope up in that gap. It was over a mile from my scope to the nest ledge. I did not hold out much hope of seeing anything at that distance. But I did.

The angle was better and I could see farther to the left and behind those two rock bulges. An adult BLOY landed as I watched and put something down on the rock, pecking at it as they do when they're breaking up mussel pieces to make them bite-sized for chicks. But I could see no chicks. It was a "long" way away. After the adult flew off, I kept watching. And lo and behold two gray blobs moved! They were chicks! There was a third gray blob that did not move so I don't know if that was another chick or a gray rock. The adult soon returned and again put something down on the rocks for the gray blobs.

I took photos, but the only reason I can see chicks in these photos is because I knew where they were. However, if you have a good eye (and imagination) you might be able to see the one on the left inside the red circle (which friend Dawn kindly put on my photo to corral the chicks). The left one is standing and you can see its shadow. Okay, I can see it's shadow. The second photo is cropped to make the chicks bigger but also blurrier. You'll have to take my word for it. There are chicks at Short Beach!

The next day, Thursday, I mowed around the perimeter of a field in the morning, then showered, drove to the feed store in Dallas for feed and then to Salem to pick up Johnny at the Amtrak station.

It was great to have him home, especially since the next day, Friday, was the best tides of the month for doing our beached bird survey at Salmon River. After our canoe trip to and from the survey beach, we hike the cliffs at Road's End to check on the three BLOY nests at that site. So many surveys; so little time...

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