Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Never Enough Puffin Stuff

USFWS photo
See that bird over there? Yeah. The one to the left. That's a tufted puffin. (Say that ten times fast.) It's what I hoped to see when our family traveled to the Oregon Coast last week for a few days.

Technically, I did see one, but not in all its sad-eyed-clown, red-footed, tufted-puffin gloriousness. I only got to see it in silhouette, a football with desperately flapping wings.

But that's better than nothing. A puffin in the hand is worth two in the ocean. Or something.

Tufted puffins (I often start to say "pufted tuffins" by mistake) nest on offshore rocks along the Oregon coast. The largest colony along the coast returns annually to a huge sea stack called Haystack Rock, which looms outside the town of Cannon Beach.

Haystack Rock

Cannon Beach was one of the first coastal towns I visited after Tony and I got married and moved west 25 years ago. Tony had lived in the Pacific Northwest for a few years before we met in New York and was keen to show me the stunning vistas of the Oregon coast.

Our first stop on that long-ago trip was Ecola State Park, which offered dramatic seascapes that I'd viewed in the black-and-white photos Tony had taken on his first own first visit.

So we were pretty taken aback when we drove into the park only to see the green hills spangled with flags and colorful tents and to be confronted by a police officer wearing a hat that said "Kindergarten Cop."

We couldn't enter, he said, because a movie was being filmed there that day.

There was Much Grumbling in the car as we drove back out.

Fortunately, we never again encountered obstacles to our enjoyment of this park. Various viewing decks have collapsed due to erosion, but we weren't on them at the time. It's a stunning place.

The odd name "Ecola" comes from a Native American word, spelled in some sources as "ikoli" and in others as "ekholi," meaning "whale." Lewis and Clark inspired the use of this name because when they visited, they sought out a dead whale being rendered on the beach by local Native Americans, hoping to trade for some of the meat and blubber to round out their provisions. (Clark claimed that whale meat tasted like "beaver or dog in flavour," which doesn't really help most of us imagine it very well.)

On this 2014 visit, we headed down without any expectations of dead whales, looking forward only to exploring the tidepools to look at anemones, sea stars, and other creatures. No tufted puffins on the rocks , but we did see a flock of pelicans hanging out.

Ecola's mysterious Sitka-spruce forest carpeted with ferns and basaltic rock formations stopping the waves make a timeless place. Both trees and rocks are etched with patterns reminiscent of dinosaur skin.

Along the paths, more ephemeral features pop into view, such as this dazzling Douglas iris:

Back at Cannon Beach, the sea stacks swarmed with gulls while the tide pools swarmed with children and watchful adults. A Fish & Wildlife officer watched over the area benignly. One of the pleasant perks of his job is cruising up and down the coast, going to whatever community wants him to stop by and chat with people about the habitat.

A side effect is that his presence stops people from stripping the tide pools of animals so they can take them home and let them rot in beach pails. It also kept people from climbing into the birds' nesting area.

But it didn't stop a pair of bald eagles from perching on the rock, causing gulls to wheel and scream furiously. The puffin chicks are fairly safe because puffins nest in burrows, but there are plenty of gull chicks for the picking.

We returned to Seaside, where I saw scarcely any birds other than gulls spooked by dogs on the beach. Cannon Beach is a restful, driftwood-colored community whereas Seaside is more like a West Coast version of Blackpool: arcades, pizzerias, souvenirs.

There was a lovely, quiet little bookstore just over the river from town, called Beach Books, where a cat drowsed in the window. No puffins, though, tufted or otherwise.