Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Wild Things

I grew up in Durban, South Africa, and was one of those kids who have a series of hobbies which consume them. One of these obsessions was bird watching. Durban has a very rich birdlife and once I set up a bird table in the tree outside my bedroom and stocked it with seed and bone meal I had an exciting range of birds to watch. I still recall the day I saw burchell's coucal on my bird table and there were always weavers and barbets as well as the ubiquitous indian mynahs which nested in the park nearby. Over the years my family took over the birdwatching habit and even now, whenever Mum and Dad visit me we end up bird watching and sharing binoculars. Even Wren knows that when you see a bird you shout "give me the binoculars!"

So it was utterly utterly frustrating to arrive at Cape Disappointment on Friday night and find the sea filled - from horizon to horizon - with tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of birds. From horizon to horizon the birds were flocked over the ocean, diving and flying past.

A small section of the huge mixed flock on 7/31/09

Words cannot really convey what it was like. Photo's don't either. There was just SO MANY BIRDS out over the sea. They were constantly moving, weaving, plunging, some swaying in formation - long lines of 50 pelicans and 100 cormorants rising and falling in gentle parabolas. Flocks were out beyond the break diving and splashing into the sea while others were passing by like the flock of 70 pelicans I saw flying so close to the surface that I could see each bird reflected in the water beneath it. Further still, the horizon blurred with the sea and the small fishing fleet gathered in the fog marked the reach of the sea.

The beach was awash with feathers

On the beach the lines of yellow scum at the waterline were matted with small brown feathers. Ropes of kelp occasionally dragged dead birds - cormorant, small dark feathered things. Birds, birds, birds but no binoculars! Later, we stopped at the interpretive center and I asked their bird experts about what I had seen. Neither had seen the huge flocks I described but said that they had many schools of "bait fish" at this time of year - sardines, anchovies and another I could not catch the name of - and the birds follow the fish. This certainly conforms with my observations of the birds and you may see some of that if you enlarge the photo. They also mentioned that the fall migration begins in July for many species and it could be the beginning of this movement as the larger flocks gathered.

Wren learned the word "maggot" from a dead baby seal being consumed near the tide-line. "Want to see the magnets again!" he kept repeating. "See the magnets again." His new vocabulary saw more use at the dead whale.

Walking towards the bluff at the North end of the inlet, we found the tail of a whale, long dead. It had skin on it and smelt of rot from downwind. Some distance off, I saw bones protruding from the sand and dug about in sand to excavate a large vertebra (I had thought they were ribs). Liz, who is a naturopath and studied anatomy, was interested to understand the skeleton which was hard with so much buried.

I later googled whale beaching in the area and suspect it was the carcass of an immature Gray Whale which came to shore some months ago and was probably buried by the Parks Service to avoid a health hazard as it decomposed. The body was broken and parts may have been swept away. There was very little flesh remaining considering how large the whale must have been.

Wren was impressed by all the carnage on the shore and kept saying "saw a DEAD WHALE" and "see DEAD WHALE AGAIN?"

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