Its safe to say after two trips, I’m in love with the Oregon coast. Or it could be because I have ocean-withdrawal after living inland for the first time in seven years. In which case, I guess I should consider myself lucky! And even more so, its possible to go to the beach for a day trip here.
In January, the beach was a nice and welcome break from the grey, rainy days here in Corvallis. Seeing a sunny day in the forecast at the coast, we decided to get catch some rays. I have to say that a lot of people told me the coast here was beautiful, so I had some heightened expectations. And it delivered. To my amazement, there were even flowers blooming.
Besides basking in the feeling of the sun on my face and watching the waves crash into the shore, I was strongly reminded of New Zealand. And New Zealand is my happy place. There’s just something about its wild beauty and wide open spaces and hard-to-get-to places that I love.
Besides the beautiful views, the relaxing sound of the waves crashing onto shore and the smell of the sea in the air, there were plenty of birds and wildlife to see. In the Alsea River estuary, hundreds of sea lions rafted together in the shallows, or maybe there’s a dock under there, its hard to tell beneath all the blubber. They reminded me of the sea lions and seals I so often saw in Victoria.
More than the mammals, though, the seabirds and shorebirds reminded me of Victoria, too. I’ll probably always have some feeling of nostalgia when I see birds I saw often there that I no longer see. I feel connected to the place from all the experiences I had watching birds as its where I really began bird-watching.
Some of my earliest experiences bird-watching were at little beaches along the shore, spotting Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron and seaducks like Buffleheads and Harlequin Ducks. While I see the first three still in Oregon, its still a little bit strange because I’m so used to seeing them often by the ocean.
One day wasn’t enough to see everything and take it all in, so we went back again in February for a day with a lot less sunshine, but just as much fun and beauty, this time heading north from Newport.
The bridge heading to the north shore of Newport, OR. We’ll save that part for next time…
One hour north of Victoria is Cowichan Bay; one of my favourite winter birding spots. Nearby, the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers empty out into the bay, spilling sediment and life into an estuary as the tide ebbs and flows. A Bald Eagle might fly overhead while the waters lap gently at the shore. Trumpeter and Mute Swans stand out in contrast with the blue water they float gracefully across. They arch their heads into the water, their long necks pronounced as they skim for food.
The water in the bay is calm and as blue as the sky reflecting in its surface. During the winter, the air is crisp on a cold day and frost sometimes etches the sidewalk and ground in the shade of the nearby hills. Looking out over the water, smaller bodies dot the landscape. Ducks.
For me, they are the main attraction. Small Buffleheads float in groups, diving one after the other underwater for food. Just when you’ve spotted one by the bright white head of the male or the small white spot on the females, they’ve disappeared below the surface which scarcely a splash.
Plenty of other ducks congregate here as well. Mallards, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons and Hooded and Common Mergansers are all common visitors to these calm, cool winter waters. For those who have come south, it is a world away from the icy lakes and rivers of the north.
The bay isn’t just for the ducks, though. Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen flying by low over the water or with wings spread out to dry in the sun. Great Blue Heron hunt for fish in the shallows while Surf Scoters gather together in great rafts further offshore.
As the weather warms up in the spring and summer, the bay changes, too. Days are longer and somehow it seems less quiet. Migratory birds arrive to bulk up, maybe find a mate and nest. Returning from the southern hemisphere and Central America, Osprey nest on old piers and Purple Martins make good use of nest-boxes placed throughout the area. Other swallows join the fun and the ducks grow quiet, having moved elsewhere for summer, some returning as far as the Arctic, where their breeding grounds have thawed.
During autumn, Steller and California Sea Lions visit to feed on the abundant salmon as the fish make their way to the river to spawn upstream. If you visit the bay between October and December, they’re hard to miss as they are quite loud! Its fun to watch them both as they sun themselves on the dock in piles of bodies and as they swim the water with ease.
Not far from the bay is the Cowichan and Koksilah river estuary where a walking track follows a river channel out into the estuary toward a viewing tower. The estuary is a place full of life and it never disappoints. It was here I saw my first Northern Shrike and just recently, my first Western Meadowlark.
I had always hoped to see one someday, but was not expecting it at the estuary. It just goes to show how wildlife can surprise you. You never know what you might see when you step out your door, and that is one of the best things about nature. Its never the same experience twice.
Snow Geese in flight at Cowichan Estuary
Snow Geese at the Cowichan Estuary
On one side of the track are active agricultural fields and on my most recent visit, another surprise was waiting to be found. A flock of Snow Geese flew overhead and landed in the field to forage, their white feathers bright in the sunshine. I’d only just seen Snow Geese for the first time in Delta, BC near the Reifel Bird Sanctuary where they overwinter. There were white bodies with black-edged wings almost as far as the eye could see; a spectacular sight!
There will always be something interesting to see in nature, at the bay or estuary, or your own backyard or neighborhood park. Estuaries, wetlands, green spaces, open fields and forests are all critical resources for birds, mammals, insects and everything in between. Each creature has its place and purpose in maintaining balance. Small disruptions can cause a ripple-effect from one species to another; let us all do our part to protect these spaces and species while we can.