Date: 12/4/18 7:56 am
From: Lars Norgren <larspernorgren...>
Subject: [obol] Bunting bumper cars
The logistics and ethics of twitching at Dharma Rain Zen Center pale in
comparison with Clatsop Beach because extensive use of motor vehicles is
involved. The buntings are feeding almost exclusively on the seeds of dune
grass that has been half-buried in wet sand. Recent surf has reached well
up the foredune, creating a seed patch 6 or 7m wide and 15km long. The
Buntings focus on this narrow band where the grass is bent over, and
half-buried, all of it visible from the beach. The portion from Gearhart
auto access south to the mouth of the Necannicum is closed to motor
vehicles. Snow Buntings have frequented this stretch as well as the dunes
all the way north to marker 4 or 5(utility poles with yellow signage) in
Camp Rilea. North of this point erosion has eliminated foraging habitat. It
is common to use one's auto as a birding blind. Clatsop Beach is famous for
its spring shorebird migration where this is a good strategy. But the Snow
Buntings allow closer approach on foot. They sometimes land on the beach
proper, either near the surf or on tire tracks close to the foredune, but
most of the time they are feeding and preening at the basal half of the
foredune's seaward side. It's obvious a winter plumage SNBU is colored like
an old snow drift, a close match to their present haunts.
It helps to have passengers to spot the birds while the driver
concentrates on the rather novel environment. My family has been driving
the "Butterfly Beach" for decades, but Thursday's road conditions may have
been unprecedented for me.The highest seas l've ever seen combined with
rain mean it's kind of like driving on a waterbed. The packed,saturated
sand makes the vehicle go up and down, leaving standing water in the
highly ephemeral ruts . Any car can negotiate the sweet spot between the
surf and dunes, but get too high on the shore where the sand has drained a
bit and it becomes fluffy enough to trap any car.
Access points from pavement are Gearhart, well removed from Hwy
101, necessitating a short drive through commercial and residential areas;
Del Rey Beach, maybe 2 miles north and well marked by official highway
signs(there's a parking lot at Del Rey with about 100 spaces, all of them
empty); Sunset Beach, maybe 3 miles north of Del Rey with understated
highway signs to mark the turnoff; DeLauro Beach which articulates with the
city street system of Warrenton and has no signage at the landward end; and
Ft Steven's State Park near the wreck of the Peter Iredale. DeLauro can
have high water on the road, requiring a very high clearance vehicle.
The total number of buntings is about 60, but Mike determined last
week that they are frequently foraging in two separate flocks . The
flock(s) seem to relocate often quite indepedantly of human presence. When
they take flight it is typically out over the surf before turning north or
south. Thursday started foggy, so they could disappear at such time. At
other times they tower, climbing to 100s of feet high over the same spot
before choosing a direction. Mike's observation is that this presages a
much longer relocation, although to date not leaving Clatsop Beach
altogether(about 15 miles long).
The tide needs to be considered. At very high tide there may be no
beach to drive on. Not all tides are alike. It is roughly 12 hours between
high tides. Each is about 45 minutes later(earlier?)than the previous one.
Low tide was 11:30am last Thursday, so l expect this Thursday will be high
tide about that time. This is a public right-of-way, with a speed limit(not
posted)and sporadic law enforcement. Non-birders have a right to use it and
some of them are operating with a less nuanced world view than l would
consider beneficial to themselves and society. Sometimes efforts to share
your love of wildlife with them will result in a retreat to an even less
nuanced world view, expressed behind the steering wheel with engine in
gear. I got stuck part way through the morning and Abby gave Courtney and I
a lift. I was already having a wonderful time, but my enjoyment increased
substantially by becoming a passenger.
I had started the day at Little Beach(Wellington Street, south
Gearhart)where l considered a post on Obol to solicit conspirators. I
decided to check beach conditions first. I had barely driven into the sand
at Gearhart when l spotted Courtney on the crest of the foredune with scope
on shoulder. She had just left her sister's Prius at an official parking
lot. I'm not sure of the effect of seawater on electric cars, but don't
recommend the empirical approach to find out. A hasty reorganization of the
filingdrawer and recycling bin created a passenger seat . Two or three
hundred meters north we stopped for Sanderlings, at which point Courtney
saw three dozen buntings feeding up on the side of the foredune.
In the ensuing five plus hours we got prolonged scope studies
that allowed us to examine every bird in the flock. Three times during the
first half hour, in the fog. They moved from the dune to the shore, the
shore to the wrack and ruts. After the third scope set they disappeared
over the surf and Mike Patterson appeared out of the fog. He provided us
with a wealth of precise and concise advice, which we tried to follow
carefully and l have tried to convey above. Every half hour or so a new car
arrived. Courtney added them to the text group. The fog burned off, the sun
was gentle, steady. The Barnes brothers found two LAPLAND LONGSPURS at a
place where the foredune was a level bench covered with fresh tidewrack
despite being far above normal tide level.
At times the flock moved south and we had backlighting. One car would
quickly relocate the flock, one observer would see a very pale bird(total
SNBU always hovered around I was insecure about which half of the
60 we were seeing). I believe the Lapland Longspurs and northern limit of
SNBU views occurred on the Camp Rilea beach. Then they flew south and after
Abby pulled my car out of loose sand everyone got a long study south of Del
Rey access. With the noon sun at our backs the birds were on a slope so
they didn't conceal one another. The grass and sand humps did conceal them,
but they were in constant motion so no bird remained out of sight for long.
This was the first chance for useful photos after the many Courtney got
over 4 hours earlier, compromised by fog.
If the birds were in the end zone, we were parking at the other end
zone and walking to the 50yd line to scope. They finally flew miles to the
north. Most cars followed. Those who didn't bail were rewarded by much
longer views of the pale bird, still in full sunlight, with photos as well.
Clouds were returning over Tillamook Head, the birds flew and Tom McNamarra
With a week of sunny weather ahead this chase is all the more appealing.

Join us on Facebook!