Flute song spirals up into the trees along the coastal trail to the pelagic cormorant colony. Swainson’s thrushes tune the bird orchestra we’ve come to know–the clarity of Wilson’s warbler chatter, the frothy cascade of winter wren notes, the bouncing ball hilarity of wrentits, and the airy accelerando of orange-crowned warblers.
We’ve come to know, too, the grandmother of a Sitka spruce, the one that my son Ian climbed with a nimble leap that required pushing off the tree with one foot and grasping a high branch above him with both hands, and then swinging up and over the first massive branch.
On June 14th, Ian and I took our shift of data collecting for this season’s OIMB (Oregon Institute of Marine Biology) cormorant colony. After Ian left nine days later, Wes and I are in charge until July 11. We’ve only missed a day here and there. In contrast, the 43 pairs nesting on the sheer island cliff never miss a beat. They’re constant in their purpose. Mates trade off incubation shifts in rain, wind, sun, mist, fog, and powerful waves pounding dangerously close to the lowest nests.
Pelagic cormorants are like slender, tall dancers–with the added beauty of spreading wings and fanning tail. They arc their long necks to preen glossy black feathers that shine with an iridescence of greens and blues. In breeding season, you can see a white flank patch and a bit of red on their throats. The smallest of Oregon’s three native species of cormorants (double-crested Brandt’s, and pelagic), they share similar superlative fishing traits–diving deep with their wings held at their sides and propelled by strong feet.
The birds preen, scratch, nuzzle a returning mate, add a bit more nesting material, or reposition a bit. Mostly, they sit tight on their eggs for a full month. Like rock climbers sleeping in hammocks tagged to a sheer cliff for a multiple day ascent, pelagic cormorants overcome the challenge of vertical nesting. Their version of the hammock? They glue their nests of vegetation to shallow ledges with guano, their own droppings.
On June 26, I part the salal leaves on the secret trail to the high promontory observation point and stand up. Ten feet away, a startled peregrine falcon pushes off the dizzying cliff edge and then lands on a nearby tree limb extending above the sea. The falcon holds a tiny seabird with one taloned foot, and rips its flesh with a knife-sharp bill. On Independence Day, a second peregrine glides below us –taking aim at the colony, flapping fast, circling, and veering away. The cormorants hold tight, never flushing from their eggs they incubate between the tops of their feet and their warm breasts. Solidarity.
So steady is their presence that we are dumbfounded one day to find three abandoned nests that had once shared an angled ledge. We could see the thatch of nest material without a single egg remaining. What had happened in our absence? The birds seemed so unphased by inquiring crows and gulls– opportunists on the lookout for an unguarded egg. Did a a sneaker wave smash into them? What about peregrines? The cormorants are too big for them to tackle, but this colony’s eggs and chicks must attract the falcons. Always, we ask questions. Always, we marvel at the news of the watch.
Big news on July 8th. Wes and I set up the spotting scope and voila! Our suspicions of the past three days of restlessness in the colony are confirmed. The chicks are hatching. A little head pops up under the sheltering wing of its parent, and a second, and even a third. We watch a chick reach up with a gaping bill and put its whole head right into the open beak of its parent for a delectable regurgitated seafood meal. In another nest, one chick peeks out next to an egg that has yet to hatch.
The count becomes more labor-intensive. We note chicks on nests and match them to the corresponding number or letter on our data sheet. It takes scanning again and again to spot a chick popping up from under the sheltering black wings. A mate lands on the nest and both parents feed one lucky chick. I can almost feel the pair’s enthusiasm. After a month of incubating 24-7, at last they have offspring. It was all worth it, and ahead lies another 40-50 days on the colony tending the growing chicks.
The data we collect is our citizen science contribution to a mountain of information on this one colony–the longest consistently observed pelagic cormorant colony ever. In fact, back in 1980 and 1981, I’d trekked the same trail and settled in on the same high windswept spot across from the colony with a data sheet in hand. Then, I was a young undergraduate attending the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. It was there I learned about seabirds and marine mammals from the youthful and intrepid professors Jan Hodder and Mike Graybill. It’s Jan who’s a leading expert on pelagic cormorants and has shepherded this longterm research project through the decades. Thanks to her, hundreds of students know the same thrill of the nest count.
I’ve come full circle to return to this special part of the southern Oregon coast in the tiny fishing town of Charleston, home to OIMB. Wes and I house sit for Mike and Jan whenever we are so fortunate to be able to come. This time, Ian flew from Montana to Bend and we drove over for a glorious mom-son first week, while Wes finished out his year of teaching second grade. Upon our arrival, Mike proposed we watch the cormorant colony and Ian and I agreed at once. Within the hour, we were traipsing out with him for our official training. Ian took to the task right away, and after a day or two proved much quicker than me at matching an active nest to the corresponding letter or number on the photograph that contains a legacy of nesting information. It was Ian who prompted our daily endeavor no matter what, even attempting to gather data in a torrential rainfall. Wes, too, has become a keen participant-choosing to be the recorder of data, starting with the day’s weather.
In three weeks of the purposeful watch, I’m reminded of my belted kingfisher daily nest watch back on Rattlesnake Creek in Montana. When there’s data to be noted each day, hunger can wait. Bad weather is not an obstacle. A day’s plan incorporates the watch.
Without purpose, it’s easy to stay snug indoors when the chilly fog descends or the wind gusts to 30 mph. With purpose comes the rewards of the unexpected — like the peregrine falcon. With purpose comes a familiarity with a pathway that becomes as intimate as a friend. We anticipate the grandmother spruce in the breathing green forest, the avian symphony, and like spending time with a friend, we open our senses to what’s new. For to know a friend well is to go ever deeper, to listen, and to be present. Sure enough, as if to honor of the new chicks on July 8th–a kingfisher calls from a treetop and my heart sings.