the first few weeks

A few weeks ago my boss Dawn took me on a field trip north, to Pacific City, for business. Her presence was required at a meeting in which the logistics of an upcoming festival—called “Birding and Blues”, as in birdwatching paired with blues music—were discussed at length. The mid-April festival has taken place in Pacific City for the past ten years or so. I tried to listen attentively, but much of the conversation had little to do with me. For almost twenty minutes an argument over a shared Gmail account smoldered on, painfully; Dawn leaned over to me and whispered, “Have you ever used a shared email account for an event?”

“No. I’ve not encountered such a…scenario before. It seems…fraught.”

Dawn smiled and shook her head. “Fraught…Yep, that’s about right.”

Apparently I’m slated to provide assistance on some of the birding tours being offered that April weekend. This coming from Dawn. I’m game, of course. The roomful of old, white, slightly kooky bird women regarded me with bemused interest. Their open stares appraised my birder integrity. “So you know birds? You know them well, right? Will you help lead some tours? Okay, good, good, that’s great. We’re gonna put you to work.” I nodded, smiled, crossed my arms and looked off, away, anywhere to avoid their earnest gaze. I peered out the hotel conference room’s window at Haystack Rock, where surfers in wetsuits rode the modest swells as gulls wheeled and banked overhead. The sky was featurelessly, unremittingly gray.

The meeting took longer than Dawn anticipated. Exasperated, afterward she said to me, “Let’s go for a little hike.” She wanted to show me the latest addition to the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of three estuarine locales within Oregon’s six-refuge coastal system. The recent acquisition consists of a broad wedge of alder-spruce woodland thrust out toward the confluence of the Nestucca and Little Nestucca rivers, which together fill the bay. This wedge is rather straightforwardly known as Two Rivers Peninsula. A Jesuit retreat for generations—all the way up until 2007—the land was sold to Fish and Wildlife after an underage sex scandal within the church (leading to expensive lawsuits and prosecutions) forced its members to auction off the property to pay court dues and award damages to the victims. So the retreat became a refuge: from controversy sprang conservation. As Dawn sardonically remarked, “Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways. Like, you know, expanding wildlife refuges. That sort of thing.”

As we worked our way along the worn footpath leading out to the point, Dawn, who seems to have an expert ear for bird calls, pointed out what we were hearing all around. “That’s a Fox Sparrow, that cat-like mewing coming from the salmonberry. And there? Did you hear that? Those are Townsend’s warblers. That ‘tseeee‘—it sounds like they’re flocking with kinglets and chickadees.” Sure enough, yonder alit the jaunty black-and-yellow warblers, flitting among old-growth spruce boughs along with a coterie of chestnut-backed chickadees, black-capped chickadees, ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets, and the odd creeper or downy woodpecker. At the terminus of Two Rivers Point we unwittingly disturbed a kingfisher and a bald eagle, who took off from the same tree in different directions—the kingfisher flying a beeline over the Little Nestucca, chattering angrily as it went; the eagle stoic and silent, hugely, slowly flapping along the bigger river.

Afterward we drove into the main entrance to the Nestucca Refuge to check on the resident celebrity: a tundra bean goose apparently taking a vacation from its post on the Aleutian Islands. It’s likely the first recorded sighting of this species in the lower 48 states, making it somewhat of a prized addition to birders’ life lists. People have showed up from far-flung places like Canada, Mexico, and New Jersey to see it. The goose has been seen loitering at the refuge for almost a month now. We found it grazing in a mixed gaggle of dusky Canada and Aleutian cackling geese, not fifty feet from the paved road. It is an unremarkable bird, sort of like a white-fronted goose sans white front, with a spot of bubblegum pink on the bill.

I got home by early afternoon and headed out on a bike ride. After only two and a half miles, and completely by accident, I happened upon a fungal motherlode. Riding up Drift Creek Road, I couldn’t help but notice what looked like hedgehog mushrooms poking out from a steep, mossy hill slouched against the pavement. I hopped off onto the nonexistent shoulder, which graded so abruptly into this hill that I could almost lean the bike against the moss from where I dismounted. Right where I set my handlebars down was a protruding hedgehog. Everywhere I looked on this hill, spread out before me, were clusters of hedgehogs. I picked the good-sized ones and left the thumbtack babies to grow. Then I decided to crest the hill, just to see what lay above. Lo and behold, the hill-topping moss glowed orange with chanterelles, many pounds’ worth peeking out from under fern fronds and rotted snags. I had only my pannier with me, so after carefully stuffing it I called off the hunt to resume another day.

​The tundra bean goose continues to loiter at Nestucca with some Taverner’s geese, which look suspiciously and rather prosaically like Canada honkers. (They’re a subspecies, one of six recognized by Fish and Wildlife. To wit: Taverner’s Canada goose, Lesser Canada goose, Dusky Canada goose, Aleutian cackling goose, Semidi cackling goose, and cackling cackling goose. For real. It’s a little absurd.)

Recently, on a chilly and drizzly Monday morning, I counted geese at the Nestucca Bay Wildlife Refuge with Amelia the goose intern. Amelia is a West Coast transplant originally from Montana. She has the easy, understated affect of a surfer—which in fact she is.  When Amelia isn’t driving around Lincoln City and Pacific City monitoring geese and writing reports on them, she’s likely to found in a wetsuit on a surfboard, braving riptides and gelid waters off Oregon’s beaches. But on this day, we sat in a climate-controlled truck with binoculars pointed toward herds of wintering geese.

I tell her it seems really difficult to distinguish the subspecies when they’re all bunched together like we were seeing them, waddling along nipping grass on the fallow fields— to say nothing of the fact that they look pretty much identical anyway. “Yeah,” she allowed. “It’s kinda hard. It takes some practice. When I first started (two years ago), I often would ask myself, ‘I wonder if I’m doing this all wrong.’ Misidentifying the birds, messing up the counts. It took a while to get comfortable and confident. But I think I look at them often enough now that the differences are obvious to me.”

I got to the point where I could differentiate, somewhat tentatively, between the big ones (Taverner’s, Lesser and Dusky) and the little ones (Aleutian, Semidi and cackling). It was not a boasting point by any means. Still, Amelia said, “Good job. I guess you’re ready to count, then. You want a crack at the scope?” She pushed the tally sheets toward me. I politely demurred, citing general incompetence and a keen desire to not fuck things up. She went on staring at the birds, counting silently, reading off collared birds’ identification numbers for me to write down.

​At one point we stopped alongside a road abutting a dairy farm, where a dozen or so cows stood placidly in a corral. Amelia had her window down part-way with the scope mount fixed to it, training the Swarovski on the birds behind the farm. She began eating an apple while silently counting geese through the scope. The cows, seeing or smelling her apple, soon crowded up to the barbed wire fence, jostling for a bite or, at the very least, a lick. By craning their necks through the wire they could reach the truck’s side-view mirror with their wet noses and tongues, smudging the glass and fogging it over with cow breath. “I wish I had a bunch of apples to feed these cute cows,” Amelia said. “But I’m afraid if I give them this core it’ll start a riot.” Don’t give it to them, I suggested brightly. “Well, here, will you throw this out your window, then?” She handed me the core and I threw it into the dogwood. The cows soon lost interest and went back to head-butting one another and scratching their necks on the barbed wire.

At long last I’ve been granted access to the Department of the Interior’s computer system and given an official-looking email address, though my physical “USAccess” badge/key card hasn’t arrived yet.  When that happens, there will be little stopping me from doing actual work at the office—little, that is, besides the usual culprits to malingering: boredom, sadness, a lack of creative verve, etc. Now I’ve got no legitimate cop-out. I can finally get on with what I came here for, right? After hearing me whine about my inability to work due to bureaucratic hoop-jumping, Jim the maintenance guy told me, “Be careful what you wish for.” It was meant as a joke, but he’s right, of course. These past two weeks of pseudo-work are making me antsy, though. Let us get on with it.

That said, this week promises more of the same: travelling around, meeting folks and seeing more of the environs that constitute my source material. Today I drove through a grey, drizzly pall down the 101 to the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. It was late afternoon when I arrived, the already poor light fading fast. I walked along a meadow behind the house and watched the juncos and chickadees and yellow-rumped warblers get in a final bout of foraging for the day. The rough-skinned newts were crawling around in packs—I must’ve seen at least a dozen plodding through the grass. The dim, watery daylight had an eerie dreamlike quality—I felt almost as if I were sleepwalking through a familiar mindscape, re-enacting a past reverie of mine. A patch of chanterelles and deer-munched hedgehogs growing where the meadow abuts stands of second-growth Douglas fir enlivened my stroll, if only because it distracted me for a moment from my fugue.

They (well, Dawn) put me up in the refuge’s bunkhouse, which is a huge, charmless, thoroughly governmental facility overlooking the Coquille River estuary. Its five bedrooms and vast kitchen/living room bring to mind the Black Rock Station, only more worn in, with lower ceilings and a slight mildewy odor wholly absent from the desert. The following morning I’m given a quick tour of Bandon Marsh and its surroundings by the South Coast refuge manager, Eric. A Minnesota native, Eric is a veteran of the National Wildlife Refuge System but only recently moved to Bandon for this position, several months ago. He repeatedly apologized for a certain vagueness in his expository tone, which I repeatedly pooh-poohed.  “Don’t quote me on that,” he kept saying. I suppose I’ll just quote him as saying that.

The tide was up in the marsh and a cold drizzle draped the morning in gray, dampening my hopes of seeing any birds. Looking south from the bunkhouse across refuge land, Eric described what we were seeing: Ni-les’tun Marsh spread before us, the Coquille River and its tributaries wending seaward,  and Bandon Marsh proper, along the west side of the bridge into town. We drove to Coquille Point, a tableau of seastacks and jutting headland south of the marsh that constitutes the only portion of the Oregon Islands Refuge open and reachable to the public. There we watched a pair of peregrine falcons weave effortlessly between the seastacks, occasionally feint-diving to terrorize rafts of surf scoters below. A chorus frog croaked from somewhere atop the grassy headland. “Well, that about covers the south coast refuge land,” Eric said as we walked back to the truck. “I’m not sure if that helped you at all. I’ve gotta head back to the office, but you should definitely continue exploring on your own if you want.” I assured him that yes, it was an educational outing for a newcomer such as myself—and that yes, I think I would like to continue exploring, thank you very much.

The weekend wind- and rainstorm finally broke last night. Today, for the first time in more than a week I saw glorious morning sunlight, unvitiated by cloud. (Truth be told, I was looking at it through my windshield on the way to work, which diminishes the glory somewhat.) The wind was slack, tide in ebb. It was a great day to walk the beach. If only I could find a reason to not be in the office…

And then Mike, the resident biologist, gave me one. It was a four-word reason: “massive Cassin’s auklet die-off.” He needed people to pick up carcasses from the beach before the tide sucked them out again. Dan (the snowy plover biologist) and I jumped at the chance. So the three of us stocked a truck with latex gloves and garbage bags and pointed it west, toward the beach.

En route to canvassing beaches further north, Dan and Mike dropped me off at the jetty in South Beach State Park. I was told to walk south along the shore— right into the sun’s incandescent glare— and pick up the least-damaged auklets and stuff them into my garbage bags. There was about a mile of beach to cover. It was warm out, close to sixty degrees maybe. No wind. I was told also to inform curious passerby that I was “collecting deceased individuals for research,” and that I was working for the government, and that they could read this copy of a federal Fish and Wildlife permit if their suspicions were aroused. No one bothered me. In fact, one family I walked past noticed my gloves and bags, picking stuff up (they didn’t ask what I was doing), and they began gathering litter themselves. Perhaps they felt guilted into it. I prefer to imagine them inspired.

I saw more than one hundred auklets, in every stage of dismemberment one could envision. (Head gone, head skinned, butt gone, breast skinned, back skinned, feathers matted with sand, feathers white with seafoam, eyes gone, eyes shut, eyes barely open, as if winking.) Only sixty or so passed the integrity test put forth by Mike: no ruptures allowed in the body cavity. I saw a dead double-crested cormorant, a dead red phalarope, a dead Northern fulmar, two dead rhinoceros auklets. And then I later saw two snowy plovers, very much alive and dancing across the sand, and I felt a little better, a little less wearied of death.

Limp, sodden auklets grow surprising heavy over a morning’s stroll. Especially when they’re piled by the dozens in a bag slung over your shoulder as you trudge through sinking sand. Toward the end I was sweating and dragging my feet, my eyes slightly sunburnt, my instep feeling hot-spotty from an ill-fitting pair of rubber boots; I was ready to quit the auklet funeral procession.

Mike says the die-off could be related to food shortages—Cassin’s auklets eat krill almost exclusively, and these zooplankters are notorious for their boom-and-bust cycles. It could, he said, also relate to an “algal bloom that gives the water a surfactant quality, effectively stripping the birds’ feathers of their water-proofing oils and causing them to freeze to death.” Avian influenza was another—though remote—possibility. “Why would it only affect the Cassin’s auklets, overwhelmingly the majority of the mortality we’re seeing?” Mike asked. No one could know for sure, he said—at least not yet, not without necropsies. That was why we were gathering them, to freeze and send off for analysis.

Back at the office, rinsing the little cadavers near the maintenance yard, I told Mike and Dan that these were the first Cassin’s auklets I had ever seen. All of them unequivocally dead, washed up on the beach, their white breasts sullied, their blue legs and webbed feet stiff against their bodies. Now they were arrayed on the pavement in soggy piebald ranks, almost two hundred “keepers” collected between the three of us, plus a couple dozen discards. We rolled them individually into ziplock bags like takeout burritos. The biologists agreed that the birds are undoubtedly more attractive in life. “You’ll have to go out on a pelagic survey to see these guys in action. But now that you’ve seen so many, up close, you’ll never forget what they look like,” said Dan, always casting for a laugh. “Or smell like.”


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