Where on Earth?! Columbia River

“Teeming” is an oft used term to describe the spectacles of numbers in nature.  “Countless” also comes to mind, and these terms speak well to air borne species when they appear in great abundance.

Although insects harbor the most numbers, a better term for, say, numerous ants covering a counter top might be “hordes”, hordes of ants, or perhaps a frantic “gawd zillion” would aptly frame the moment.  Masses on the move.  But birds, our avian friends, can have colors, serenity, gracefulness and unique demeanors that, when displayed in great numbers, rises to the top of nature’s wildest revelations.  Even ordinary, everyday birds.

For many years, from my wooded hillsides, I have observed a pattern of movement that occurs at dusk; on late summer evenings when light is fading, but also year round.  Always at dusk.  Usually I hear them first, sometimes I see them first, and almost always they follow the far ridge line across the narrow valley deep into the Coast Range foothills.  Rarely, they will flock directly overhead. Presumably, they navigate the ridge line to their secret and secluded forest roosts.

They are flocks of cawing, clamoring crows, distant legions darkening the rosy twilight.  Black crows just like every other black crow, only compounded into impressive numbers.  The explanation for this sometimes daily exodus might be that they are heading for the hills after a hard day of scavenging sandwiches and other tid-bits from the towns nearby. On one occasion, they pecked holes in a bag of dog food left in the back of my pickup truck in a downtown parking lot, and were still going at it when I returned to the vehicle and shooed them away.   From my hillside vantage point, downtown would be down the valley and across the bay, about five miles, well, “as the crow flies”.

Just when the streams of black, flapping wings on the far horizon seem endless, a break in the swarming cloud would signal a diminishing.  In the gaps of open sky, stragglers would keep coming, small groups of five to ten at a time, squawking to keep up with the mother ship, until there was only open sky.  Yet, unbelievably, another major flock would follow in waves, and on and on it would go, until finally, a few cawing also-rans would be the end of it.  But wait, there’s two more intent on catching up.

Transition from this ridgescape to a seascape sixty miles south, and a major coastal highway parallels the constant swells of the Pacific Ocean with wide vistas of sand to surf line at eye level.  Directly to the west of the straight and level route, hillocks of sand topped with tufts of dune grass appear like moguls on a ski run.  This bumpy section of dune scape becomes laced with channels and ponds of water separated from the voluminous Pacific by another stretch of dune moguls and a continuous sand berm that forms the last feeble defense against the forceful ocean.  Finally, a wide expanse of tide swept beach, damp and cleaned by receding waves, completes the meeting of land and sea.

Normally this expansive sea coast vista is devoid of everything except drift logs scattered like twisted pretzels and occasional pockets of sea stacks that define the numerous beach boundaries.  But on one special trip south along this coastline, the description of “teeming” birds came into full focus.

The typical sight of seagulls scattered along these beaches became more and more apparent, until larger than normal groups were commonplace.  After passing another sea stack barrier, the beach exploded with phenomenal numbers of seagulls.  Every square foot of sand was home to a seagull, thousands upon thousands of them, as mile after mile of wide beaches were occupied by the countless masses.  The scene was like the gathering of breeding colonies documented on Antarctic isles.

Numbers of western gulls can reach 10,000 in breeding colonies on islands offshore of California during the bird’s nesting and breeding period of May through July.  Since I observed the afore mentioned  event in mid- November and much further north than the California gatherings, the purpose of this particular gull fest remains a mystery to me.

It’s not the end of this main artery south along the coast, but with nightfall it is the end of our time traveling its route.  We step outside our destination hotel that is like a stylish “little Italy” and clamber aboard a boisterous cable car.  Clanging along, people dangling from its sides, the cable car grinds up and up the steep hill, a hill with a name.  Nob Hill.  At the top of Nob Hill, with city lights sparkling below, we pile out in front of a modest but ornate concert hall.  The fevered throngs sweep us inside, where Van Morrison carries the night.

Another place, another era back in the currents of time, and I am piloting a hippie van south, way south.  A real hippie van, a VW bus converted into a camper, complete with a homemade, pop up sunroof.   A leaky sunroof, but we are on an adventure and we are happy.

The colors start with a few bright dots appearing on the mundane stretches of swampland that separate the highway from the gulf stream waters.  As we roll along, the colors multiply, until the vast swamps are coated in bright pink with splashes of white. The now awe inspiring vistas of these lowland swamps are filled with thousands of Roseate Spoonbills,  tall waders as bright pink as their flamingo cousins.

After miles of this spectacle of nature, another call of nature beckons and I coast to a stop alongside the sparsely traveled road.   A modest expanse of knee high grass buffers the road from the inland jungle, and I wade in halfway to the tree line.  After doing my part to help irrigate the roadside strip, I noticed a tire partly buried in the grass close by.   But it is not a black tire.  It is a slate gray tire.  Curiosity set in, and I poked at the not so normal looking tire with a stick.  Immediately, a slender head attached to a very long neck shot up from the tall grass about ten feet away from my prodding stick.   Fierce eyes zeroed in like laser beams as the round gray tire began to uncoil and sprawl out.

My curiosity satisfied, I escaped the boa constrictors neighborhood within milliseconds and once again prodded the VW bus into travel mode.

Colors contribute much to the spectacles of bird life, but even shades of white have an appeal.  Great white birds appeared in another theater of nature where pinnacles of dark conifers and stately hardwoods buffer a wide river of the deepest jade green.  One ancient hardwood has many worn down branches and tree segments battered open as it struggles for dominance along a crowded river bank, and these openings are occupied by a colony of Great Egrets.  The bare branches and the many hollow spots in the tree’s structure, which shows signs of previous nest building, create ready made perches for the preening egrets.  Looking across the river at the brilliant white egrets filling this enormous tree is an impressive sight, and I counted close to seventy of the large birds.

In yet another northwest drainage, many ponds, small lakes, lagoons and streams buffer the Columbia River from the abrupt cliff walls that line the gorge with thousand foot ridges, and even more water pours directly off the cliffs forming numerous waterfalls.  One string of connected lakes hosted a hundred or more tundra swans involved in gentle rhythms of nature.  Clustered together at the base of a cliff, they slowly swam to and fro, around and around, occasionally dipping their long necks in the shallows, beaks uploading the rich nutrients of the deep mud.  A nameless waterfall streamed down the cliff face behind them, creating a pastoral scene of the winter migrants.  Two more rafts of swans content with their winter haven were also spread out in the string of small lakes.

In the feathered world, pure white seems as vibrant a color as any, especially for larger species, and another spectacle of nature unfolded when the subtle, neutral  color was refracted by crowds of graceful waterfowl.

Tundra swans and unnamed waterfall

Tundra swans and unnamed waterfall


Where on Earth?!   Ridge top crows; coastal foothills of Coos Bay, Oregon.  Seagulls; Southern Oregon Coast, 2013.  Roseate Spoonbills; gulf coast near Tampico, Mexico, winter 1976.  Great Egrets; Coos River, Oregon.  Tundra Swans; Columbia River, Oregon, winter 2016.

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