The Steller's Eider Twitch

I went down to Oregon to see the Steller's Eider. I wanted to go the day Adrian Hinkle found it on Jan 13th but couldn't. It was the last Eider species I needed, having seen Spectacled, King and Common in Nome, AK. I was glad to have Nexus this time. I am not sure why I waited so long to get Nexus. It costs 50$ for 5 years and saves you no line ups. It is definitely worth it. I had planned to do a few days of birding in the Pacific Northwest but the weather had other plans for me. Traffic was awful as usual through Seattle and Tacoma. It is simply awful driving through that in rush hour, in a standard. It eased at Olympia and then was smooth sailing. I stayed at the Motel 6 in Seaside, it was only 50$ and very clean and quiet and 2 mins from the Eider.

I went to bed with dreams of Steller's Eiders. When I woke up I checked the Oregon Listserve and saw someone had seen it at 8:20 am. I get there about 9 am (I was tired as I got in at midnight the night before) and do not see it in its reported reliable spot by the radio towers. Bad sign, so I leave and drive the short distance (you couldn't walk on the beach that day... more on that later) over to the Seaside Cove parking lot. I start scanning and within 20 mins have the Steller's Eider. She is out far with some Surf Scoters... then the hail starts and it is very bad... the hail was so huge and hard like golf balls and lasted quite a while. Just when you think it had stopped, it would start up again. The whole time it was raining and blowing wind and the huge waves were crashing in. A storm was coming. A guy I met there who I got on the Eider named Mike Patterson got some photos of the hail and he put it on his blog HERE, note how big they are!

My lifer Steller's Eider in the foam and crashing waves in Seaside, OR - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I went down on the beach and started walking, trying to get close to the duck as the waves were crashing in. A guy screamed at me "girl be careful! the waves are really bad now...stay away from the logs! Don't get behind a log" so I get off the beach and get back on the sidewalk and the wave literally comes crashing over where I was standing and goes up over the road. I would have for sure been swept into the ocean. Soon after the city workers and police came to close the parking lot. I couldn't believe later on what that parking lot looked like... all these huge rocks everywhere and it was flooded.

Sadly, on this day a man did get swept into the ocean at Depoe Bay nearby and his body was never recovered. You can read the news store HERE. My photos were pretty awful from that day due to long distance and terrible dark light but it did show an Eider. I decided to take a break around 11:30 am and warmed up in my car. I was in full rain gear but still very cold and some water had got in through my sleeves. I took my scope and gear and drove around all the Black Turnstones who were now bathing in the flooded and closed Seaside Cove parking lot.

One of the few Black Turnstones not in the parking lot at Seaside Cove - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I went down through a narrow alley that led to a public parking area for 4 spots on the beach. There I sat in my car and watched logs and rocks bang hard against the shore, not too far from me. I got out of my car and knocked on the car's window beside me and asked first if it was "legal for us to park here?" (it looked like a private driveway - the road I came in on) and second "would our cars be ok?".
He said it's legal but be careful of the rocks as the bursts come in. Soon after he had to quickly back his car up to avoid pelting rocks. I put my car in a safer position and got out and started scanning. The rain and wind were relentless. I was wearing long johns and the whole nine yards so was pretty comfortable but I won't lie, it was miserable to be out there. I finally found and saw the duck. It took me about an 1 and 1/2 hours to relocate it. It dove so many times and the waves were crashing so hard and the rain was so bad that it made viewing conditions less than optimal. 2 other guys looking for the bird came after me and I got them on the bird and it seemed like within a minute they had vanished. I saw her twice more briefly close to shore and searched for another hour but could not relocate her. I literally saw Black Scoters and Surf Scoters getting pulled out to sea fast in those sucking waves. Here I saw more Harlequin Ducks than I could count; Western Grebes, Surfbirds, Black, Surf and White-winged Scoters.

I ended up staying another night to enjoy the storm watching from a safer perch and to try for better pics in the morning.  I had already stopped to see the Virgina's Warbler in Portland and it came within 2 mins of my arrival. It was coming to suet and fighting against an angry Ruby-crowned Kinglet, who was not eager to share the suet cake. The Warbler never posed well and these were the best record shots I could get. It reminded me of seeing the Lucy's Warbler in Kelowna, last year. Two desert birds in northern climates, was strange. I had seen Virgina's Warblers before in Arizona but I went to Portland to see this one because I thought the location was so cool, plus they are a great bird in general. Thanks to Casey Cunningham for allowing birders to come view it at his property. This bird has been present, since at least Nov 18, 2017.

Virgina's Warbler in Portland, Oregon - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I had planned to go see the Snowy Egret in Vancouver, WA but the weather was just too bad to stand outside for a Snowy Egret and the traffic even worse. I5 was closed due to an accident between Portland OR and Vancouver, WA. I had also hoped to see the Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Seattle but sadly it seems to have departed 5 days ago. Both would not have been lifers but would have been Washington birds for me. I had also wanted to look for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Wrentits and White-winged Crossbills in Oregon. I went to look for Wrentits at Fort Stevens State Park but too many trees were overblown there after the storm to get the car around, it sure was pretty though at Coffenbury Lake even without the cute but difficult to find Wrentits. I did manage to see a small herd of 6 Roosevelt Elk in Warrenton, Oregon though, on my way home, which was amazing.

Elk Stag in Warrenton OR - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Near Raymond, WA as I continued home, I drove by the most gorgeous adult Peregrine Falcon. He was sitting on the coolest gnarly wooden perch at eye level to my car but it was on a fast busy road with no shoulder! It pains me just to talk about it! The shot would have been fabulous... oh well what can you do?. It's just chances like that rarely come often :(.

Rewinding back to the Eider.... so I stayed another night and got up early and was on the beach at sunrise (7:50 am). It was pouring rain yet again,  I got my scope out scanned and searched. The waves were calmer and I had driven right down onto the beach parking again and not a soul was there. I felt safe enough with the calmer waves, to walk along the beach to the radio towers and scanned more. I saw all the birds I mentioned earlier above along with plenty of Western Gulls and Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants but no Eider.  Then I scanned towards my car right where I came from and there she was! She was literally almost right on shore! It took about 5 mins to locate her that morning, what a contrast. The pouring rain even stopped briefly for some photos. I walked as fast as I could over the huge black, wet rocks and got some snaps of her, just when the rain let up for a few minutes.

I was very happy to have a discernible photograph and to see her so close like this, in relatively good light (compared to before) and not such epic storm conditions. A surfer came down and asked if the female Steller's Eider was still there. I told him "yes", he decided it was not safe enough to surf today and left. I was all alone with her and spent 30 mins with her and then one man came to look at her as well. I thanked my lucky stars for staying another night to be able to have a nice memory photograph of her. It may not be an award winning shot but it's a decent record shot. I was just so happy to see her. She really is small for an Eider. They are the smallest Eider but she just didn't give off an impression of a big Eider duck. She was much more dainty, not too much bigger than the scoters beside her, in fact some looked bigger. Her shape and size made me think of a much more duck-like than eider-like figure. She did a few wing flaps and I saw the blue wing patch and the double white wing bars, with the distinctive white eye ring. It is a very good looking sea duck, even if it isn't the fancy drake. Her squared head and unique bill, made her very distinct in the sea of scoters.

Female Steller's Eider in Seaside, Oregon - Photos: Melissa Hafting

A note on the weather....These huge changes in weather like this are most likely a result of climate change. Just like the northward expansion of southern birds. Yes, weather is variable but these events are happening much too frequently now, same with the birds expanding further north, every year. The constant hail, the huge rogue waves, king tides, 70 mph winds... just crazy. Apparently the waves were between 35-50 feet where I was, according to the news and out from shore they recorded 60 foot waves! crazy!.

Steller's Eiders only breed in Barrow in North America and they too are affected on their breeding grounds by climate change. They are also critically endangered, like the Spectacled Eider, who is fairing even worse than the Steller's.

I was surprised to see so little people looking for the Eider in the 2 days that I was there. I only ran into a total of 4 people. I guess the weather may have kept the crowds away or maybe because she isn't a fancy Drake. Yes, I know the drakes are terribly stunning but this bird is very hard to see south of Barrow, AK in North America. As I said earlier, sadly the way things are going, time may be running out for this species, if we all don't smarten up.

It was a very exhausting trip, standing out for hours in the cold rain and hail and having to drive all that way by yourself, in a standard with stop and go traffic for hours, isn't something I would wish on my worst enemy!.

I thought I was being very smart leaving Seaside early and getting through Tacoma and Seattle before rush hour. It went like a breeze and then bang! there was a huge accident in Marysville and I crawled from Lynnwood to Mt Vernon. Not fun...

Oh well it was all worth it to see this amazing sea duck and the Virgina's Warbler was pretty cool too. Thanks to my friend Stefan Schlick for a few good tips.


Don't forget that Blue Planet II starts today (January 20th) and yes there will be many episodes featuring birds! Check it out at 9pm on BBC Earth Canada. Also Katrin Powell sent me her CBC radio interview that she did ablout the Northern Cardinal in Cranbrook. You can listen to that HERE (starts at 33:55).

Comments

  1. Mel: Wow, that was some adventure. a good counterpoint when anyone comments about biriding being a passive sport/pastime/hobby. Last year's looking at the Common Scoter in a nearby location, ( i assume ), seems to be downright benign. Congrats.

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    1. haha you are too funny thor. the common scoter another bird i am kicking myself for not going to. Not sure why I didn't go. I have 3 big regrets not going for the eurasian hobby in neah bay, not going for the common scoter and not going for the falcated duck in wa. Only the falcated duck in wa was totally impossible due to work... the other two i have no answer to.. just lazy I guess...

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  2. Congrats on your two lifers, sounds like an amazing trip!

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    1. thanks the fun part was finding this mega rarity all by myself and getting him to myself.. to one downside of poor weather lol

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  3. Big congrats!! Your efforts payed off!!!!

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    1. thanks viktor i'm glad it did.. i would have been in tears if i hadn'tand not because i would have dipped but due to sheer exhaustion...

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  4. Oh Mel, you are such a trooper. I might have done this 40 years ago when i was your age and not such a wimp when it comes to bad weather. congratulations on finding this bird. I'm sure it must have been quite a thrill for you. i really enjoy reading your blog and about the adventures that you go through to get a glimpse and even a photo of some rare bird. keep on doing what you are doing, girl. i love living vicariously through you and your great stories!

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    1. thank you so much sandy I'm touched! ha yes i dunno it's not always fun in weather like that but i'm dedicated to this craft now... or maybe just insane? one or the other hahah. hope to see you out there when this rain relents! :)

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