Tufted Puffins and Common Murres returning to nest on offshore rocks are a sure sign of spring on the Northwest coast.
Cindy Hansen, Oregon Coast Aquarium
In Oregon and Washington, more than 2000 islands, offshore rocks and reefs are protected as National Wildlife Refuges.
Spring is a busy nesting time for several varieties of sea birds along the Northwest Pacific coast. Two of the most interesting springtime visitors include Tufted Puffins and huge colonies of Common Murres. Both birds spend a majority of their life on open waters far out to sea, returning to offshore rocks and islands only in spring to nest and rear their young. For puffins, nesting activity can begin as early as April with peak activity in June and July. Murres typically begin gathering in large numbers later in June.
When the adult Tufted Puffin arrives in spring, it is bearing it's colorful breeding plumage which includes a white face, yellow eyebrow tufts, orange beak, a squat black body and red-orange feet. During the winter, the bird fades to a simple black and gray with an orange bill. Juveniles are predominately black, dark gray or slightly mottled with a pale beak.
Puffins are not graceful flyers, to say the least, which makes them easy to spot. They launch themselves off of their nesting places flapping their short wings rapidly. What puffins lack in flight skills they make up for as excellent swimmers and divers, diving for fish and returning to their nests with food for their young. They nest in deep burrows, tunnels as long as six feet, on grass-covered rocks and islands.
Common Murres can be seen in dense colonies on offshore rocks. These black and white birds have similar markings to penguins. The birds have adapted a remarkable ability for swimming and diving.
The Common Murre can dive more than 500 feet. At about 17 inches in length, it is probably the largest diving bird that can still fly. Puffins and murres are both members of the alcid or auk family of birds.
Seabirds can be observed on the offshore rocks near Cannon Beach, the cliffs and offshore rocks near Cape Meares and Yaquina Head. Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach offers one of the closest views of nesting puffins, though the colony is a small one. They are easily seen perched outside their burrows, taking flight or landing on the north side of the rock. Volunteers from the Haystack Rock Awareness Program are often on the beach during peak spotting seasons with bird scopes focused on puffins.
Seabird colonies are sensitive to disturbance and are strictly protected by federal and state laws. In Oregon and Washington, more than 2000 islands, offshore rocks and reefs are protected as National Wildlife Refuges and human entry is prohibited. Though some of these rocks and islands are accessible at low tides, they are closed to all public access.
Of course, in addition to puffins and murres, these natural areas are home to dozens of other birds, the most common including Pigeon Guillemots and several varieties of gulls and cormorants. Bring a field guide and binoculars or spotting scope! An observant birdwatcher might also see the endangered Marbled Murrelet or the Rhinoceros Auklet.
By far, the biggest spring show is shorebirds. The commonly seen Northwest shorebirds include about 35 different species, which in general are long-legged and narrow-billed waders who feed at the edge of the water. Sandpipers are one of the most recognized families of shorebirds. Other common varieties include dunlin, plover, sanderling, long-billed dowitcher and common snipe. From mid-April to mid-May, the shorebird migration north is at its peak, though all of spring can offer increased numbers of shorebirds. Peak migration can offer swarming "clouds" of birds in large numbers putting on an amazing aerial exhibition. Throw in a Peregrine Falcon and things really get exciting. Shorebirds can be spotted at any beach or estuary with the best viewing typically at high tide. The most reliable spot in the Northwest is Bowerman Basin in Grays Harbor, Washington. Other good locations south along the coast include Leadbetter State Park, Fort Stevens State Park, Garibaldi boat basin, Bayocean Spit on Tillamook Bay, Siletz Bay and other estuaries.
Where to See Seabirds & Shorebirds
Leadbetter State Park
One of the best shorebird watching locations in the Northwest. This is
also one of the best places to observe the spring migration of Brandt, a small sea goose.
Fort Stevens State Park
A variety of habitats attract many species. The south jetty is one of Oregon's premier shorebird locations.
Haystack Rock and Bird Rocks to the north are busy seabird nesting areas in spring and summer. Haystack Rock offers Oregon's easiest viewing of Tufted Puffins. Harlequin Ducks are also often seen in the waters near Haystack Rock. Bird Rocks, at the north end of Cannon Beach, is home to a crowded colony of Commom Murres which number in the tens of thousands.
Tillamook Bay & Bayocean Spit
Tillamook Bay offers good birding year round. Bayocean Spit, which separates the bay from the ocean, is an excellent shorebird location.
Cape Meares State Park
Offers views of Three Arch Rocks offshore, home to Oregon's largest colonies of puffins and murres. Murres number in the hundreds of thousands.
Mid tides force large numbers of shorebirds to feed on the mudflats
Puffins, murres, cormorants and other seabirds can be observed on offshore rocks from the lighthouse.
Other good shorebird viewing locations include the Nehalem estuary, Netarts Bay, Nestucca estuary and Yaquina Bay.
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