Thirty thousand birds called common murres stand in penguin-like suits atop a single sea rock, crammed as tightly together as commuters on a bus. All drone tones as low and somber as monks: arg-arg-arg-arg-arg-arg-arg-arg.
With a spotting scope, I watch the murres raise
their chocolate heads, puff out their white breasts and point their
bills skyward. They seem caught in a trance of their own sounds
mixed with surf thunder. I've been bicycling along the Oregon coast
and looking at breeding birds like this for weeks.
Birds that breed near the Pacific Ocean are in
danger, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Spotted owls and
marbled murrelets lack the old-growth woods they need to prosper.
American peregrine falcons compete with development along sea
cliffs. The eggs of snowy plovers on beaches get run over by ATVs
or broken by wandering dogs.
At Yaquina Head in
Newport, Ore., murres and dark-drab cormorants bustle only 100 feet
from a viewing fence, providing intimate looks. Suddenly a murre
dad drops down to the sea rock, returning from a trip that may have
taken him 50 miles offshore. He holds a silver fry in his bill, and
the arg-arg-arg intensifies as he holds the prize high while
squeezing through countless birds.
of murres peck and snap at him, he waves stubby wings and inches
forward, waddling and sliding clumsily down rocks. Finding his
mate, he rubs breasts with her but when she opens her bill as if to
beg, he holds his catch high. Then the parents bow, and their one
chick wiggles a fluffy head between them.
Finally Dad drops the fish into the chick's
mouth, and I turn to look at a double-crested cormorant in its bed
of sticks, as it raises its rump in a telltale way. The bird dumps
a plentiful shot of whitewash onto the head of a second cormorant
below, hunkered in its nest. The lower "cormie" shakes its head
slightly and preens its breast. Hidden beneath the bird is its
brood, safe from gulls and crows looking to gobble vulnerable
Meanwhile, as the wind almost starts to
howl, I spot four fuzzy nestlings huddled high on a foot-wide
ledge, an adult Brandt's cormorant standing over them, its wings
widespread. The nestlings wave wing-stumps frantically, and the
parent pumps its neck as if to vomit bits of fish. But it spits no
food. Instead it opens its bill and one baby bird thrusts its head
so high into its parent's mouth that all but his belly and feet
This cliff is alive. On another ledge
a pelagic cormorant flashes violet-bronze plumage and two classy
head-tufts in the wind. Three "teenage" birds crowd the adult,
wagging full-grown bills, begging. The parent seems peeved, shaking
its head out of reach. One teenager persists, jutting its bill
forward, until the parent lashes it. The two birds fence
vigorously, growling, grabbing beaks, raising crests.
Meanwhile a Brandt's cormorant wiggles its head
sleepily and shoves its bill beneath a murre lying flat on an egg.
The much-smaller murre pokes its bill forward and flashes its pale
orange mouth but does not get up. A wad of the murre's nest "-
seaweed and grass "- appears in the cormie's bill, and the cormie
passes it to its mate, who tucks it fastidiously around its own
"Keek! Keek! Keek!" Below, two black
oystercatchers leap from a wave-smashed rock, their bills quivering
as if electrified. The birds scream their way to higher rocks. But
though I checked for hours, I saw the same sad absence I saw at
other beaches bustling with humans: No oystercatcher chicks.
>That evening I looked for birds on a quiet
beach, and as I came around a rock, heard a man say gruffly, "Get
your shoes, I said!" A fishing pole whirred as the man whipped it
across a boy's back.
The boy ran off as a flung,
64-ounce jug of pop thunked between his shoulders. The boy
stumbled, picked up shoes and raced away through driftwood. Dad
yelled at him, "Plan on getting your ass kicked when you get home!"
He glared at two other boys. "All of you plan on it!"
I slept in hiker-biker camps in state parks for
two months, waking most mornings to Swainson's thrushes belting out
wild chords. Males sang to maintain territories, and their
flute-notes rang until I left the woods for coastal cliffs, where
masses of adult murres spread their drone through the sea air.
Aggression occurred constantly, but none of the thousand birds I
watched harmed its own offspring deliberately.