Wildlife at Yaquina Head

June 27, 2017

  You might know of Yaquina Head, just north of Newport, Oregon for the lighthouse that has stood there since the late 1800’s. BLM is doing a fantastic job in maintaining the old building and grounds around it.

  There is so much more here to see. From the point looking west, one can see a variety of wildlife including bald eagles, common murres (rhymes with purr), western gulls, turkey vultures, three types of cormorants (pelagic, brant’s, and double-crested), pigeon guillemots, ravens, crows and WHALES! To the south, near the Cobble Beach area, one can view Harbor Seals where they haul out to rest, and you might see a harlequin duck, surf scoters or one of several species of swallows that frequent the area. Oh, and keep a look out for the Peregrine Falcons that nest over the parking lot of the visitor’s center; a pair of chicks fledged (took their first flights) there this past weekend (June 24-25, 2017).

  Often the large rock (Colony Rock) off the western point is covered with thousands upon thousands of Common Murres. They look like penguins (not related to penguins though) all crowded together, and the noise they generate would be deafening if you were any closer. They do not nest like most birds. They lay a single egg on the bare rock and squat on it to keep it warm. That is until something happens to frighten them off.

Wait, this is a national reserve controlled by the federal government, what could happen? Depending on the time of day, you might be privy to the drama of predation by the Eagles. You see, the large aggregation of Murres is a tempting target for our national symbol. But it isn’t just eagles that cause the murres issues.

  I suppose I always believed that eagles only ate fish. I was wrong, they eat birds too. When an eagle comes in, he will pick up a murre and carry it off to eat elsewhere, sometimes to a tree on the north side of Yaquina Head, sometimes all the way back to the mainland. When an eagle appears, Colony Rock is vacated in short order by panicked birds who fly out to sit on the ocean where the eagles leave them in peace. However, when this happens, it leaves the eggs and/or chicks unprotected. In come crows, ravens, gulls and vultures to grab a free meal.

    It’s strange to me that when the eagle flies off, the crows and the gulls will harass it, trying to make it leave quickly when they benefit so much from its presence. Yet, I also realize that an eagle will take one of those birds for a meal as well. So it makes some sense.

  The whales that pass by are most often grey whales, though humpbacks and orcas do put in an appearance from time to time. On rare occasions, you might even see the giant plume of a blue whale (the largest living animal on earth) as it passes by.

   Another treasure at Yaquina Head is the tide pools. These are protected from people, so they are quite prolific in their offerings of animals to view. Crabs, sea stars, urchins, nudibranchs, sculpin, a variety of different snails and whelks, barnacles and muscles hang out here. (visible only during low tides though and the lower, the better)

  If you find yourself driving down Highway 101 near Newport Oregon, make sure to make a stop here, it is well worth your time.

Photo Op                                 04-14-2017
            When my daughter pulled to the curb at an empty lot in Davis, California, I was surprised. We were out to take pictures of burrowing owls. It was hard for me to believe that this lot, surrounded by busy enterprises would be a place to take pictures. To me, it looked like a typical cleared commercial real estate development lot. The site is complete with fresh new sidewalks, paved asphalt and a large red “for sale” sign.
            Before I managed to pull myself out of the car, my daughter says, “There’s one.”

I looked to see her pointing to a pile of dirt and rocks and saw nothing alive. After staring a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of movement, and once I focused in I could barely discern the outline of a round head against a background of similar colored dirt and rock. When I pulled the camera to my eye, pushed the shutter to engage the autofocus, to my delight a burrowing owl stared back at me.
            Burrowing owls are on the endangered lists: in California, they are “endangered.” nationally they are “of conservation concern.” My question about these owls that live in such a precarious spot is whether the City of Davis, Yolo County or the State of California is even aware of their existence. The “for sale” sign is an ominous declaration concerning their future.

While we were taking our photographs, a young man walked across the field, using it as a shortcut to enter a small industrial district this empty lot bumps up against. He never looked side to side, only at the ground in front of him. I bet he has seen the ground squirrels, I wonder if he’s seen the owls.
The total square footage of the empty dirt might come up to be a half acre, probably less. A discount gas station lies across one street, a fruit stand across another and a busy shopping center sits two blocks away, and a major highway connecting San Francisco and Sacramento less than a mile away.

            In this small space, I photographed three nesting pairs. Saw at least eight ground squirrels as well as a few other birds that dropped in, including red-winged blackbirds, killdeers, and a pigeon or two. We spent an hour, delighted and amazed by the cute little owls that tolerated, but kept a wary eye on us. We could get to within thirty feet of them without them taking to wing. Even though, burrowing owls are diurnal, I kept getting the feeling that we were keeping them from doing what they would normally do, though I only witnessed head bobbing twice. (Head bobbing indicates excitement or distress.)  

            The male is the larger of the species coming in at seven and a half inches tall with a 21 to 24-inch wingspan. They have legs that look out of proportion to their bodies, being extra-long. Their contribution to the ecosystem is in insect, snake and small rodent control. Mostly they hunt while walking or running across the ground, or by swooping down from a perch, but they also take insects in flight. In this part of the country, they do not dig their own burrows but use the abandoned homes of ground squirrels, foxes, and any other empty hole they might find, including drainage pipes.

             The primary risks to these birds are the destruction of habitat through land development and animal control methods to get rid of ground squirrels. Predation by coyotes, feral dogs, cats, and other birds of prey take a toll on their numbers. In this particular location, passing cars and trucks would be of particular concern.

               It is still early spring, there may already be or could soon be eggs, up to twelve for each pair, followed six weeks later by chicks running loose on the lot. I hope to get the opportunity to return to see that sight.


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Snapping Turtles                                             02-05-2017

Aligator Snapping Turtle

Common Snapping Turtle

     “Careful boy, there be snappin’ turtles in that pond. They like little wiggly things they find in the water.  One a dem takes a bite of you, ‘e won’t let go till lightning strikes twice.  Then we might just have ta start callin’ you Suzie.”

     That is such  a colorful image to implant in an eight-year old's brain.  Where I grew up the common snapper is an Alligator Snapper.  By the way, I never saw one until i was in my thirties visiting an aquarium.  I think had I seen one as a kid, I never would have put my toes into a pond, or river, or lake ever again.  They can become quite large.  The biggest verified was two hundred and forty-nine pounds.  However, there is a report of one found in Kansas that weighed over four hundred pounds.  Of course. since scientists did not see or weigh that one so it will forever remain unverified.  (Hey, who appointed them to the job of official verifiers? ) 

     These reptiles can indeed chomp down hard.  How hard? How about 952 pounds per square inch.  Sounds impressive but compare that to a humans bite pressure of 1,885.  So their bite is only half as strong as ours.  The issue with being  bitten by one is that their beak is designed for shearing.   Meaning it has some mean cutting ability. There is a YouTube video of a near two hundred pound common snapper breaking a broomstick with its bite. Be sure to watch to the end, the narrator got surprised.

     With the idea of keeping people safe, I want to dispel a misconception.  Turtles have a huge reputation for being slow.  In so much as traveling from one place to another, it is true, they are  slower than us.  Yet, if you watched the video you saw  how fast the turtle moved to bite.  Their head can move and bite much faster than you or I can react to them and pull our hand or toes out of the way.

     So where can snapping turtles be found?  Well, let’s back up a moment, there are three different kinds of snapping turtle. The ones I grew up around were the Alligator Snapping Turtles. They are distinguished by three ridges running from head end to tail end on their shell or carapace.  Those ridges serve as an excellent reminder these beasts date back to the dinosaur days. The others are variants of the Common Snapping Turtle.  If one combines them in answering the question, they can be found in almost any pond, lake, or river in the country.  I am not certain if that extends to Alaska or Hawaii.  The Alligator Turtles are found in the southeast and great plains.

     So, a little research puts the lie to the old tale I heard when I was little.  Snappers, while fully capable of slicing off fingers and hands in a single bite, tend to avoid humans with gusto.  They are not aggressive.  It is highly unlikely they would attack a human. However, like any animal that feels cornered or threatened, snappers will act in self-defense. The only time people are likely to run into a problem is when the turtles are on land, or when they are in mating season.  In either of these cases, leaving the turtle alone is almost always the best bet.  If you feel one absolutely must be moved, call in someone trained in how to handle them properly. 

      Oh, and they eat fish, plants, and other turtles, not "little wiggly things" they find in the water.

Notice:  Most photos on this  csperry.org are mine.  For this article such is not the case.

Alligator Snapping Turtle (top right)       ---- NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Common Snapping Turtle                           ---- Photo © Jim Harding
Alligator Snapping Turtle i(Body of text) ----  Photographer unknown  photo  found  here: