Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tide pools and birds

Many visitors to the Oregon coast enjoy tide pools--puddles in rocky substrates left behind at low tide. There they can examine sea life. Tide pools are covered in various sea weeds, barnacles, mussels, sea stars, and anemones. Sea snails, crabs, and small fishes scurry about. You may even find an octopus!

Sea anemones in tide pool near Newport, Oregon, 6 May 2012, by Greg Gillson.

There are several "rockpipers" found on rocky ocean shores. These interesting shorebirds are specialists in this habitat. Thus, even if you are "tide pooling" with non-birding friends, you'll have some birds to watch... along with the intertidal flora and fauna.

Black Oystercatcher grabbing a snail, Seal Rock, Oregon, 31 March 2013 by Greg Gillson.

Chief among the tide pool birds is the crow-sized Black Oystercatcher. They pry shellfish from the rocks and dispatch them quickly with their knife-like bill. Their piercing high calls are easily heard above the roaring surf. Usually seen in pairs or groups of less than 5 individuals, up to 50 may sometimes roost together at favored spots in winter.

Black Oystercatchers, Seal Rock, Oregon, 31 March 2013 by Greg Gillson.

In spring the oystercatchers have quite a unique courtship ritual as they bob an weave in unison. The male has an interesting courtship flight with wings held in a strong 'V' as he flies after the female. This is so much different than the normal flight with direct wing strokes, mostly below the horizontal. Keep an eye out for the chicks--they are truly cute with over-sized bill and legs.

Wandering Tattler, Newport, Oregon, 2 October 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Next up is Wandering Tattler. These are often found on jetties during both spring and fall migration. They are fairly large (between Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in size). Their plumage is quite plain gray-brown with no pattern in wings or tail in flight. They blend in very well on the rocks.

Wandering Tattler, Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon, 12 September 2008 by Greg Gillson.

Tattlers are often found singly or in small scattered groups of no more than a dozen.

Black Turnstone, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 17 January 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Black Turnstones flock together on jetties, tide pool areas, and rocky cobblestone beaches. They can be found on wharfs and docks in estuaries.The average count is about 15 birds, but it is not unusual to have several such flocks working in nearby areas totaling up to 200 individuals.

Black Turnstones, Bay City, Oregon, 16 January 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Though camouflaged on the rocks, their unique harlequin flight pattern is very distinctive. When they take flight they call an excited high-pitched rattle.

Surfbird, Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon, 12 September 2008 by Greg Gillson.

Flocks of Surfbirds often mix together with flocks of Black Turnstones. They are a bit larger than Turnstones with thicker legs and bill.

Surfbird, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 8 January, 2011 by Greg Gillson.

In flight these birds sport white rumps and upper tail, as well as bold white wing stripes. On the rocks they are quite plain in their winter plumage. Unlike the noisy turnstones, surfbirds are usually silent.

Rock Sandpiper, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 17 January, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

The most sought after of the rocky shorebirds is the winter-visiting Rock Sandpiper. When the flock of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones fly, look for the plain Dunlin-like bird with only a faint wing stripe for pattern. In Oregon they are often found singly, mixed in with turnstones and surfbirds. Rarely up to 15 birds have been encountered.

Rock Sandpiper, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 17 January, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Rock Sandpipers on the Pacific coastline are very similar to Purple Sandpipers on the Atlantic coast. One of the best techniques for finding these birds is to look right along the water. They feed as close to the water's edge as possible. When a wave comes they briefly fly up higher on the rocks, then hop back down as the wave passes. Thus, on a jetty, watch the incoming wave for shorebirds flying out of the way.

Ochre sea stars and sea anemones await high tide to be submerged. Newport, Oregon, 6 May 2012 by Greg Gillson.

So the next time you get invited to go tide pooling, be sure to go along!

Black Scoters, Newport, Oregon, 6 May 2012 by Greg Gillson.

While birding the tide pools don't forget to look to sea! Black Scoters dive for shellfish off rocky shores. They are often very close to shore in the wild surf. Who knows what else you may find?


  1. Super sick sweet shots Greg!

    Not just the super cool rockpipers, but the mussely backgrounds as well. Awesome.

    1. Thanks, Laurence. I don't often photograph anything besides birds, so kind of fun trying something else.

  2. Excellent post filled with interesting information and superb photographs!

  3. Nice show, Greg! The photos of the tidal pool and the snail rocks made me feel I was coming along.