Big summer vacay meant loading up the tent, binos, bird books and wine. Ya, it was going to get wild.
I remember visiting the dunes in southern Oregon when I was a kid. But it's been awhile. K, back in the day, was out in the field studying birds. He spent quite a bit of time trekking these very dunes spotting, banding and protecting Western snowy plovers.
A small bird that nests in open sandy areas along the Pacific and the Gulf coast, the Western snowy plover's had a hard history. Listed as threatened, this shorebird population declined with human impact. (Beach-goers, and their vehicles and dogs, disrupted the plover's small nests.)
Also? The birds don't like European beach grass.
These invasive grasses create an easy place for predators and other birds to hide and eat eggs from nests. And it didn't used to be here. It was planted in the early 1900s along the coast to "stabilize" and "reclaim" the naturally shifting dune landscape. Instead, these grasses decimated native species.
Lesson learned. Now, campaigns are underway to remove the non-native grass and other actions are taken to protect nesting areas that still remain.
Under the Endangered Species Act, certain areas of the coast are designated for species recovery and, as such, have recreation restrictions for nesting season—which is now.
Our vacation plan? Spot a snowy plover.
It helps to have a plover guy as your guide.
The night before, we hiked in to the dunes above the coast and set up our tent. It was chilly, with fog was rolling in, but we could see the setting sun on the ocean a mile or so out. In the morning, we had coffee, grabbed binos and a spotting scope.
K placed a couple logs atop tent stakes (because, hello, they don't grip very well in sand), sent a wish for no wind, and we set out to find the birds.
We walked for an hour or more. Stayed clear of likely nesting sites and off-limit areas. Scanned. Moved on. Scanned some more. It started to get cold. And windy. Hands started to go numb. Scanned the almost-barren sands, watching for a faint movement. We were looking for little white and tan birds that scurry along the open sand, eating small bugs, or they nuzzle in their sandy nests—often by shells and pieces of driftwood. The plovers are kind of impossible to see. Until this:
My super-stellar wildlife photo skills astonish you, I know. But this is my best shot, zoomed in and everything. Look closer.
Woo hoo. Love these guys. We kept our distance but spotted several before hiking away and to an inland lake for lunch. Then we headed back through the forest—which is totally weird right in the dune area, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. And up the backside (oof) of the huge dune we were camping below.
I'd kind of forgotten about the tent and how much the wind had picked up since the morning. We soon spotted the tent ... in two pieces. And flapping wildly. Good thing it's much faster to run DOWN dunes.
Luckily, the wood, one stake that remained and the sleeping bags inside kept it from blowing away, twirling across the sand and out of our hearts. That second piece? Was actually just the tent's ground cloth that had blown out and caught in that beach grass. (OK, fine. So it's not entirely evil grass if it rescued our gear.) I thought the tent was obliterated, but it was actually intact.
We had enough time to pack up and move to our next camp spot. And even caught the setting sun out on the spit. Got to love vacation.