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the birds on the wing - Terrafactive Armageddon

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May 8th, 2005


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11:39 am - the birds on the wing
Yesterday was long, but fun. faintheart picked me up just after 7:30 a.m. and we headed east to collect my mother, then south along highways 167 and 512, mostly by accident, but a serendipitous one.

We made it to Hoquiam just after 10:30 a.m. and spent an hour or so driving around trying to find the Central Elementary School, the purported headquarters of the Shorebird festival, our ostensible destination. Also breakfast, which was concomitantly less than forthcoming. However, a stop at the visitors center yielded a couple of brochures with maps replicating the information I had printed from the website to leave at home.

It was an odd stop - the building was an older converted house, and looked pretty standard when you walked in - guest book, donation jar, maps and brochures and local newsletters. But the woman behind the counter mucking around on the computer was sturdily disinclined to speak to us, and the woman with frighteningly dark circles under her eyes who came out of the back area and eventually pointed us to the restrooms was equally neutral-to-unwelcoming. I was beginning to wonder if any of them actually worked/volunteered there, that perhaps we'd stumbled into some squatters - except they were having the carpets cleaned, which is not really standard squatter behavior.

So we rested ourselves, and on the way back out I exchanged a donation for a couple of pamphlets that had pictures of birds and "shorebird festival" prominent on the front covers, one of which turned out to be a local newsletter that listed restaurants and so forth, the other of which was an actual brochure/schedule for the festival itself. Thus enlightened, we went back to just past the first place we had turned around (of course) and located the school. Then off to The Oriel, or the Forever Oriel (depending on whether you believed the awning or the listing) for breakfast. It was only 11:30 a.m. or so by then, but we seemed to scandalize the cook by wanting the breakfast menu instead of lunch, and I heard her declaiming that she wasn't making any more breakfast after Noon, no matter what.

Diner food is tricky for me - well ok, food in general is tricky for me if I don't know what is in it to fairly exact specifications. I knew better than to eat the 'butter' - oleomargarine of some dubious chemistry, in actuality - and I figured the french toast to be the least likely to offend, because eggs, milk and bread are usually less processed than some items. Truly, the french toast itself was fine, and with some stolen - and quite tasty - strawberry jam made a decent breakfast. Except they had cooked it in something or on something or next to something with artificial oils, so in the end it didn't sit as well as it might have after all. But I got off fairly lightly, as these things can go.

Then we marshaled ourselves back to the school, where we parked the car and caught a very welcome shuttle down to the Wildlife Refuge proper. The grand thing about the shuttle was it took you directly to the trailhead; otherwise there was another quarter-mile or so between the parking lot and the trailhead to tack onto the two-mile boardwalk. Amusingly, providently, there was a mobile espresso stand parked next to the trailhead - the only thing to improve would have been some folding chairs.

The Sandpiper Trail is a very nice boardwalk, with occasional benches, that leads from the Hoquiam Airport (no, I had no idea such a thing existed) out to the estuary inlet. Reeds, cottonwoods, blackberries both native and invasive, that dune-grass stuff I can never remember the proper name for, horsetails, salmonberry bushes (probably not proper salmonberries, just that's what we always called them) all around, sometimes weaving together overhead - the foliage was all you could want. But there seemed to be a distinct lack of shorebirds.

There were song sparrows along the walk in, cute little guys - I was pleased to see the plaque identifying them as such, because my first thought had been That looks like a house sparrow, but it's awfully small.... They do have a lovely call. But there really didn't seem to be anything of the promised thousands of migrants who were the supposed guests of honor.

As it happened, with the impeccable sense of timing my clan possesses, we had arrived at high tide. The guides all mentioned that bird viewing was best for two hours before, and two hours after high tide - but they failed to mention that the entire population of thousands of birds disappears entirely when the tide is at its peak. On reflection, this makes sense - the mudflats are covered with water at that point; the birds are there to dine on the mudflat denizens, ergo no mudflats, no birds. Tide goes out, mudflats reappear, so do the birds.

Which is exactly what happened. The basin there at the bird refuge empties rapidly when it goes, which makes the appearing flocks all that more instantaneous-seeming. They can't have gone far, but if they were close they held their tongues until on the flats and feeding. I didn't realize how many had arrived as I was watching a small group though my opera glasses - but the peeping and cheeping got louder and louder as more birds came back from break, until I looked up from my spyglass to find the entire shore, as far as I could see either direction, covered in little scurrying birds.

It's fascinating to me, the differences between the shorebirds and (what to call them?) 'regular' birds, passerines? between the shorebirds and the city birds - their gait is totally different, for one thing. Pigeons, for example, have that bobbing walk, and even when running the bob is still there. If pigeons pitch when they walk, the sandpipers roll - some of them rock from side to side a little when they are scurrying about. Mostly they zoom around like Baba Yaga's hut, or someone holding up their skirts to dash across a puddle - all the movement in their legs, like a belly dancer.

We hung around for quite a while, and between the standing and the walking I was more exhausted than I expected, so I napped the majority of the way home. We stopped for dinner, and while it was a good thing that I roused myself and ate, it didn't really perk me up any, so I essentially went right to bed when I got home.

So yeah, pretty cool. Plus now that I know where the refuge is, I can go back the next time I'm in the area without all the extra people hanging about. Most of them, especially the Fish & Wildlife folks, were pretty cool, but there were enough Tall Men with Expensive Scopes Who Needed To Stand Right In Front Of Me that I wouldn't mind a day where there was less competition for the view. Although who knows - apparently wildife/wilderness tourism is the hot new trend for depressed logging towns like Aberdeen and Forks...

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