By Lori Tobias The Oregonian
CANNON BEACH, Ore. — On a May morning, the tide flowing out, the sun shining, a man peers through binoculars at Haystack Rock, oblivious to the dogs, kids and beachcombers passing around him.
Then suddenly, he shouts to a companion: “Hey, I saw one flying off the cliff. You could really see the color on its head in the sun. Way cool.”
It’s the sort of shout heard frequently during the spring and summer months on this stretch of Oregon beach as visitors come from all over for a chance to glimpse the scores of tufted puffins nesting on the iconic North Coast rock.
Haystack is considered the best place on the entire west coast to see the birds, and perhaps the only place where visitors have a good shot at spotting them with the bare eye, said Roy Lowe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife project leader for Oregon Coast Refuge Complex.
Black bodied with orange and yellow bills and yellow tufts above their eyes, the birds have become something of a mascot of Oregon’s toniest coastal town, which is dotted within puffin sculptures, jewelry and artwork.
There’s even a bottle of wine bearing their likeness.
“They are unbearably cute and really tough little guys,” said Tom Oxwang, a longtime volunteer with the Friends of Haystack Rock.
But now, as numbers decline dramatically along the Oregon coast, some are wondering if seabirds are tough enough — or if they might vanish altogether from the state.
“I remember the days when we would motor along the coast and we would see them quite frequently at many locations,” said Lowe. “Now they are few and far between. We don’t know what the cause is, so we don’t know what can be done.”
Tufted puffins are a cold-water species that spend much of their lives at sea except for a few months in the spring and summer when the birds come ashore to mate and nest. They generally begin showing up at Haystack in March and over the coming weeks build nests in burrows in the sod for the single egg both adults will take turns hatching.
“They come and go during the day to feed their young,” said Lowe. “You can see them flying over head, carrying one large fish or 10 small fish. It’s pretty fascinating that they can catch one fish and then catch another and another and another fish while holding onto the others.”
By August, the adult birds fly away, leaving the chicks to find their way off the rock and join to the colony at sea.
In the late 1980s, nesting tufted puffins numbered about 5,000 on the Oregon coast, but in the ‘90s, biologists began to hear word that fewer and fewer were being seen, said Lowe. In 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife did another count.
“Our crew surveyed the whole coast and counted a grand total 142 birds,” said Lowe. “They are very difficult to census and to get an accurate count at any one site we would have to spend a number of days there. But let’s say our numbers are off by a factor of three, it is still a tremendous decline.”
There are any number of theories why the population is declining. It could be a lack of food, changing ocean conditions or increased predation by bald eagles.
“Bald eagles are definitely reshaping our seabird colonies,” said Lowe.
Oxwang wonders if it might be related to the increase in Humboldt squid, voracious eaters that may be causing a decrease in the bird’s food supply.
Part of the problem in understanding the decline is that the birds can only be studied long distance.
Even if researchers went up on the rock to study burrows after the birds leave, they would be disturbing other species.
“That’s the quandary for us,” said Lowe. “To learn more you have to get up to the burrows, but to do so could cause great harm.”
This summer, a volunteer will spend 20 hours a week watching the birds from the beach.
“His sole duty will be to monitor the rock, identify the types of fish the adults are carrying back to chicks,” said Lowe. “Basically we are trying to learn about the life history of these birds in the state of Oregon. We’ll try to learn what we can this year and at the same time, we’ll apply for grants to study them in the future.”
“It’s amazing the people who come up and say I need to see a puffin,” said Oxwang. “There are serious birders who’ve never seen a puffin. One lady was here two days in a row. Another was from Missouri. I was joking. I said, ‘I hope we have one. We don’t always.’ Her husband said, ‘You need to show her a puffin. We came here specifically to see a puffin.’ We eventually had some puffins sitting out there and she was happy.”
And these days, the puffins are making Oxwang happy, too. He believes there may be reason to hope the numbers are back on the rise.
“The other day, I was setting up the telescopes and as I did, I counted 26 puffins on the north side of the rock. It’s really been somewhat encouraging thus far this spring. Maybe the decline is moderating a little bit. I’ve never seen 26 puffins at one time sitting on the rock.”