It was late afternoon when we arrived at Overleaf Lodge in Yachats, just in time to walk along the 804 trail as the sun sank in spectacular glory behind a bank of retreating clouds. We saw hundreds of gulls, of course, and out on the rocks the bright orange legs and beak of an oystercatcher caught our eye. Further along, several people stared out across the ocean. Late March is Whale Watching season on the Oregon Coast and sure enough, we too spotted the signature spout of a gray whale.
We returned to the Overleaf where we enjoyed a soak in their spa overlooking the ocean. Then we headed into Yachats for dinner at the Drift Inn, where Tutu Kane, a local musician born on the Big Island, played ukulele and sang soft island songs. One we liked especially. “That was Ka Lele O Pueo,” he said with a lovely smile. ”It means ‘the flight of Pueo,’ the Hawaiian Owl.” A good omen, we thought, for our birding expedition.
We were up a little too early for the plentiful complimentary breakfast in the Overleaf’s lobby, so we grabbed coffee and warm sausage pasties at The Village Bean on the north end of Yachats and headed for Keady Wayside in Waldport, where we had an appointment with our local guide, a member of the Yaquina Birding Society.
Alsea Bay has always been a rich environment for marine mammals, salmon, and birds. So many species of birds can be found here, both year-round and migrating, that it has been declared a Significant Bird Area. The water is the cleanest of any coastal bay, and it is a big attraction for crabbers and fishermen.
Our guide led us down a trail and we walked along the mud flats on the south side of the bay. The tide was just coming in. Dozens of small brown sandpipers darted back and forth looking for worms and sand crabs. Their winter plumage makes it difficult to distinguish species, but we loved watching them as they dabbled along the edge of the water.
Suddenly, with a sound like a gate in desperate need of WD40 , a Great Blue Heron rose into the air, huge wings flapping, looking for all the world like its own prehistoric ancestor. We watched in amazement as it became, unbelievably, airborne.
After scoping the mouth of Alsea Bay, we drove through Waldport on highway 34. Just east of town, there are a series of sloughs, mud flats, and salt marshes, all providing great birding opportunities. At Lint Slough, we saw ducks galore! As the morning sun cleared the Coast Range, we observed mallards, Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, and Canada geese. Little Buffleheads floated in close formation, along with grebes. Males were coming into their breeding plumage, like the Surf Scoters with their bright bills.
We drove another mile to Eckman Lake and parked on the causeway between the lake and the Bay. A rich mixture of smells from the salt marsh filled the air. Then there was that delightful trill of blackbirds, spotted on their cattail perches. The rackety cry of kingfishers came from the estuary where they take advantage of the mix of salt and fresh water, diving to catch small fish along the side of the marsh.
At our guide’s suggestion, we raised our scopes to look out over the bay. On a snag that had come to rest on a sandbar, we spotted the white head of a Bald Eagle. Back on the lake side, we scoped another nest, belonging to a pair of Osprey. They breed earlier in the season and sure enough, we could just see the parents popping up to feed their young. One of the best sightings of the day was a hard-to-spot Green Heron, crouching in the shallows at Eckman Lake waiting for lunch to swim by.
Lunch? We looked at each other. Yes, lunch! Martin and Teresa, owners of Azul, offered a warm welcome and steaming bowls of albondigas soup, which the menu describes as “freshly minted meatballs floating in a delicious broth.” I just had to ask—did this mean the meatballs were freshly made or made with mint? Martin smiled and called Teresa, who prepares the Jalisco-style food. “Oh sí,” she said, “menta!” Fresh mint and oregano—que rico!