An Unexpected Journey

If I had to make a list of the top ten words that describe me, “adventurous” would not be one of them. I’m the kind of person who prefers a quiet night at home with good friends and a bad movie over an excursion to a local rock climbing area. You could even go so far as to say that I’m boring. In fact, I think most of us might describe ourselves that way if we took a realistic look at our lives. We spend hours completing one mind-numbing task after another until we are released to watch television in the comfort of home. It is a very hobbity existence where nothing terribly exciting happens and adventures are for elves and men. Yes, I’m a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and much like Bilbo Baggins I enjoy nothing more than doing nothing. But a few days ago adventure came knocking at my door, not in the form of a quest giving wizard, but powerful all the same.

On Tuesday January the 6th I received an email from Klamath Bird Observatory asking if I would be able to take part in a shorebird survey that Thursday in Coos Bay. My initial reaction was to scrounge for anything that would keep me from having to venture outside of my hobbit hole.

Do I have class on Wednesday or Thursday?

No.

Do I work?

No.

What about a meeting? Surely I have one of those scheduled!

No.

My schedule was woefully clear and something distinctly Tookish woke up in me. Why shouldn’t I take full advantage of this opportunity and do something that I love in a new place. I might see some really cool things and it might even be fun. Before I knew it I had responded to the email, copied down some directions from the computer, packed my binoculars and scope, and was ready to set out on my unexpected journey the following afternoon.

I don’t know if you have ever gone on a trip last minute like this, but I always get a distinct feeling of excitement when I mount up in my Honda Accord and set out into the unknown. And for me this truly was the unknown. I had no idea what awaited me as I left Ashland and set out on the great concrete serpent known as “the 5”.

Fortunately for me, Oregon is an absolutely beautiful state. Well, when you can see it that is. As I drove through Grants Pass I was shrouded in what seemed like unending fog. My journey was off to an ominous start and after twenty minutes I was becoming a bit claustrophobic. It seemed some dastardly wizard had cast a powerful spell against me. Suddenly, I burst out of the fog and into the gloriously mountainous terrain of Oregon bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. It was truly breathtaking. And I had to chuckle when the very first town I traveled through after the fog was named sunny valley. I have rarely seen a more aptly named place. From there I was taken on a tour of transformative sights as I summited formidable peaks and then dove down into peaceful valleys. I did my best to chase the sun, but the last half of my journey was seen through the lengthening shadows of twilight and eventually sunlight faded entirely. It is in this shroud of night that I entered into Coos Bay at 6:45pm on Wednesday the 7th.

Oregon's Toketee Falls illustrates the state's beauty well (photo - Chaney Swiney)
Oregon’s Toketee Falls illustrates the state’s beauty well (photo – Chaney Swiney)

The sunrise of the 8th brought me the vision of Coos Bay. A mid-sized community sandwiched between North Bend and Charleston. I made my way to the hotel lobby before the survey to acquire my data sheets and maps. This survey was coordinated by Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland, Oregon, but it is part of a larger survey conducted by the California Avian Data Center that tracks the habitat use of shorebirds along the western coast from Canada to Mexico. By knowing how many birds are using what kind of habitat the CADC can help form more comprehensive management plans for our coastal habitats and the birds that use them. I was assigned two survey sites and I was ready to begin when the agreed upon time of 9:00am rolled around.

my first survey site
my first survey site

As I looked out on this tidal mudflat I was once again overcome by a sense of excitement and joy. You never know what birds you are going to see and today had a feeling of something great to come. Unfortunately I was more or less skunked. It was a great day for gulls, grebes, loons, crows, and ducks, but if you were counting shorebirds you were pretty much out of luck. After about an hour at my first site slogging through the mudflats and sinking six inches down into the muck, I only had 8 Killdeer and 4 Marbled Godwits to show for it. My next site was no better, revealing a measly two Killdeer and nothing more. However, the number of birds I counted that day was totally irrelevant. The joy that filled me from just being outside, feeling the wind on my face, and hearing the surf crash on the shore was enough to make my spirit soar. Not to mention that Killdeer are hilarious looking birds that always put on a good show.

a Killdeer I photographed in Tennessee
a Killdeer I photographed in Tennessee
two American Widgeons from Coos Bay
two American Widgeons from Coos Bay
a male Surf Scoter from Coos Bay
a male Surf Scoter from Coos Bay

After the survey I spent some time exploring Coos Bay and enjoyed being in this seaside town. Spending time at the coast did more good for me than I can convey in words. Breathing in the salt air and feeling the sea wind through my hair was intoxicating. I honestly believe that I am a pirate born out of his time. Unfortunately, I had to leave my daydreaming of krakens and pirate ships behind and begin the journey home.

the Umpqua River Lighthouse
the Umpqua River Lighthouse

Along the way I stopped at the Umpqua River Lighthouse which doubles as a whale watching spot. I stayed at the spot for a while, but there were no whales to be seen before I had to set back out on the road, and the road was beautiful. I was now able to see everything I missed before because of the darkness. My journey paralleled the winding Umpqua River, and as I traveled along its raging beauty I saw an elk viewing station. I feared this would end like my whale watching endeavor, but to my surprise I was able to see no fewer than 15 elk in this Umpqua River floodplain. This was my first ever experience with wild elk and I was struck by the enormity of these animals. I stayed securely in my vehicle as I did not want to tangle with any part of that elk especially his antlers.

my very first elk
my very first elk

All journeys must end however, even unexpected ones. When I found myself walking through my old familiar door I felt enormously satisfied. Not because I was home again, but because of the memory of what I had seen and done. I had taken a risk and broken out of my routine. Most importantly I had spent some time by myself in the beauty of nature, which is something everyone needs. Sure, I didn’t journey to the Lonely Mountain or slay any dragons, but not all adventures have to be so grand. They can be as simple as taking a walk to your favorite park, or turning off the TV and reading a book instead. Unexpected journeys surround us every moment of our lives, we just need to be brave enough to say yes every once and a while.

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