Against All Odds: The BLOY of Northern Elephant Rock

Author: Teri Spencer, Shoreline Education for Awareness (SEA) member

Photos: Diane Bilderback, SEA member

The beaches of the Southern Oregon coast are a wonderland of beautiful and unique sights, sounds and smells. One distinct sound frequently heard along our beaches is the high-pitched, animated call and rapid chatter of the Black Oystercatchers, shorebirds that reside along the coast year-round. Black Oystercatchers, abbreviated BLOY by bird experts, are always a favorite of Oregon coastal residents and visitors. We admire the beauty of their solid black bodies contrasted by their long and vivid orange beaks and eyes. BLOY are among the most vivacious shorebirds, always fun to watch and never ceasing to surprise with their highly spirited actions. After observing them for the Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project, I now recognize these birds are far more complex and fascinating than they appear. BLOY possess innumerous admirable qualities that, for continuing survival, any species should aspire to.

The Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project has been conducted through Portland Audubon since 2015. As stated on the project website, the BLOY are a significant species to monitor:

Because of their small global population size, low reproductive rate, and reliance on rocky intertidal habitats, they are considered a “species of high conservation concern” and act as an indicator of intertidal ecosystem health.”

Lead by Joe Leibezeit, Staff Scientist and Avian Conservation Manager of Portland Audubon, the project has compiled monitoring data from over 300 BLOY nests collected by over 90 volunteer community scientists along the entire Oregon coastline. The Bandon group of volunteers is expertly organized and mentored by Diane and Dave Bilderback. The data analysis from 2015-2019 showed an overall hatching success of 67%, and only 33% of chicks survived to fledge (able to fly) in Oregon. Although that rate seems low, the project website states “Demographic studies suggest this productivity is enough to sustain the population”.

Monitoring the BLOY brings one to fully understand why so few of the BLOY pairs are successful in raising a chick to fledge, hence why this article is titled “Against All Odds”. With all of the overwhelming hazards they face, it’s a wonder any of their offspring survive.

BLOY must be profoundly hardy to face the challenges inherent to their chosen nesting location in the rocky intertidal zones. BLOY live about 15 years, and are thought to mate for life. Mated pairs nest in the same or nearby locations year after year, and defend a foraging territory in the nest area throughout the year. In Bandon the BLOY pairs nest primarily on the offshore and mainland rocks. Mainland rocks are those that can be accessed from the beach at low tides.

Nesting BLOY in Oregon are faced with constant threats from natural forces (wind, ocean waves), avian predators (Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, gulls) as well as from land mammals (at low tides). Of greater concern to this writer is the increasing threat to the BLOY nests from human sources (people climbing on rocks, unleashed dogs, drones) throughout the time the BLOY parents must be intensely focused on incubating and raising their chicks.

A note about the increasing threat posed by drones flown along the coastline: The BLOY do not distinguish them from a bird of prey and will abandon their eggs or chicks to aggressively chase a drone flown near their nest site. This inherent defensive action leaves the eggs/chicks defenseless to the aforementioned natural predators, who will take the opportunity to consume them. Each consecutive season the Bandon volunteer nest monitors report more and more drone incidents of harassment of nesting BLOY. Although the monitors only view the nests a miniscule fraction of time, we witnessed at least 14 separate incidents of drone harassment which kept the BLOY parents away from their nests for sometimes 20-25 minutes during the 2021 season alone. What untold number of times does this occur when the monitors are not there? Because of this growing problem, Oregon State Parks and US Fish and Wildlife agencies are actively pursuing clarification and enforcement of drone operation rules along the coast to support wildlife protection.

The BLOY of North Elephant story

This is the story of a pair of BLOY that I have monitored for the past 3 seasons in Bandon: the BLOY of North Elephant Rock. Their story has all of the elements of a page-turning novel: suspense, danger, tragedy, joy, and ultimately a happy ending. Throughout consecutive seasons this BLOY pair demonstrated unending strength, tenacity, and dedication in overcoming numerous natural and human-based dangers to hatch, raise and fledge their offspring. As a comparatively pampered human, I truly feel fortunate and humbled to have the opportunity to witness their journey as it has unfolded each year.

June, 2019 : A second chance

During the BLOY breeding/nesting season in 2019, the Elephant Rock/Coquille Point area of Bandon was home to 6 BLOY nests, many of which failed to successfully fledge a chick. This BLOY pair built a nest there in late May, and hatched 2 beautiful chicks in late June. Within 2 days both chicks disappeared, likely due to predation.

After suffering a nest failure, some BLOY pairs try again, which is what this pair did. One week after their nest failure, I saw the pair mating in their foraging territory on the low rocks at Coquille Point. Immediately after, they flew together up approximately 30 feet to the top of North Elephant Rock, loudly chattering at each other and moving rocks and vegetation around, actions associated with nest location selection prior to laying eggs. I was hopeful that their apparent “second chance” at procreation that season was underway.

July:  incubation

According to the Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project monitoring protocol, the existence of a BLOY nest is confirmed when one of the birds is seen sitting on a suspected nest site for at least 15 minutes for consecutive observations. On July 4, 2019 the BLOY nest on the top of North Elephant Rock was confirmed. The clock started for an incubation period of approximately 30 days.

Figure 1. BLOY incubating at North Elephant Rock July 6, 2019

During incubation one of the BLOY parents must keep the eggs warm and protected from predation at all times. BLOY parents usually take turns sitting on the nest while the other forages, and this pair was no exception. Each time I observed the nest one parent was faithfully sitting on it, sometimes facing directly into a 20+MPH  north wind. The other parent was generally either close by, or would fly back to the nest within a few minutes and trade places with the incubating parent, both energetically chattering. Their “nest exchange” process was like a loud, spirited dance, demonstrating commendable collaboration for diligently protecting their eggs.

Potential predation of the eggs was a constant threat for the pair, from nearby peregrine falcons and the gulls who also nest close by. During many monitoring visits the BLOY pair would respond aggressively to a potential avian predator, flying at the other bird, even hitting a few juvenile gulls who ventured onto North Elephant Rock, sending gull feathers flying. Several visits, when a peregrine falcon flew over, both BLOY left the nest to chase the falcon, always successfully fending it off, but leaving the eggs vulnerable for a time.

Human interference was also a regular threat, likely due to the nest location at a heavily visited area of the beach. North Elephant Rock is located at Coquille Point, a spot on the Bandon beach which is a common visitor destination for viewing the wildlife, such as harbor seals and nesting shorebirds and seabirds. At many low tides the base of North Elephant Rock is surrounded by the sand, allowing easy access to it. The BLOY parents were hyper-alert to any possible disturbance from the exposed beach. Numerous monitoring visits they became agitated, sounding their short, very loud “alert” call when people and/or their dogs walked too close to, or even climbed onto the base of the North Elephant Rock. The BLOY would remain agitated for several minutes, watching closely until the “intruders” moved on.

On one occasion I watched a man abruptly run through ankle deep ocean up to the base of North Elephant Rock and start to climb it, coming within 15 feet of the nest. Frightened, both BLOY parents flew off the nest and away from the area, leaving their eggs unprotected before returning 10 minutes later. I intervened, calling the man to come down, who had no idea he was doing anything wrong.

 August: Exhaustive Rearing

  

Figure 2. New BLOY nestlings  at North Elephant Rock  August 4, 2019

Finally, in early August, after what seemed to be an exhausting ordeal of incubation, Diane discovered that chicks had hatched. We quickly stationed ourselves on the bluff overlooking North Elephant Rock to watch the new parents and their 2 tiny chicks. Like they did during incubation these BLOY parents worked together, elegantly coordinating as one would fly off to gather food while the other stayed, tending to and protecting the hungry chicks. When food was brought back to the chicks, called a “food carry”, the chicks immediately gobbled it up, while one of the parents left again to collect more. In a 90 minute period, we watched the parents frantically repeat this food carry/feeding routine 10 times!

That was this BLOY family’s first day together, facing all of the same threats they did during incubation, but now with 2 very active, hungry, and curious chicks completely vulnerable to outside forces, and dependent on them for about 40 days until they could fly.

The parents did a phenomenal job of protecting and rearing their chicks and it was a pleasure to witness. There was a constant threat to the chicks by hungry juvenile gulls that hatched earlier that season, forcing the parents to spend lots of time and energy aggressively fighting them off. After a week, the BLOY parents moved their nest site and chicks to the west side of North Elephant Rock, more out of  the sight of hungry gulls and everyone else, including human monitors. It is common for BLOY to move their family away from the original nest location, often making it more challenging to watch them. For a few weeks the only view of the chicks as they grew was from a narrow strip of sand, exposed only at very low tides. However, as the chicks grew and became more adventurous, they and their parents could be seen on other parts of North Elephant Rock. The rock has many nooks and crannies which the always clever parents used to routinely hide the chicks for their resting periods throughout the day. The rock camouflaged them so well, it was often difficult to see them.

  Figure 3. BLOY chicks sleeping in nooks-look closely for them 8/16/19

Figure 4. Chicks exploring North Elephant Rock at 2 weeks old 8/16/19

The BLOY chicks grew quickly as we watched their parents teach them how to forage for food in the growth at the tide line on North Elephant Rock. The mid August weather brought some rough seas, which would, at times break on the base of the rock. When they were 3 weeks old, one of the chicks was adventuring out low on the rock when a large wave hit, water washing over the chick and obliterating it from view. In a panic on the beach, I tried frantically to find where the chick was, and was certain it had been washed into the ocean and met its demise. Luckily it did reappear high on the rock about 10 minutes later, having escaped the worst possible consequence of its adventuring.

Sadly, that was the last monitoring visit when 2 chicks were seen on North Elephant Rock.  Two days after the wash over incident, only 1 chick was left with the parents. One can only speculate on the cause of the chick’s presumed demise. Considering the low fledge rate, it is an all too common occurrence.

September: A time to fledge

After the loss of one of their chicks, the BLOY parents were noticeably more anxious and hyper-vigilant in protecting the remaining chick. They spent most of the time on the hidden side of North Elephant Rock, and the parents became alerted to any possible threat, chasing any species of birds who flew over or came onto the rock, even those that posed no threat. We were not able to catch a glimpse of the well-hidden chick for several consecutive monitoring visits, but knew it was still alive because its parents were still bringing food in to it.

In late August both parents and a very changed chick reappeared on the rock within sight from the beach. The chick had grown nearly as large as its parents and now had darker, smoother plumage in preparation for flight. Throughout the first week of September, the chick could be seen foraging with the parents on North Elephant Rock, frequently flexing and flapping its wings in practice.

Then, during monitoring on September 11, 2019,  all 3 of the BLOY of North Elephant Rock FLEW together over the water, and landed on another rock to forage there and on the beach! Fledged! After watching the intense struggles and outstanding protective actions this BLOY pair coordinated and executed over 3 months, the sight of their chick flying was truly gratifying. A rare and deeply humbling experience which will last in memory always.

Post note: Anyone interested in more information or getting involved in the Oregon Black Oystercatcher project, there is a huge amount of educational information on the Portland Audubon site. Click on the photo/link below.

Oregon Black Oystercatcher Project

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