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Marine Zone wildlife viewing report, Jan 24

Marine Viewing

January

Birding from the car

If you want to watch waterfowl without flushing them, birding from your car is a good way to go. The car not only serves as a blind keeping waterfowl and other wary water birds at ease; it also keeps you warm and dry on wet and blustery days. Park at any one of the drivable jetties along the coast this time of year and you should easily see a variety of birds that winter along the Oregon coast either in the Pacific Ocean or within our bays and estuaries. Look for western grebes, buffleheads, surf scoters, great blue herons and brown pelicans. Take a trip upriver and enjoy and abundance of wintering waterfowl like American wigeon, green-winged teal, mallard, and northern pintail. Some hotspots for watching waterfowl are Eckmann Lake near Waldport, Coquille River Valley near Bandon and Tillamook and Yaquina bays.

Gray whales

During the week of Christmas sunny weather gave watchers a clear view of the grey whale migration with 16,000 total sightings along the Oregon coast. That’s more than 10 times the number of sightings the Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center logged for the same week last year.

“The weather has been fantastic for whale watching,” said Melinna, a seasonal staff member at the center.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is usually the height of the migration past Oregon. Melinna said there can be as many as 30 whales per hour moving past a single point on the coast. Most whales are one to five miles offshore. The 16,000 sightings included multiple sightings of the same whale or group of whales, she said.

But there is still plenty of action for whale watchers. The migration continues in earnest into mid-January with the youngest whales passing the coast later in the month. About 18,000 gray whales will pass by the Oregon coast.

Recent tagging studies by Oregon State University scientists show that most gray whales only stay about three weeks in the warm waters off Baja, Mexico. Then they head back to the cold, but plankton-rich waters of the north Pacific. The exception is mothers and calves, which stay on the breeding grounds between two and three months.

Big Pacific storms can make whale watching difficult with wind and waves obscuring signs of the grey whale migration. To watch the migration, it is best to pick a calm day and find a view point that is high enough to spot the spouts. Learning good binocular technique will help spot the whales. Gaze out onto the ocean, focusing on medium distances until you see a puff of white. Then raise your binoculars while continuing to look at the place you saw the puff. This technique takes some practice, but generally works better than swinging the binoculars around looking for something. Just keep your eyes focused on the whale and raise the binoculars to your eyes, looking through them, not into them.

A gray whale's blow is up to 15 feet high, and each blow is visible for about five seconds. When warm, moist air exhaled from the animals' lungs meets the cool air at the ocean surface, it creates the bushy column called a blow, or spout. Anticipate that the whale will dive for three to six minutes, then surface for three to five blows in row, 30 to 50 seconds apart, before diving deep for three to six minutes again

Gray whales are the most coastal of the baleen whales and are often found within a few miles of shore as they migrate from Alaska to Baja. Gray whales have baleen instead of teeth. To feed, they fill their vast mouths with mud from the sea bottom and strain it through their baleen to capture amphipods and other small animals. This is the only type of whale to feed in this manner.

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