Summer  by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Sea‑Birds' Home

A FTER my wandering for years among the quiet lanes and along the winding cow-paths of the home fields, my trip to the wild-bird rocks in the Pacific Ocean, as you can imagine, was a thrilling experience. We chartered a little launch at Tillamook, and, after a fight of hours and hours to cross Tillamook Bar at the mouth of the bay, we got out upon the wide Pacific, and steamed down the coast for Three-Arch Rocks, which soon began to show far ahead of us just off the rocky shore.

I had never been on the Pacific before, nor had I ever before seen the birds that were even now beginning to dot the sea and to sail over and about us as we steamed along. It was all new, so new that the very water of the Pacific looked unlike the familiar water of the Atlantic. And surely the waves were different,—longer, grayer, smoother, with an immensely mightier heave. At least they seemed so, for every time we rose on the swell, it was as if our boat were in the hand of Old Ocean, and his mighty arm were "putting" us, as the athlete "puts" the shot. It was all new and strange and very wild to me, with the wild cries of the sea-birds already beginning to reach us as flocks of the birds passed around and over our heads.

The fog was lifting. The thick, wet drift that had threatened our little launch on Tillamook Bar stood clear of the shouldering sea to the westward, and in over the shore, like an upper sea, hung at the fir-girt middles of the mountains, as level and as gray as the sea below. There was no breeze. The long, smooth swell of the Pacific swung under us and in, until it whitened at the base of the three rocks that rose out of the sea in our course, and that now began to take on form in the foggy distance. Gulls were flying over us, lines of black cormorants and crowds of murres were winging past, but we were still too far away from the looming rocks to see that the gray of their walls was the gray of uncounted colonies of nesting birds, colonies that covered their craggy steeps as, on shore, the green firs clothed the slopes of the Coast Range Mountains up to the hanging fog.

As we ran on nearer, the sound of the surf about the rocks became audible, the birds in the air grew more numerous, their cries now faintly mingling with the sound of the sea. A hole in the side of the middle Rock, a mere fleck of foam it seemed at first, widened rapidly into an arching tunnel through which our boat might run; the swell of the sea began to break over half-sunken ledges; and soon upon us fell the damp shadows of the three great rocks, for now we were looking far up at their sides, where we could see the birds in their guano-gray rookeries, rookery over rookery,—gulls, cormorants, guillemots, puffins, murres,—encrusting the sides from tide-line to pinnacles, as the crowding barnacles encrusted the bases from the tide-line down.


Tufted Puffins

We had not approached without protest, for the birds were coming off to meet us, wheeling and clacking overhead, the nearer we drew, in a constantly thickening cloud of lowering wings and tongues. The clamor was indescribable, the tossing flight enough to make one mad with the motion of wings. The air was filled, thick, with the whirling and the screaming, the clacking, the honking, close to our ears, and high up in the peaks, and far out over the waves. Never had I been in this world before. Was I on my earth? or had I suddenly wakened up in some old sea world where there was no dry land, no life but this?

We rounded the outer or Shag Rock and headed slowly in opposite the yawning hole of the middle Rock as into some mighty cave, so sheer and shadowy rose the walls above us,—so like to cavern thunder was the throbbing of the surf through the hollow arches, was the flapping and screaming of the birds against the high circling walls, was the deep, menacing grumble of the bellowing sea-lions, as, through the muffle of surf and sea-fowl, herd after herd lumbered headlong into the foam.

It was a strange, wild scene. Hardly a mile from the Oregon coast, but cut off by breaker and bar from the abrupt, uninhabited shore, the three rocks of the Reservation, each pierced with its resounding arch, heaved their huge shoulders from the waves straight up, high, towering, till our little steamer coasted their dripping sides like some puffing pygmy.

Each rock was perhaps as large as a solid city square and as high as the tallest of sky-scrapers; immense, monstrous piles, each of them, and run through by these great caverns or arches, dim, dripping, filled with the noise of the waves and the beat of thousands of wings.

They were of no part or lot with the dry land. Their wave-scooped basins were set with purple starfish and filled with green and pink anemones, and beaded many deep with mussels of amethyst and jet that glittered in the clear beryl waters; and, above the jeweled basins, like fabled beasts of old, lay the sea-lions, uncouth forms, flippered, reversed in shape, with throats like the caves of Æolus, hollow, hoarse, discordant; and higher up, on every jutting bench and shelf, in every weathered rift, over every jog of the ragged cliffs, to their bladed backs and pointed peaks, swarmed the sea-birds, webfooted, amphibious, shaped of the waves, with stormy voices given them by the winds that sweep in from the sea.

As I looked up at the amazing scene, at the mighty rocks and the multitude of winging forms, I seemed to see three swirling piles of life, three cones that rose like volcanoes from the ocean, their sides covered with living lava, their craters clouded with the smoke of wings, while their bases seemed belted by the rumble of a multi-throated thunder. The very air was dank with the smell of strange, strong volcanic gases,—no breath of the land, no odor of herb, no scent of fresh soil; but the raw, rank smells of rookery and den, saline, kelpy, fetid; the stench of fish and bedded guano, and of the reeking pools where the sea-lion herds lay sleeping on the lower rocks in the sun.

A boat's keel was beneath me, but as I stood out on the pointed prow, barely above the water, and found myself thrust forward without will or effort among the crags and caverns, among the shadowy walls, the damps, the smells, the sounds, among the bellowing beasts in the churning waters about me, and into the storm of wings and tongues in the whirling air above me, I passed from the things I had known, and the time and the earth of man, into a monstrous period of the past.

This was the home of the sea-birds. Amid all the din we landed from a yawl and began our climb toward the top of Shag Rock, the outermost of the three. And here we had another and a different sight of the wild life. It covered every crag. I clutched it in my hands; I crushed it under my feet; it was thick in the air about me. My narrow path up the face of the rock was a succession of sea-bird rookeries, of crowded eggs, and huddled young, hairy or naked or wet from the shell. Every time my fingers felt for a crack overhead they touched something warm that rolled or squirmed; every time my feet moved under me, for a hold, they pushed in among top-shaped eggs that turned on the shelf or went over far below; and whenever I hugged the pushing wall I must bear off from a mass of squealing, struggling, shapeless things, just hatched. And down upon me, as rookery after rookery of old birds whirred in fright from their ledges, fell crashing eggs and unfledged young, that the greedy gulls devoured ere they touched the sea.

I was midway in the climb, at a bad turn round a point, edging inch by inch along, my face pressed against the hard face of the rock, my feet and fingers gripping any crack or seam they could feel, when out of the deep space behind me I caught the swash of waves. Instantly a cold hand seemed to clasp me from behind.

I flattened against the rock, my whole body, my very mind clinging desperately for a hold,—a falling fragment of shale, a gust of wind, the wing-stroke of a frightened bird, enough to break the hold and swing me out over the water, washing faint and far below. A long breath, and I was climbing again.

We were on the outer Rock, our only possible ascent taking us up the sheer south face. With the exception of an occasional Western gull's and pigeon guillemot's nest, these steep sides were occupied entirely by the California murres,—penguin-shaped birds about the size of a small wild duck, chocolate-brown above, with white breasts,—which literally covered the sides of the three great rocks wherever they could find a hold. If a million meant anything, I should say there were a million murres nesting on this outer Rock; not nesting either, for the egg is laid upon the bare ledge, as you might place it upon a mantel,—a single sharp-pointed egg, as large as a turkey's, and just as many of them on the ledge as there is standing-room for the birds. The murre broods her very large egg by standing straight up over it, her short legs, by dint of stretching, allowing her to straddle it, her short tail propping her securely from behind. On, up along the narrow back, or blade, of the rock, and over the peak, were the well-spaced nests of the Brandt's cormorants, nests the size of an ordinary straw hat, made of sea-grass and the yellow-flowered sulphur-weed that grew in a dense mat over the north slope of the top, each nest holding four long, dirty blue eggs or as many black, shivering young; and in the low sulphur-weed, all along the roof-like slope of the top, built the gulls and the tufted puffins; and, with the burrowing puffins, often in the same holes, were found the Kaeding's petrels; while down below them, as up above them,—all around the rock-rim that dropped sheer to the sea,—stood the cormorants, black, silent, statuesque; and everywhere were nests and eggs and young, and everywhere were flying, crying birds—above, about, and far below me, a whirling, whirring vortex of wings that had caught me in its funnel.


Brandt's Cormorants