Posts Tagged ‘Coastal Storms’

Thursday morning at Battle Rock City Park—overlooking the Pacific, the harbor jetty and the crescent beach—Clara’s ears served as our own personal weather vane. As she faced into the south wind, not only were her ears flattened to her head and pointing due north, her fur was too.

Clara in the Wind © SR Euston

The forecast for Port Orford was for gale force winds. Another winter storm was on its way. What that means is around town we lean into the wind as we walk, and hold tight to our steering wheels as we drive. The surf zone becomes a white frothy mass, the waves noticably steeper.

Gray Day © SR Euston

Gale force winds, while not exactly the norm, are an accepted part of life around here. From October through April, winter storms barrel up our edge of the continent from the south—bringing high winds, high surf, and all that rain for which we are so rightly famous. Come May the winds swing north but remain strong. As our friend Joyce observes, “they’ll blow the potato salad right off your plate.” Obviously we picnic in protected southern yards.

Still, most folks around here seem delighted by all this wind. In fact, by our weather in general. Sometimes it seems one of Port Orford’s biggest bragging points.

Ninety-mile-per-hour gusts? Aww, to local raconteurs, that’s hardly a breeze.  Many will tell you just six miles north at Cape Blanco, the lighthouse’s anemometer was broken at 184 mph by a wind gust. Cape Arago, another headland about 40 miles farther up the coast, is in the “top ten windiest” record holders.

But the rain doesn’t always rain and the wind doesn’t always blow. Maybe the biggest weather surprise here is that there are so many days, both winter and summer, when the sky is clear, the air is mild, the wind is still, the sea and lake are placid bath tubs.

So here’s what I know about windy days: They’re not the whole story. Just another ingredient in the wonderful, wild mixture that is the weather here in our new home by the sea.

Clara agrees. She seems to be smiling as her ears blow north.

Out of the Wind © SR Euston


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New Mexico Skies © SR Euston

In extreme northwest Victoria, Australia, where the outback begins, lies a dry eucalyptus land called Sunset Country. I have never seen this place, but the name itself is its own reward.  Imagine—the evocation of the mere word sunset. What comes to mind?  Of course dazzling reds and oranges, reflected in the water or across desert rocks or through the trees.

When we say sunset, it is always with this anticipation of color. For most, the more color the better. Pink, rose, mauve, purple, magenta, orange, silver, gold, copper. But in photographing sunsets, the boundaries of artistic license, it seems to me, are pretty narrow. Brilliant red can turn into the garish commonplace; evanescent rose can look washed out.

The problem with sunsets in the early days of color photography was the color itself. Sunsets could look horribly fake. But with Kodachrome, things changed. Does anyone old enough to have a Kodachrome slide collection not have multiple shots of a sunset over this or that famous landmark? The color’s the thing and the only thing. It was satisfying to end your slide show for friends with a fantastic sunset, maybe with a nice silhouetted tree.

Oregon Coast 4:45 PM © SR Euston

When color prints became common, sunsets presented different problems. Compared to the brilliance of Kodachrome slides, or now the digital monitor, sunsets printed even on the best photographic paper don’t often have élan. They lack everything except  the color red. That is, if the photographer (with new digital tools especially) hasn’t fiddled with the spectrum, color value, saturation and hue. And in my view upping the ante on color is exactly what many professional landscape photographers have done. I admit to a deep prejudice against what I think of as garish obvious sunset pictures in millions of calendars and magazines.

Sunset Reflection on Wall © SR Euston

The following pictures, by the way, are not products of photoshop miracles, though there is what I think of as reasonable digital darkroom editing. But as I rail about the garish, looking at these photos on the monitor gives me a slight tinge. Can these colors be real?  SRE

One Minute of Purple Ocean © SR Euston



Cold Front Passing, Oregon© SR Euston

Green River, Utah in Repose © SR Euston


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After having visited  the southern Oregon Coast for the last five winters, we were fairly sure there was little weather-wise that would  surprise or depress us.  OK, so the University of Oregon’s mascot isn’t the duck by accident. And yes, we’re glad we brought our waterproof gear.

But whatever has been surprising after two months at our new home has not be boring or routine in the least. Maybe that’s only to be expected, going from eight inches of rain annually in Albuquerque to an average of 80 inches here on the coast. So far 2010’s rainfall is close to 100 inches.

What we are discovering is that Oregon rain is not mere rain.

Yesterday we drove 25 miles south to Gold Beach through a pelting downpour, on the shore-hugging US 101. This spectacular stretch of coastal highway is to my mind equal to any in the country.  To us it’s as remarkable as Route 1 in Mendocino or Big Sur.

Silver Strand © SR Euston

First we approached mist hidden Humbug Mountain, a Japanese woodblock print come to life, evocative in minimalist gray-black brushstrokes looming up out of the ocean, into the clouds. Then Ophir Beach, silver waves cresting on gold sand. Finally we crossed  the Rogue on the Patterson bridge, a 1932 arched fairyland structure, just north of Gold Beach. What a ride!

This cold morning it snowed. At first it was pellet-like, not quite hail, more an uncertainty about what to be. Later snow came in earnest. Huge, wet flakes—a blizzard, coastal-style. Both the little Douglas firs, the succession tree in our field, and our giant, stately madrone, were frosted white in a magical snow globe scene.

Then there were last week’s storms: thunder, downpour, wet-edged clouds, watery blue sky. So beautiful it almost hurt.

Yes, I miss New Mexico, my sunburnt homeland. The heat, the dryness, the lizard vegetation. I miss squinting when I go outside.

But to do something really different, this place—this new, green, mud, sea and sky wet world—is truly worth the doing.

We’re home. Again.

Morning Snow November © SR Euston

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In the old days of snapshot film photography, “fog” was a bad thing. I remember as a kid being totally discouraged by some forlorn, low contrast murky prints. Either I had grossly underexposed, or maybe I had developed the film wrongly. Whatever, my prints would not be confused with Ansel Adams’.

Ocean Dome © SR Euston


With digital, leaving room for more experimentation, I am now fascinated by fog, as I must be, living on the Oregon coast. Otherwise, photo opportunities would be rather constricted. The camera would have long naps, especially from November through March.

Fog necessarily means making something out of very muted colors, often almost monotones.  And creating a momentarily ethereal impression using very low contrast. The typical rules of the zone system, the magazine mania for garish sunset contrast—such conventionalities won’t work with fog or any other misty landscape.

Diaphanous Mists, Sisters Rocks © SR Euston

Otter Point © SR Euston


The key I suspect is more emotional than technical. The fog and mists hide secrets. The lay of the land is on hold. Colors can melt to greys. Sunlight is more of a hint than a fruition.

My camera is sleepless in Oregon.       SRE


Silver Strand, Ophir Beach, OR © SR Euston

Red Earth and Fog © SR Euston

Coastal Drama, OR © SR Euston


Morning Mists, Tehachapi Mts. CA © SR Euston

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Spray and mist. Not exactly promising subjects for a picture. Photography books advise you to take early morning or late afternoon shots. Strong shadows and light; definite, sharp outlines; bold perspective; strong composition with curves, verticals, diagonals and horizontals.

And yet for a contrarian with a camera, these are exactly the “rules” that are fun to break. In Yellowstone last year I had my chance to imbibe the sulfur air of the geyser basins, and to stand, camera in hand, hot mists breathing down my neck—literally—trying to capture, as much as is possible in a photograph, the encompassing miasma of the geyser fountains and mists.

There is something Dante-like going on as the steam swirls about and around, a kind of romance with sulfured earth and water. I try with the camera to get a bead on this phantasmagoric scene, but finally, sun blazing into a million droplets of mineralized water, I just point the lens and press the shutter, a lot of times, as the camera’s computer tries as hard as it can to process the intense light, creating those pixels of hot air.

Then, for a bracing change, there are the cold ocean mists and sprays of the Oregon coast in winter, when gigantic storms batter the outer Pacific waters into great circular rolling waves that crash on coastal rocks with frightening bursts of energy. At least frightening if you are on slippery rocks, camera in hand, trying to protect the lens from salt spray, and at the last minute before you guess a big one is breaking, you bring out the camera, shoot, and hope for the best. I shoot these pictures with a relatively short focal length lens, getting close to the action.

But watch out for what in Oregon they call sneaker waves. One winter afternoon after photographing storm waves at spectacularly beautiful Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel, we heard that a boy was washed off of a rocky promontory by just such an unpredictable fearsome wave.

It is wisdom to see the sea—nature—as still in charge.   SRE

Heat and Mist ©S.R. Euston

Twilight and Steam ©SR Euston

Fountain Geyser © SR Euston

Hot Spring Pool © SR Euston

Salt Spray: Sisters Rocks, OR © SR Euston

Morning Mists from Cape Sebastian OR © SR Euston

Dangerous Breakers © SR Euston

Storm Waves, Cape Arago, OR © SR Euston

Dark Sandstone Against White Surf, Pt. Lobos © SR Euston

Dark Rocks Against White Surf, Pt. Lobos © SR Euston

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Every rain-soaked morning we’ve watched south-flying, storm-avoiding brown pelicans. In ragged lines of ten or so, they glide along the breakers, just above the water, looking gracefully elegant. Just like the gulls, while soaring and banking occasionally northward, they’ve always returned to their southward course.

At first Stan didn’t believe I was seeing pelicans. We’ve never seen them in our five years coming here to Nesika Beach. Besides I’ve been known for off-the-cuff bird IDs that have later proved wrong.

But pelicans? False identification seemed to me highly unlikely. Unless they were reincarnated pterydactyls, or a sudden influx of condors, there aren’t many other possibilities for the huge brownish birds I saw gliding long and low over the breakers, heads pulled back into pudgy “shoulders,” wings extended. While gulls flap and tack into the southerly headwinds, the pelicans glide and wheel.

I read that brown pelicans used to winter in Coos Bay, about 65 miles north of here. But Northwest Birds in Winter (Contreras. OSU Press. 1997) noted that, by the 1990s, brown pelican populations—an early casualty of DDT-caused eggshell fragility and resultant high mortality and one of the first birds to be listed as endangered—while rebounding in other locales, hadn’t repopulated Coos Bay.

Pelican Waves © SR Euston

Yet again, Audubon Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) came to my rescue. At Port Orford in 2007, no brown pelicans were counted, in 2008 there were 25. But for 2009, 193 were noted. And in Coos Bay, CBC pelican populations in 2007 were 48, reached over 2700 in 2008, and dropped back to 363 in 2009. Anecdotely, a recent picture in the local newspaper The World, featured a photo of a huge pelican gang roosting in Reedsport, a fishing harbor north of Coos Bay.

What’s it all mean?

Frankly I don’t know. A Gold Beach friend who’s been here for a decade told me at first winter gulls and pelicans were plentiful. Then for years there were virtually none. Now they’re back. Why? El Niño? El Niña? Fate? I wonder….

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High Flyers © SR Euston

High Flyers© SR Euston

This week, as storm after storm has churned up the coast, we have been treated to a unique daily show. Huge clumps of gulls pass by our bedroom window, all of them heading south. We conjecture they’re moving inland before the latest storm. Perhaps they all return north at night but who’s birding then? A few afternoons ago we did spot a giant congregation in a pasture south of our Nesika Beach home. Seems likely that’s where they bunked down that night.

My observations and reading suggest they are Western Gulls, a pink-legged species that frequents this area in winter. But they could be other species too; gulls are notorious for being tough to identify. They interbreed freely, making beautiful but difficult hybrids to name with certainty. And the hybrids are fertile too. So it’s easy to end up with hybrid hybrids. Makes a person reconsider the definition of a species.

Overlaid on interbreeding are seasonal and annual variations. My checks of the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) at Port Orford yields a dizzying array of gull species and wild fluctuations in numbers from year to year. In December, 2009 Port Orford’s largest population, at 768, was the Herring Gull, also pinkish legged and only subtly different from its Western Gull cousin. In 2008, just five were counted and in 2007, only 18. To me the most telling CBC number is under the heading “gull species.” Annually five to eight hundred are lumped into that “I’m stumped” department.

So I choose the Western Gull as the winter type species here. Not just because Northwest Birds in Winter (Contreras. OSU Press. 1997) told me so on page 118, but also because their annual CBC counts are so consistently around 500.

But here’s what I’ve really learned. In my mind’s eye I’ve always seen gulls as large, aggressively sassy, white bodied birds with black and gray wings, formidable yellow beaks and neon-yellow legs and feet. Now that I’m paying attention: That gull on the electric post outside our window has pinkish legs.

It forces me to realize. I have never really looked carefully at many of the creatures all around me. If I pay close attention, what will I truly “see” next?

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