Thursday, May 31, 2012

A waterfall of murres

I've seen plenty of waterfalls, but until recently, I had never seen a "waterfall of murres." That's how friends of mine in Cannon Beach, Oregon, describe a truly wondrous nature show that takes place this time of year on the nearby Chapman Point.

Cannon Beach is best known for Haystack Rock, a 235-foot sea stack in the Pacific Ocean, one of the largest of its kind in the world. A few miles north, however, are slightly smaller rocks in the ocean that are home to one of the largest colonies of nesting common murres on the Oregon coast.

Murres are oceanic birds — they spend the vast majority of their lives on the water. In fact, juvenile murres dive into the ocean before they're even fully developed. They grow up at sea.

Without going miles out to sea yourself, the only chance to see them is when they come to land briefly to nest. They nest in dense colonies, standing feather-to-feather, with seemingly no room for eggs, let alone other birds.

At the start of the nesting season, typically in May, the murres alternate between floating on the ocean and standing on the sea stacks. One moment the ocean is covered in murres, the next the sea stacks are.

The transition from the rocks to the ocean is the sight to see. After the rocks are completely covered with murres, they will decide to take off. Sometimes the trigger is a predator flying nearby. Other times they may just decide it's feeding time. But when they decide to go, they all go at once, flowing close over the rocks like water in a waterfall.

The show is over in a few seconds, but it's worth waiting hours to see it.

It's also hard to photograph. One attempt, where I managed to get blue sky behind the diving birds, is above. It's one of my best attempts. I tried several other approaches to photographing the "waterfall" from my limited vantage points on the beach, then finally decided to shoot video to capture the amazing phenomenon. (You can see it below.)

I'm in the process of thinking of how best to photograph the murres — I'm sure they chose those rocks because they're out of reach — and I will be back to try again. Just as the birds return to those rocks every spring, sometimes photographers have to return over and over to finally capture the image they visualized.

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