Since I last posted, I have settled down here in Cannon Beach and begun my work with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program. Cannon Beach is a fairly quiet town with weather that varies from overcast and high 50s to sunny and 70s – a welcome change of pace for a kid who grew up under Denver’s sweltering desert sun and the torrential downpours and intense humidity that come with Miami summers. Haystack Rock is listed by National Geographic as one of the 100 Most Beautiful Places to visit in the world, and I have quickly realized why. I spend my days off hiking and exploring northeastern Oregon and, on occasion, Portland. Some of my great adventures so far have included hiking Saddle Mountain and from up above taking in the sweeping landscape of the Pacific Ocean, Washington, Mount Hood, and even Cannon Beach far off in the distance; watching the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders game from an Irish pub in Portland; and driving to neighboring Seaside and seeing one of the largest fireworks shows in the US on the Fourth of July. Sometimes, when I am feeling lazy, my free time involves simply pitching my hammock and reading my book.
The organization I work with, Haystack Rock Awareness Program (HRAP), focuses on protecting the intertidal habitat and marine birds through educating all the visitors who come to The Rock. So, whenever it is low tide, whether it is 7 in the morning or 6 at night, HRAP is out on the beach with our big red truck explaining to anyone who is curious what they can find here at Haystack Rock. To find us, you look for our big red truck, and depending on the weather, you can find us in our red jackets, or on warm days, in our bright red shirts. Given that a large part of my time here so far has been spent learning what our organization does on the beach, what I want to focus on in this blog post is all the different things you might see and find when you visit us at The Rock.
For starters, Haystack Rock formed 13 to 18 million years ago when lava flow from the Yellowstone caldera formed a large basalt monolith. Today, vegetation blooms on top of Haystack, allowing different marine birds to nest here every spring. Our most famous summer resident at Haystack Rock is the tufted puffin, which people come from all over the world to see. We always tell guests the best way to try and spot one is look in the air for a nerf-football-shaped bird with a black belly that is flying frenetically. When you spot one, you immediately notice that the emphatic flying motion makes them look like terrible flyers – an accurate conclusion. In fact, puffins are much better swimmers than they are flyers. Puffins often dive up to 1000 times per day to catch fish and once underwater they dive to depths of more than 90 ft. They have grooves in their beaks which allow them to hold fish. There are records of them holding up to 35 fish in their beak at once. These marine birds only come to land when it is time to breed, spending the rest of the year out at sea. When they do nest, they burrow under the ground six to seven feet (which is partially the reason it is easier to find them while they are flying) and will only produce one egg per season. The eggs are entirely white as they are well concealed underground and don’t need to be camouflaged. Unfortunately, these birds are threatened and HRAP has seen a decline in their population over the years. Today we have just under 100 puffins nesting on the rock. Some threats are natural, like the bald eagles and peregrine falcons in the area who will pull a puffin right from the mouth of their den. Some are human induced, such as puffin consumption of microplastics and loss of prey with warming sea temperatures. Other species of marine birds on the rock include Common Mures, Brandt and Pelagic Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers, Western Gulls, and Guillamont Pigeons – all of them unique birds and each deserving of a blog post on their unique adaptations to The Rock.
Within the intertidal zone, we have a plethora of life from nudibranchs to chitons to sea anemones to polychaete worms to sea stars. When the tide is low, it is incredibly important visitors are aware as to where they are walking given that it is very easy to step on an organism if they are not paying attention. Since a great deal of life grows within the marine gardens on the smaller rocks, we also emphasize why it is important to walk on the sand and not on the rocks. Most people are extremely nice when we ask them not to step on the rocks and are curious as to what specifically lives and grows in the area. Young children are especially fascinated by the closed up sea anemones and how they can open up when the water level rises. It’s also common to find kids looking and picking up hermit and mole crabs…something of which the crabs are not huge fans.
Another draw to Cannon Beach in past years was the sea stars which coated the marine garden. Unfortunately, a virus known as the Sea Star Wasting Disease has devastated sea stars ranging from Canada down into Northern California over the past four years. The issue has only been exacerbated by warming sea temperatures which pushes sea stars out of their normal temperature range and putting a great deal of stress on their immune system. People who visited Haystack Rock even as recently as four years ago are shocked by the drastic change the area has experienced and visitors who are older are saddened as they wished to show their children or grandkids the sea stars that paint the rocks various colors. However, there is reason to hope the sea stars may return to something similar to their original numbers. HRAP conducts sea star surveys once a month and has noticed they are growing bigger, which means they are living longer and may be developing a resistance to the virus. This does not mean that within a year they will once again be present in the thousands, instead it means there is a chance they could rebound if presented with liveable conditions. In other words, sea temperatures cannot continue to rise, thereby assisting the virus attack the weakened sea star and we as an organization must ensure people are not intruding on their habitat or pulling sea stars off the rocks to take home as souvenirs.
The past few weeks have gone by so quickly what with early morning and late evening shifts, participating in the town’s July 4th parade along with the rest of the HRAP staff, researching various themes for my upcoming survey, and learning all about Haystack Rock and all the great biological, conservation and geological facts the HRAP staff has taught me. One of my favorite things about working on the beach is the diversity of people I get to talk to, some of whom are just toddlers, while some are residents who have lived in the area for 40+ years and are now in their 90s. I will be able to dive even more into this in my next blog post as I start to get results back on my human dimension research. What is human dimension research you may ask? Check back in two weeks for that and more adventures from Cannon Beach!