“You must go through a winter to understand,” writes the much-championed Oregon author Ken Kesey in his oft-glorified coastal novel, Sometimes A Great Notion. Such a line holds true when it comes to learning the subtle differences in word choice that occurs on our wonderful coastline. Used by old-timers and young coast dwellers alike, the following is a compilation of some of the loveliest of phrases used to describe the critters that frequent these parts, as learned to the author by a co-worker and Tillamook coast local, over a season of fisheries field work.
A frequent-flyer of pristine cricks throughout the region, these round-bellied, charcoal-colored, boulder-bobbin’ birds receive their coastal common name due to their tendencies in movement associated with feeding on aquatic macroinvertebrates. They range across the western half of North America, and in wider circles, the birds are also known as the American dipper, or water ouzel.
Another water-loving bird here, these tall, gray-blue, skinny-necked, stilt-legged waders get their name from both their feeding movements and appearance. The former describes the latter half of the label, while the latter describes the former. Wading in shallow waters, the Shag Poke sneakily stalks its fish prey until stabbing ‘em speedily. Meanwhile, the plumes of feathers on its head, chest, and wings give them an overall shaggy look. Residing throughout the continent, the Shag Poke is known to many as the Great Blue Heron.
Sticking with the water theme we’ve got going thus far, but leaving the birds behind, one can find the brown-backed, orange-bellied Water Dog in the lush temperate rainforests of the area, mostly creek or pond-side, but sometimes on land much farther from these water bodies as they undertake long migrations to breed. Containing the neurotoxin tetrodoxin, these critters are generally unfazed by beings larger than themselves. But when they do feel threatened, they raise their head and long tail in such a way that they start to resemble a familiar pose in the domestic realm: that of a playful pup. They range west of the Cascade Crest from Northern California all the way to Southeast Alaska. A.k.a., the rough-skinned newt.
Moving more deeply into the shady woods of these parts, the clover-like Sour Grass can be found blanketing much of the forest floor. This plant is readily munchable by humankind, with its flavor at credit for its name. Some may recognize the taste as akin to the French sorrel often used in cooking, and if not that, to the arugula loved by the farm-to-table crowd, and if not that—well geez, why don’t you broaden your palate a bit, eh? Whatever your familiarity may be, this flavor comes from the oxalic acid the plant contains, giving it the genus name Oxalis, and the more generally known common name of wood sorrel throughout the west coast.
Still in the woods, one must be careful of certain predators that ramble around here. Not so with the Timber Tiger though. These little guys can fit in the palm of a human hand, and prefer a relatively non-carnivorous diet. Name given due to the white and black stripes along their length and orange hue to their fur everywhere else, the Timber Tiger is known to many as chipmunk.
By Ari Blatt