Three Arch Rocks

[ An edited excerpt from the book For the Love of Nature: The Adventures and Achievements of William L. Finley and Irene B. Finley by Carole A. and William L. Finley III ]

With encouragement from other ornithologists who recognized the importance of their work, Finley and [Herman] Bohlman were more determined than ever to study birds found in unique places where their habitat was threatened by man. Their findings must be used to educate the public. They knew where their next field trip would take them—to the Oregon coast.

Three or four times each summer, target shooters would take a Sunday excursion on the Vosberg, a chartered Tugboat out of Tillamook, Oregon. It would steam around the Three Arch Rocks, locally known as “bird rocks”, about half a mile off the Oregon coast near Oceanside. The three basalt rocks named for a huge arch through their bases provided habitat for the largest breeding colonies on the Oregon coast of Tufted Puffins, Double-crested Cormorants, Guillemots, Petrels, and Common Murres.

Bohlman and Finley photographing cormorants
Bohlman and Finley photographing cormorants

On the first Sunday after their arrival, they were surprised to hear gunfire out to sea. Upon investigation they witness sportsmen on board the tugboat shooting flying birds left and right as long as the ammunition held out. This served as a kind of wild pigeon shoot. The next morning, dead seabirds littered Oceanside Beach for several miles.

During the week, they also witnessed the killing of Steller’s sea lions for their skins and oil on the reefs around the rocks. Shocked by the indiscriminate slaughter, Finley and Bohlman resolved to find a way to prevent the destruction of the seabirds and sea lion colonies. In addition, men collecting eggs for the California market posed a significant threat to the Three Arch Rocks area. For now, only lack of shipping capabilities and difficult access prevented the collectors from ravaging the rocks.

Thirty miles off the west entrance to the Golden Gate Strait on the California coast lay the Farallon islands, the greatest seabird colony and sea lion rookery in the contiguous United states. Each spring for almost fifty years, men who worked for an egging company trampled over seabird nests, stealing fresh eggs to send to San francisco. In their wake, they left crushed nestlings and half hatched eggs.

The most desirable eggs were the Common Murre’s eggs, three times as large as the egg of a domestic hen with a taste almost as palatable. The domestic hen eggs were expensive, while the murre eggs could be procured for 25 cents per dozen and allowed cooks to cut down on their expenses. The destructive egging industry on the islands led to the dramatic decrease in bird numbers before the government provided them protection.

Finley and Bohlman vehemently disapproved of the actions on the Farallon islands and were afraid a similar tragedy might befall Three Arch Rocks. The basalt rocks off the Oregon coast needed protection, but the current status had to be documented.

They returned on June 20, 1903, and planned to live among the seabirds for several days in succession for an extensive collection of data and a series of photographs of the birdlife that lived on the ledges and cliffs off the coast of Oregon. Their intent was to stay on Shag Rock, the basalt rock farthest out at Sea that measured 296 ft high and 600 ft long. The only way to reach the Rocks was in a small boat.

At Netarts, they found the only available craft along the coast—a 14 ft. double ended dory. The locals thought the proposition seemed more than ever foolhardy since a heavier craft would stand a better chance of landing. However the bird hunters were seamen enough to understand the necessity of using the lighter boat. Hoisting a heavier boat up on a rocky ledge out of reach of the continuously beating waves was not feasible. Their outfit consisted of camera equipment, including two Long Focus Premo cameras, two hundred and fifty 5×7 glass plate negatives, and chemicals for developing photographs. They packed provisions in waterproof bags, along with two 10-gallon casks of fresh water, a supply of wood, a few cooking utensils, fishing gear, and a block and tackle for hoisting their boat up off the cliffs.

They faced danger climbing ledges, risking life and limb a dozen times every hour. They wore new rubber sole shoes to help navigate the rough basalt, but their toenails instinctively pushed through the soles of their shoes to get a better hold on the rocks. After four days of jumping and climbing on the sharp basalt, there was not much left of their shoes to cover their feet. On the last day, they replaced their shoes with pieces of burlap.

Fortunately, the weather was favorable, and they spent hours working among the immense bird colonies found on every part of the island. Close range work was quite time consuming, and one experienced several failures for each success. To get some of the photographs, they positioned their camera in places where they expected the birds to return. To get others, they spent their time waiting around the nest and, gradually and with the utmost caution, edged the camera closer to the birds for a suitable exposure. Any quick motion would frighten the birds away, and then Finley and Bohlman would have to begin their watch again.

Finley observing a cormorant nest.

Finley summed up the trip by hoping that the crowded throbbing multitudes of birds on Three Arch Rocks may never be diminished in number. Finley and Bohlman vowed never to forget the nervous strain of spending five days and nights among thousands upon thousands of avian inhabitants by the sea. They risked their lives by climbing the slippery ledges and were subjected to the constant screeching of seabirds, both day and night.

With an abundance of data and photographs for lectures and newspaper articles, Finley called for immediate protection of the bird colonies. Four years passed before Washington D.C. took action to save Three Arch rocks.

William L. Finley was one of the founders of Bird Alliance of Oregon. His many successes, including saving Three Arch Rocks, serve as the foundation of our work today.

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