October 2009


The morning is cold, and it’s damp, although not the buckets-from-the-sky affair that yesterday was. Dawn is getting later and later. The lawn seems bare of birds, except for a single female Flicker. Overhead, a white-tailed young Red-tailed Hawk calls. It’s my first return to Prospect Park since my overwhelming San Diego adventure (conclusion pending) and things seem quiet, despite favorable overnight winds and gushing reports of a wild sparrow bonanza the previous day.

Could I ever readjust to land? Could I go home again? Or was I, like so many birders, doomed to eternal restlessness, always investing somewhere else with the glamor of new birds and new experiences?

There’s a movement at the corner of my eye, and an off-leash dog bounds towards me (not an issue you have to deal with on pelagics much.) And as it does, scores of brown and yellow sparks fly up from the still-green lawn, each giving a high sharp note of alarm, and stream over my head to the nearest tree.

As sparks fly upwards

The Palm Warbler is so common that a lot of birders never stop to think just how odd they really are. Despite the name, they have more stomach for cold weather than many of their cousins; they migrate early in the spring, late in the fall, and nest in northern Canadian bogs and pines rather than in their namesake trees. Like the similarly hardy Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Palm pulls off its extended temperate sojourn by switching to fruits and seeds when cold knocks down most of the insects that make up their summer diet. (Interestingly, the Palm Warbler shares spur on the Dendroica family tree with the Yellow-rump – but also with the more traditional Black-throated Blue and the sun-loving, southern Yellow-throated Warbler.) But while the Yellow-rumped Warbler still tends to stick to the trees, the Palm Warbler throws wood-warbler-ness to the wind and gets down on the ground, often sharing seedy parkland and edge habitats with flocks of sparrows.

Like right now, for instance. Roughly half the brown sparks are warmed with reddish tones; Chipping Sparrows on their way to winter in Florida or even further south (or perhaps just waiting for Halloween to change into American Tree Sparrows and trick-or-treat us all into filling our feeders.) The other half glow more-or-less yellow. That more-or-less covers a vast range – both metaphorically and literally, as the yellower birds are eastern breeders and the more whitish ones hail from the west.

I watch the birds settle into the nearby shrubs and weeds, picking around for late bugs and grass seeds to occupy their time until the dog moves on. Most of the Chipping Sparrows have gone high, but the Palm Warblers are more confiding – indeed, I’ve always found them to be the most trusting of warblers, often allowing full minutes of unobstructed viewing. Their habitat and incessant tail-bobbing makes them easy to pick out even before I spot the rusty cap and yellow under-tail coverts. So, rather than wasting precious time scrabbling through my field guide or wracking my brain to remember which eyestripe belongs to whom, as I might with some other species of fall warbler, I just enjoy them. And if they were unfamiliar, if I was never in a place where I saw them every trip for a month or more at a time, would I be able to do that? Not as easily.

As the sun gently dries the grass and Flickers flick overhead, the Palm Warblers and I sit in the weeds. I don’t need any more glamour than that right now.

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“Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say…”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to think all the time. Think when you buy. Think when you discard. Know about stuff that has been hidden from view, often quite purposefully, often because we don’t want to know and never have (Not in MY backyard…)

And I find… I’m not saying this to be cruel, or accuse people of being “sheeple” or some similar horrid term, but it is my observation that a lot of people find thinking tiring. This is merely funny when they’re accusing you of spoiling their favorite book by having the temerity to analyze it, but a bit more serious when they refuse to separate their garbage or buy the non-disposable option.

I suspect a lot of it is the particular form that capitalism has taken, especially in the U.S. Our employers do more and more to eat our leisure time, commutes (besides being environmental nightmares in themselves where the public transit is weak) get longer, and the only compensation we’re offered in return is the promise that the things we buy will make our non-work hours a lotus-filled haven of contentment. We’re not free long enough to get bored and actually want to do something, which I (incurable optimist) am convinced that even the most putatively sheep-like person will do eventually when offered a surfeit of leisure. Not that a hearty dose of socialism by itself is going to cure our environmental woes, but a person working two jobs, caring for their children and home in between, may well decide that a special trip down to the recycling center is a corner that can be cut, just like home-cooked meals or exercise or any of the other long-term desirable things that the more fortunate scold us for not doing often enough.

And speaking of that home, those children… who is taking care of them? If it’s disproportionately a woman (as, statistically, it often is even when both parents work) then giving up the Swiffer, mucking through the trash bin picking out carelessly discarded bottles, rinsing and reusing plastic baggies, are all likely to fall disproportionately on her as well. As is the work of reminding (read: get criticized for nagging) the partner to do what he needs to do (mulch the lawn clippings, not throw the bottle in the trash to begin with). Again, hard to fault someone who already is burdened for looking for short cuts. Hard to blame someone who already has a lot on their mind for being a “sheeple” when they balk at adding something else.

Again, the successful conclusion of the gender revolution is not going to magically solve our environmental problems (not even if we all start praying to Mother Earth or what have you.) But it’s increasingly apparent that a whole lot of our culture is going to have to change, and change in sync, to pull our fat out of the fire. And since rapid social change is generally pretty wrenching (to say nothing of hard to steer) we’d best get on it now and give ourselves as much time as possible to work it out.

Because it is going to have to be worked out. This (warning: graphic photos) is one reason why.

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There’s a new post by yours truly over at the PSFC Environmental Committee’s blog, reprinting an article I wrote about landfills, decomposition, and the pesky truth about those new-fangled biodegradable plastics. Enjoy.

The headline says Greedy Dogfish Blamed for Mass. Fishery’s Problems.

But the article points out that the spiny dogfish, a small shark species only now recovering from decades of overfishing, is not regarded as the problem by most scientists and regulators. The complaint of the fisherfolk seems to be that the dogfish, or any species that isn’t H. sapiens, has the temerity to eat any fish at all.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same charges of greed and demands for suppression have been leveled at sea lions, cormorants, orcas… and on and on. And yet, oddly, in all these situations, the only common factor is humankind – human overfishing, human pollution, and in some cases invasive species introduced by humans.

So who’s really the greedy one?

Well?

Well?

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This was the day of the albatrosses. They followed us for miles, nine of them all told, as we headed as far west as you can get and still be in the ABA area. All Black-footed. Not to say that there was no variety; while most were the expected immature birds, one persistent individual was an adult with an uncomfortable-looking bum foot. While an albatross doesn’t use its feet much in everyday life, we could only imagine that this would make breeding a challenge.

That albatross stayed with us for a while; Todd got some good shots.

Note the awkward angle of the leg

Note the awkward angle of the leg

Same bird, in flight

Same bird, in flight

...and landing

...and landing

Also, there were shearwaters. And storm-petrels. And storm-petrels. And shearwaters. Everyone scanned the horizon; everyone braced against the waves; everyone was slowly dessicated by the wind and sun. Shearwaters. Petrels. And always the albatrosses.

We still had the company of the Common Dolphins, but other than that mammals were entirely absent. Or maybe we just didn’t see them, because at some point around lunch it became apparent to all that we still hadn’t seen a tropicbird of any description and we’d better keep our eyes to the skies. All we spotted up there, alas, were several annoying airplanes. Indeed, no new birds of any description were turning up, only those shearwaters and storm-petrels, a single Red-necked and Red Phalarope and a handful of Arctic Terns and Common Terns with a handful of distant jaegers to harass them. We stared at the sky. The sun sucked the moisture from our eyeballs. And then, treacherously, it began to slip down the side of the sky.

The albatrosses didn’t seem to notice our growing desperation, except inasmuch as we chummed all the more frantically.

Yum!

Yum!

The plan was to reach our anchor for the night at the Sixty-Mile Bank and then lay out everything we had left by way of fish-oil and popcorn and see what we could lure in. But the sun moved fast, and the ship, dawdling in hopes of finding those tropicbirds, moved slow. The light was slanted and the shadows profound by the time the last scraps of chum went overboard in a shallow bit of ocean where sea lions were at play. Storm-petrels came closer, looking more like bats than ever in the dusk… and then a single Brown Booby sailed across our wake, providing brief but clear looks and a last life bird for me!

And so, with a sunset out of legends, we admitted at last that the day was done.

Myself and the Inimitable Todd

Myself and the Inimitable Todd

Big ups to Searcher Natural History Tours, and to leaders Todd McGrath, Ned Brinkley, and Dave “Chum-Master Dave” Povey, who displayed an uncanny Zen-like skill at keeping birds who should know better interested in popcorn. I couldn’t have had a better vacation in any way, shape, or form…

And technically, my vacation wasn’t over yet.

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Other People’s Albatrosses?

While I painstakingly craft the stunning conclusion of the Pelagic-O-Rama, I wanted to give a nod to some interesting research that’s been circulating in the birdblogosphere, in which a team of canny ornithologists attached cameras to Black-browed Albatrosses in order to discover more about what they do when they’re not following ships. Turns out that a camera on the back of an albatross will get a lot of pictures of the ocean (not surprising) and a few pictures of other albatrosses and of killer whales, which the birds may follow in hopes of scraps much as they follow us.

The paper.

The pictures.

H/T Corey at 1000birds.com and John from A DC Birding Blog

So I had seen my albatross, resplendent in the sunset. But the Inimitable Todd had missed it! Worse, he’d also missed the one that flew over the boat just before breakfast. The Inimitable Todd was beginning to think that albatrosses were all some big birder in-joke. Possibly a conspiracy. It was putting a stress fracture in our relationship – after all, counselors say that after money and kids the number one cause of break-ups is a life list mismatch. (I think I heard that somewhere, anyway.)

You’d think an albatross would be hard to miss. Especially as the birds were thinning out. There were still Buller’s Shearwaters in plenty, along with a few Pink-footeds and Sooties. There were still storm-petrels, nearly all Leach’s – but as I mentioned, this didn’t mean that they were all the same bird; this would be the only day that we’d see all the expected races, including the nominate. But overall, this was not the rich and hectic world of our last two days. It was, instead, a place to scan the sea and air for the shier, rarer Pacific wanderers, the birds that think nothing of commuting to South America or even Australia, the larger petrels, the tropicbirds, and, of course, the albatrosses.

After the previous day’s total cetacean bliss-out, we had to be eased back into sea-mammal watching with a few distant Fin and Blue Whales as we chugged over the Rodriguez Dome into the deep water on the other side of the continental shelf. We also encountered dolphins, both our old friends the Common Dolphins (Long and Short-beaked) and the Pacific White-sided Dolphin.

Common Dolphins are total morning people

Common Dolphins are total morning people

We scanned the skies, looking for rarities, trailing a magnificent slick of chum and waiting for the rarities to come.

And waiting.

And waiting.

The waiting was neither unexpected nor entirely unpleasant. Eventually some albatrosses showed themselves satisfactorily to the Skeptical Inimitable Todd (although not to his camera). More Leach’s Storm Petrels. More Buller’s Shearwaters. Skuas, and all the Jaegers. Lots of waves.

Someone shouted that they saw a Murrelet! The engines were cut at once and we tried to sneak up on it. Unfortunately, it is very hard for a 95-foot boat to sneak up on a 10-inch bird in the open ocean. It flushed, and when it landed it dove, and that was it for any hopes of seeing the Xantus’s Murrelet (for such it was. Or so I was told.)

The Guadalupe Fur Seals were a bit more obliging. Perhaps being thought extinct has prompted them to be more forthcoming, or perhaps it’s just that they’re easier to see. Either way, we spotted 22, of the roughly 10,000 that now exist. That’s more than there are of Xantus’s Murrelet, by the way.

An Arctic Tern paused on its annual journey across the face of the globe and let us all get a look. Another Xantus’s Murrelet popped up, this time allowing a brief but countable look (at the determination that it was of the scrippsi subspecies.)

Then it was back to practicing our birdwatching Zen. Again, I say this not to complain. There’s a whole lot of Pacific Ocean, as I’ve been pointing out in a variety of hopefully entertaining ways. And it’s impossible to predict which bits of it will have birds and mammals on at any particular time.

Still, our job would have been easier were humans not constantly driving ocean species to the edge of extinction (let alone over it.)

More terns, more petrels. And just before the dinner call, more Murrelets; subspecies hypoleucus this time, a pair that peeped to each other even as they wound up on either side of the boat. With the engine cut, their calls were clear above the wind and waves and the sound of excited birders rushing from rail to rail. Xantus’s Murrelets are believed to be monogamous, and these two certainly seemed eager to stay together, though even the waves were bigger than them. We watched them for a long time, from our perches above the water. And when they finally flew away, I only hoped that they would be able to find each other again quickly, their life lists perhaps both up by one species of bipedal mammal.

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