September 2009

As the boat rocked gently on the vast, prolific, pulsating ocean, I lay in my bunk and tried to do some reading. I’d brought along Seven Tenths by James Hamilton-Paterson, a lyrical (though sometimes a tiny bit precious) elegy for the abused and demystified oceans of the world.

I couldn’t help but think of the whales. I knew, of course, intellectually, that whales are big, and so is the ocean. But actually experiencing the difference in scale between these creatures, this environment, and my puny little self…. Consider. Some whales can live to be 200 years old, maybe older, we don’t know. They have complex social structures. And at their respective nadirs, there were only an estimated 5,000 Humpbacks and less than 2,000 Blue Whales in the world.

So some of those whales we met, might very well have had friends and relatives killed by humans. Yes, this is shameless anthropomorphism. But in the case of these long-lived cetaceans, as with other highly social animals, it hardly seems out of place to think that they could have such bonds in their own right, not just as a way of being honorary humans. Certainly, they can learn. Certainly, they can remember. Yet very few whales have ever offered violence to humans even when they could have got clean away with it.

And they could have. The other thing that struck me as I lay in my bunk was how very not-solid the water was, how things could sink in it, how very much irreversible it was if one were to lose a book or a pair of glasses or an Inimitable Todd or a self overboard in a moment of carelessness. Or even a boat if it were to sink. The Pacific Ocean, for those of you who have not seen it, is a whole lot of water.

The rocking of the boat did not change. It was still gentle, still steady. It was just, suddenly, less soothing.

The whales think I should be less angsty

The whales think I should be less angsty

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After a pleasant night of sleep (I don’t think all the other birders enjoyed it as much as I did) we woke up heading for the Channel Islands. At first, the birdlife was very similar to the first day’s, with fewer but still present Brown Pelicans, another Skua, several Pomarine Jaegers and numerous shearwaters, including our first Buller’s (lifer).

Buller’s Shearwater is one of those interesting species that doesn’t align well with our land-based sense of what makes a bird rare or not-rare; they’re abundant, but far out at sea so that most people rarely lay eyes on them. And although they range over the whole Pacific, their breeding colonies are clustered tightly enough that a rapid-fire series of relatively local disasters could do the whole population serious harm. So they’re considered a vulnerable species, even as we saw over 200 on our trip.

As we bore towards the southernmost island we were briefly accompanied by a pod of Risso’s Dolphins and spotted a Northern Fur Seal doing that weird Fur Seal thing where they stick their flippers out of the water in a loop and point them skywards to thermoregulate – I initially mistook it for a floating tire.

Fur Seal, no longer cunningly disguised as a tire

Fur Seal, no longer cunningly disguised as a tire

Also numerous as we neared the islands were phalaropes; mostly Red-necked, a species that I had the good fortune to see at Jamaica Bay a couple years back, but also a small group of Red. Red was the last species I needed to complete the phalarope trifecta! Phalaropes are my second-favorite group of birds, so that was a big moment for me. Shortly thereafter yet another lifer hove into view in the slim dark form of an aptly-named Pelagic Cormorant.

The captain detected a temperature break in the channel – a place where two currents collided, creating an upwell of water and little specks of organic matter from the deep. Birds regard such places as buffets, and the whitish band of foam on the water was flocked over by more phalaropes, gulls, and cormorants. We headed that way in hope of more new birds. Here I picked out the formerly-elusive Leach’s Storm-Petrel at last; the first individual, and most of the rest we would see, were among the dark-rumped subspeceiseseseses (Leach’s Storm-petrel taxonomy is, shall we say, somewhat in flux; the species may be in for multiple splits based on little things like the fact that various subspecies are known to breed on the exact same island and yet remain sharply genetically distinct due to differences in the breeding season etc.)

Another Sabine’s Gull was in the mix, along with the trip’s first Common Tern. Dozens of phalaropes were taking off and landing everywhere we looked. I saw a non-breeding-plumaged Pigeon Guillemot briefly, but much to my frustration it disappeared underwater before anyone else got anything but a brief and unconvincing look at it.

This frustration only got worse when I spotted a Northern Fulmar, only to keep quiet in self-doubt (“maybe just a gull with weird light reflecting off the water onto the bill”) and have someone else call it a moment later. With the constant wind, engine noise, waves, and my throat dry no matter how hard I tried to stay hydrated, I wasn’t sure that I could effectively call a bird even if I had no mental blocks! It was all very well and good to tell myself I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, but I didn’t want to be one of those listers who goes on a trip and just looks at birds that other people point out!

Fretting, I retreated to the stern and continued to squint at storm-petrels. Gradually, the process of watching the sea settled my thoughts back off myself and onto the patterns made by the waves and the birds. We slipped between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, and there a cry went up of “Common Murre!”

I had no qualms about who pointed that one out. I just ran forward and found myself with an excellent, extended look at yet another awesome alcid. We would see more Murres as the afternoon flowed on, but none as cooperative and close as this one.

Sup, Murre?

S'up, Murre?

At San Miguel Island, the leaders decided to take us west, to test the tenor of the sea and decide whether we should spent the night at anchor or head out further. Unsheltered by the islands, things immediately grew choppier and only a few hardy souls rode the bow, let alone the upper deck.

In the stern, someone cried out “Albatross!” and everyone leaped up. Trapped behind tall people, I strained to see the bird before it crossed the horizon to no avail. My funk returned, as well you might imagine.

But not for long. One of those hardy souls on the upper deck spotted a whale spouting in the distance. It looked like a Humpback. We headed in the spout’s direction.

Soon there were more spouts. And then more. And over the next hour or so, we watched some twenty-five Humpbacks and five Blue Whales surrounding the boat, blowing, flipping their flukes, and going about their business with their remarkable grace. They were so close to the boat that we could hear the tonal difference in breathing between the species, so active that no one could hope to see everything, and so immense that I was suddenly struck by the almost comic smallness of our boat on the ocean. This was my first encounter with Humpbacks, as yesterday had been my first encounter with Blue Whales, but even the experienced whale-watchers on board said that it was one of the largest pods they’d ever seen. I found myself just turning in circles, trying to take it all in.





And More Whales!

And More Whales!

Eventually the whales moved on, and we headed back for the shelter of the islands to anchor for the night. And as we did so, the albatross, or another very like it, returned. This time it stayed with the boat, and so I watched my life Black-footed Albatross until the earth rotated the sun out of sight, feeling entirely content.

And there were yet two more days to come. How could they hope to top this?

In keeping with pelagic post tradition, here is a picture of the Inimitable Todds feet

In keeping with pelagic post tradition, here is a picture of the Inimitable Todd's feet

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Bright and chipper at the crack of noon*, the Inimitable Todd and I lined up with the other twenty-odd birders and their multitudes of luggage, ready to board the Searcher. Was I excited? Just a little. This boat would be our home, our vehicle, our observation deck, our veritable Xanadu of Birding Bliss for the coming adventure.

And right now, it needed to have a pump replaced. So we hung out on shore for a bit, making small talk and getting to know each other. Then got on board, got a safety lecture, got our stuff stowed. Got out our binoculars and got ourselves positioned at the stern as the boat at last – at last! – began to make its way out of the harbor.

San Diego retreats, and the adventure begins

San Diego retreats, and the adventure begins

My first lifer came before we even reached open water; a floating platform (apparently the top of some kind of storage locker for bait) was virtually covered with Brandt’s Cormorants, along with a few Brown Pelicans and some California Sea Lions, not to mention Western Gulls and the truly fabulous Heerman’s Gulls.

Brandts Cormorants and Brown Pelicans

Brandt's Cormorants and Brown Pelicans

Sea Lions, Heermans Gulls, Even More Cormorants

Sea Lions, Heerman's Gulls, Even More Cormorants

Abundance would continue to be the theme of this first day (in notable contrast to my last pelagic experience). We were joined by the shearwaters not far out; mostly Sooties and Pink-footed (the latter another lifer) but including a handfull of Black-vented Shearwaters (another lifer.) Again in contrast to the lone Atlantic Sooty I saw last year, many of these birds elected to follow the boat for some distance and show off the wave-skimming skills that give the group its name. There were gulls as well, including a single Sabine (lifer).

Less than a mile out, we had our first jaeger. In fact, before the day was out we’d have multiple sightings of all three jaeger species – Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed (lifer, lifer, and lifer) – many far longer and closer than the desperate foggy glimpses that I’d been led to believe were typical looks. And then there was the moment when a loud cry of “Skua! Skua! Skua!” went up from the leaders around the boat, and a South Polar Skua** (a bit ratty in molt, but another lifer) came down directly across the bow and circled us long enough for all aboard to get an eyeful.

Less accommodating but even more exciting was the Craveri’s Murrelet that we spotted at the north end of the Nine-Mile Bank (apparently a standard stop for San Diego pelagics). It didn’t stick around long, but out of tribal affinity – or perhaps the desire for a taste of blog fame – it popped up directly underneath the bit of rail where I was standing before disappearing forever as only a softball-sized bird in a Pacific-sized ocean can do. Needless to say, lifer.

Various storm-petrels also abounded in this area; I added Black and Least to my life list but missed the Leach’s that some others spotted.

Such misses were inevitable; there was just plain too much to look at to hope to see everything. Besides the amazing birds already mentioned, many of which appeared in unusual numbers (we put up a raft of ten Long-tailed Jaegers at one point, for instance), there were more sea mammals to watch as well; Sei Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Long-beaked Common Dolphin, and Blue Whale. Blue Whales were one of those species, along with the California Condor and Whooping Crane, that I grew up expecting to go extinct long before I would ever have a chance to experience them firsthand; to be proved wrong on this was incredibly moving. The dolphins moved me too; that such intelligent animals, with so little reason to expect anything good from humans and boats, should nevertheless choose to interact with us in a way that seems so joyful…

Bow-riding Dolphins in Their Element

Bow-riding Dolphins in Their Element

To cap it all the food was good, the company congenial, the weather pleasant, and the tummy untroubled by turbulence despite my lack of pill, patch, or other preparations. As I fitted myself into the confines of my bunk, I could not help but feel that things were going, as it were, swimmingly.

What would the next day hold? Stay tuned!

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*there are many nice things about a multi-day pelagic. One is that you don’t have to leave at the unmentionables of dawn to get out to where the birds are.

**I privately curse the humorless or perhaps teetotalling bird-namer who missed the opportunity to name this bird the Jaegermeister.

The hummingbird sat in a tree a mere seven feet or so above the sidewalk, making irritable noises.

This is one of the most memorable things about San Diego (or perhaps just San Diego in early September; I don’t have a large dataset). There are hummingbirds all over the place, and perhaps because of the very high population density, they are constantly cussing each other out like cab drivers. Of course, this is much more endearing coming from a micro-bird than from a dubiously sane dude piloting a multi-ton chunk of metal powered by burning dinosaurs.

Most of the hummingbirds I managed to identify were Anna’s Hummingbirds, a species I already had on my list after my trip to San Francisco a few years back. But this one was different. It was also sitting in terrible light. Still, I was eventually able to determine that I was looking at a Costa’s Hummingbird.

Yes, irony of ironies, my first post about my pelagic trip is going to be about all the wonderful desert species I racked up! But then, that’s the way it is with birders and travel. It’s not like golf; you start as soon as you have a window on a piece of landscape. In fact, my very first life bird of the trip was the Elegant Tern I saw as we walked down to get our rented bikes the night before.

Now, astride these said rental bikes, we’d made our way to La Jolla for one of the best breakfasts ever (and a hummingbird). And then the Inimitable Todd had a bright idea. “We could bike back the long way,” he said, “or we could bike over Mount Soledad.”

The phrases “long way” and “over Mount Soledad” did battle in my brain as I contemplated the angry hummingbird. The long way was the way we had already come. Although charming, and a relatively easy ride, it featured surfers rather than Surfbirds and taco stands rather than Tattlers. The mountain, on the other hand, was a mountain. But it offered the prospect of mountainy birds.

So, with much sweating and gear-shifting, we went up the mountain. A flock of Ravens shouted encouragement overhead; none of them was a Golden Eagle, but that was ok. A couple of drivers also shouted (what they apparently thought was) encouragement; this was less ok. Come to think of it, a clear pattern was emerging that guys in cars are always less ok than birds.

At the top of the mountain, we found a park, and I suddenly remembered why the name Mount Soledad sounded irritatingly familiar. I didn’t waste much time contemplating the giant, upraised middle finger to religious diversity, though, since by simply turning my back to it I was able to look out over stretches of very promising scrubby shrubs falling away in any direction. Also, there was an ocean and stuff.

I tried to track down a thrasher-like noise in the shrubs to no success, but while I did so a flock of White-throated Swifts began to come over the ridge. There’s never a bad time to watch swifts, and so rarely does one get to do so from above! They were followed by another large kettle of Ravens, and there’s never a bad time to watch Ravens either. I walked out as far as I could into the scrub the better to watch them.

I’m not terribly familiar with arid climates, but what stuck me was how prickly everything was. This, of course, is an adaptation to avoid losing water. I, not adapted to be prickly, was sweating profusely and would soon learn to my sorrow that I’d perspired all the sunscreen off my back. But the swifts and Ravens soarded over the brush that seemed to grab at me; and meanwhile the elusive thrashers and other small birds maneuvered deftly through the close-woven branches.

One made a nasal little whining sound behind me.

“Where is that?” I asked the Inimitable Todd, and he, in his Inimitable way, at once spotted the Gnatcatcher. Gnatcatchers are hard to spot. California Gnatcatchers are harder because you have to spot them in California. Nevertheless, spot it he did, and he was able to point it out to me!

After that, the day was downhill. Literally, of course, but my bike also got a flat tire just after I spotted my life Cinnamon Teal and I didn’t manage to find a White-faced Ibis despite earnestly scanning a great deal of appropriate habitat. And, of course, the sunburn.

But nevertheless, there was tomorrow, and the boat.

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Not even at sea yet. Already up 6 species. Of most note, yesterday we biked over Mt. Soledad and saw a flock of White-throated Swifts and a California Gnatcatcher, along with an incredible kettle of twelve Ravens.

In three hours, I get on the boat!

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

The great broad wings tilt slowly, spilling the sun-warmed air, sacrificing lift, then they tilt to the other side, and again, again. The vultures spiral, drain out of the sky.
Just so, they’ve drained out of nearly the whole subcontinent, felled by cheap drugs for cows, of all things – drugs that were banned in your country long ago – banned to use but not to make.

So begins a short science fiction story* set in India and Nepal. The decline of the vultures, unfortunately, is not the SF-nal part.

And this is not a problem that American birders can regard smugly as far away and Third World. We’ve done pretty much the same thing to our own most magnificent vulture (no relation) with both DDT and lead. Even though you wouldn’t know it by their numbers today, the Turkey Vulture once suffered from DDT poisoning too – and from the benighted blasts of gunners who thought that the “buzzards” were a threat to chickens or game birds or just their sensibilities.

There’s a tendency, I think, to cast judgment on endangered species; the same Just World fallacy that allows so many people, particularly Americans, to sit back and try to figure out what a crime victim or a person in poverty did ‘wrong’ also leads us to think of lost and at-risk species as finicky narrow-niched things that brought their distress on themselves because they just couldn’t cope with the rough-and-tumble human-dominated world. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the humans that invaded a continent and in short order wiped out the most common bird and the swarmingest insect (along with most of the humans who were already there, most of the apex predators, most of the vast herds of large herbivores, etc., etc.)

If that weren’t enough to give us a hint, the plight of the vultures proves that it’s just not a few fringe weaklings at risk. So much of what we think of as ‘normal’ in the modern world is built on a foundation of poison; so few of our systems are set up to take into account all the real costs of our actions to our fellow beings. Vultures, the opposite of finicky, pay the price when they try to perform the valuable service of cleaning up after us.

Only with active awareness can we hope to set right what has gone wrong.

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*which I hope to finish any day now

95 years ago on this day, Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo. In one sense, her death marked the end of the species Ectopistes migratorius. In another sense, since she was a lone bird in a cage and Ectopistes migratorius nested and lived successfully in vast flocks and in no other context, the species as a part of the world was long since gone.