Having returned from my top-secret mission to the Bay Area of California (oooh, spoilers!), I am pleased to report that there are birds there.

Now, that’s not much of a surprise, is it? Not surprising that on a college campus in Oakland you could find Steller’s and Western Scrub Jays, California Towhees, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds. Not surprising that when a friend was kind enough to escort me to the aquarium at Pier 39 in SF, he had to stop and wait for me to dig the binoculars out of my backpack so I could scope out some Clark’s Grebes (I can be pretty hard on my friends).

But birds don’t have to be surprising to be awesome. Even incredibly common species, like the sandy but subtly elegant towhees and the ubiquitous, vocal hummingbirds, are exciting when they’re part of the giant burst of potential that is spring in the northern hemisphere.

Western Scrub-jays (hopefully soon to be California Scrub-jays, but who’s counting? Well, all of us!) can be more than just another bouncing blue corvid when they appear in a moment when all seems lost, when you’re thinking “what in the hell am I doing? I’m on the entire wrong side of the continent.” In that moment, they can let you – and by you, I mean me, an easily discombobulated person facing one of the biggest challenges of her life – focus and reassure yourself. That is, herself. Myself. Anyway, there they were, right when I needed them.

And Steller’s Jays! What can I say about them? They’re another of the species that I spent years staring at in field guides, wishing and hoping and thinking jay-like thoughts (“oooh! shiny!”). On my very first day in California, my sister pointed out their calls and assured me that if they were around, I’d definitely see them. But two days later I found myself on a trail covered with alarming signage (“Fire risk high!” “If you see suspicious activity, contact campus security!” “If someone approaches you, trust your instincts. If you feel threatened, run in the opposite direction”, “Check out portable alarms here.”), nettles, and bugs, only to suddenly hear the rattle and scream of a flock coming over the ridge and lose all regard for my personal safety. They settled into a towering pine and began harassing a squirrel, and nothing else even existed for at least five minutes.

And Ravens perched in old Spanish fountains. And a Golden-crowned Sparrow popped out of a brush pile just long enough to be id’d, then popped back in again. And Rufus Hummingbirds joined the Anna’s in their buzzing and scolding. It was a beautiful thing.

But is it to be my final fate? Stay tuned.

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The ecology of fear is the idea that predators impact the ecosystem by impacting the behavior of prey. The classic example involves ungulates, a mountain lion or two, and a riverbank covered in tasty grass. The ungulates would like to eat the grass, but they are afraid to spend too much time too far from cover because of the lions, so they don’t eat it all and the bank remains stabilized by grassroots. Remove the lions, and the ungulates chow down at the river’s edge with impunity, resulting in denuded banks and erosion (this is distinct from, albeit often happening in concert with, generalized environmental damage caused by the prey population explosion that likely also accompanied the removal of the lions.)

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis applies this concept to the human ecology of the City of Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs. Humans – particularly, as Davis is at pains to point out, wealthy white politically-connected humans – fancy ourselves the apexiest of apex predators (largely accurately) while still retaining a species memory of the fact that we are soft and made of tasty meat. In the catastrophic landscape of Southern California, where coping strategies suited to more gradual landscapes of the eastern U.S. and Great Britain often fail, triumphant industrial capitalists have reacted to the removal of normal constraint by figuratively grazing right down to the water’s edge. They build collapsibly on faults and floodplains, flammably in chaparral. They strew their children and pets promiscuously in the paths of returning mountain lions and coyotes. At the same time, they re-imagine events that are par for the Californian course as apocalypses (a self-fulfilling prophecy when failure to plan makes the inevitable earthquake or wildfire worse). And they treat the masses as a new predatory force, seemingly prepared to use the same principals of “vermin control” that they once applied to grizzly bears on any unruly element of the urban populations they exploit.

Though this book is now more than a decade old, it’s still remarkably applicable. And, judging by the online reviews, remarkably misunderstood. Some of this is to be expected; when a Malibu real-estate baron feels the need to attack you under a pseudonym, you know you’ve hit a nerve. But many of the positive reviews are also sort of point-missing. Notably, in one of the odder cases of Truffaut Effect that I’ve encountered, many readers seem to have approached the book as exactly the sort of pop disaster lit* that Davis is among other things actually analyzing, leading to criticisms that his coverage of killer bees and tornadoes is ludicrous rather than being, as it were, a vision of the ludicrosity inherent in LA itself.

But while not every landscape is as over-the-top as The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the River of Porziuncola, the ecology of fear plays a role everywhere. The perceived possibility of predation has changed our airports and schools, the way we celebrate holidays, where we live, how we mate. And it impacts how we bird.

One of the fatal mountain lion attacks discussed by Davis was on a birder. Other birders have been killed by tigers, by heat and lack of water, by mountains and trees. But the stories we remember are often of attacks by our fellow humans.

I suspect that one considers this slightly more when one is (or presents as) a woman. People helpfully point out which parks I shouldn’t go to and when, remind me to be paranoid about the rides I accept (or the rides I forgo and the areas I walk through as a result), etc., etc., and this is constant and lifelong. It comes on both a personal and a societal level. It does get into one’s head. And it does, therefore, change one’s behavior. You do think twice before going down to the water’s edge.

On one level this is terrible. Not only does it make life more limited and less pleasant, but there’s something very un-humanist about taking your fellow humans as predators (let alone thinking of yourself as prey). And so very many aspects of the current human ecology of fear are ludicrously counterproductive, only serving to increase the general level of hostility and suspicion in a vicious spiral. And there’s always the temptation to victim-blame, to take the advantage of hindsight and turn it into an argument that the deceased was an idiot to take this or that previously-acceptable risk.

But neither is it useful to imagine ourselves invincible and immune, by virtue of our charming nerdish hobby, from the travails of the world. Like all ecologies, the ecology of our fear requires balance.

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*in full fairness, when I bought it that’s what I thought it was as well. But I managed to get past that impression in the interregnum between buying the book and writing about it by, you know, reading the damn thing.

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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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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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.

Whales!

Whales!

Whales!

Whales!

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.