Some time ago, I mentioned that I had sold a story that was inspired by a photo taken by the notorious bird blogger and swamp monster Corey Finger.

That story, Plastic Sargasso, is now available online for your reading delectation.

I will also note that I had a beautiful and perhaps too exciting weekend, of which more in due time.

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Female Bufflehead by Mdf

Sea Duck Inshore

Sea ducks. The phrase sets a certain type of birder (cold-hardy, salt-resistant, moderately insane) throbbing with anticipation. We have spoken before of the Long-tailed Duck, the Harlequin Duck, and other anseriform denizens of the briny deep. But there is one among the tribe that need not cost you your extremities, one pocket-edition sea duck that brings its tang of winter romance even to environs as calm as Prospect Park: the Bufflehead.

The Buffle in Bufflehead is short for Buffalo – the idea being that the bulbous shape of the male bird’s head in full display bears some resemblance to that of the American Bison, which is not a buffalo. Other things that named after the bison which is not a buffalo include Buffalo, New York (and by extension the Buffalo Bills, a notoriously non-champion American football team, and buffalo wings) and Buffalo soldiers (and by extension the Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier, Ray Petri’s visual imaging company Buffalo, and Neneh Cherry’s hit song Buffalo Stance).

The male Bufflehead puffs up his head feathers, of course, as a pose to look sexy and important to other Buffleheads, very much like the characters in the song Buffalo Stance.

Unlike most other ducks, who are notorious rakes and libertines at best, the Bufflehead is prone to fidelity. Not only do mates stick with each other from year to year (unlike the characters in the song Buffalo Stance) they tend to return to the same nesting site as well – a tree cavity, usually an old Flicker nest. Just in case you were tempted to look to them as icons of family life – always a bad idea with birds – it should also be noted that they share a predilection for violent kidnapping with their cousins the Goldeneyes. When two female Buffleheads fight, the victor will often add some or all of the vanquished duck’s young to her own brood, perhaps in order to provide safety in numbers for her own offspring.

But all of this takes place in the boreal north. The vast majority of North Americans know Buffleheads as winter birds, floating in sheltered coastal areas and those inland waters that remain unfrozen. Though they are tiny and monochromatic, they can be an incredibly beautiful sight as they pepper the water, disappearing in dives and then popping back up like rubber bathtub ducks on the lead surface of the winter water. To me they are holiday ducks, since I generally see them on the Hudson from the window of the train while going from New York back to the Olde Homestead in the late fall and winter. Even at a distance and at speed, their dark-and-light pattern is distinctive.

If you know someone who is too frail, or too sensible, to chase the other sea ducks, show them a Bufflehead this February.

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“Sold a story!” I told a friend who will remain nameless.

“Is it about birds?” he asked. The last two stories I sold were about birds – “Invasive Species”, which I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about (even though it is awesome) and “Face Like a Monkey”, which may or may not be about a vagrant melanistic Jabiru and will appear in the Datlow/Mamatas anthology Haunted Legends – so I can see where he might have though he had me figured.

And yes, yes he does; yes it is. Specifically, it is about the Black-legged Kittiwake in this post. (Scroll down.) It’s also about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the sometimes-awkward moment when you go from being a birder to being an environmentalist – or fail to. Plus autocannibalism.

Look for it in the April/May/June 2010 issue of ChiZine if all goes well.

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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