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.

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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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.