Biologists are a little different

Sooty shearwaterPhoto courtesy of Flickr.com

First, you have to understand that I am a biologist. Biologists see the world through a slightly different lens. We find fascination in things that others either don't notice or, perhaps, would rather not notice. My children thought some dinner conversations perfectly normal that many might find inappropriate.

Recently, my wife and I took a short trip to the coast for relief from the summer heat. It's a great getaway, but when we go for a walk on the beach, we drift apart. By that I mean that my wife walks the water's edge savoring the surf and expansive views. My feet inevitably take me higher on the beach to the wrack line. The debris washed up from the ocean is like a book to be opened and read by a biologist. In particular, I search for dead birds. I warned you. Biologists are a little different.

On this day, I found a carcass well on its way to becoming a mummy. The tube-like nostrils marked it as belonging to the group of birds that contains albatrosses, shearwaters and storm-petrels among others. This bird was the size of a small gull, had a thin bill and dark plumage. It was a sooty shearwater.

Although partially consumed, I considered the remains. The wings were long and narrow, well-suited for mastering the winds over the open ocean. The feet were webbed, and the legs were flattened side to side, lowering resistance as it swam.

I wondered how old the bird was when it died. There have been no recent storms to take a toll on pelagic birds. Shearwaters and their relatives live longer than many. This bird may easily have been 15 to 20 years old.

Most likely this bird was reared in a burrow on the Chatham Islands or one of the other small islands off the coast of New Zealand, sharing the space with little blue penguins, skuas, storm-petrels and small, bluish seabirds called fairy prions. It may also have been raised in southern Australia or Chile. Which was it?

As a solitary, downy chick, the parents sought food for it in the cold waters of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, perhaps feeding on krill that on another day might have made a meal for a blue whale. After fledging and building its strength, it headed north to escape the southern winter. It crossed the equator and flew north to the Gulf of Alaska and later down the coast to Oregon in July and August. I look to the horizon and envision the thousands of shearwaters coursing low over the ocean searching for small fish and squid three to 20 miles offshore up and down the coast.

As September arrives, they hurry back to the waters around New Zealand, completing a circuit of more than 10,000 miles. How many times had this bird circled the Pacific Ocean before dying and washing up on an Oregon beach? So many images. So many questions.

So if you see someone walking the wrack line on the beach nudging things with the toe of his or her shoe, don't be alarmed. Biologists are generally harmless. If intrigued, you might even inquire about a discovery. The story you hear might be of interest, although it may not be appropriate for mealtime.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.



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