Ocean bird-watching offers a break from the smoky skies
The feel of a chill, stiff breeze on the face, cold enough to make you squint and raise the zipper on the raincoat the last two inches under the chin with numbed fingers. To feel the swell and chop under the boat produced by distant storms. I cover the eyepieces of the binoculars to protect them from the drizzle and salt spray and stare out to the horizon in search of a winged visitor from another continent.
Nope. Not happening. I open my eyes, and it’s another pumpkin sun in oppressive gray skies. I have been taking virtual adventures in my mind of late as I wait for release from confinement and the threat of disaster and disease.
Let’s return to the cool ocean. August and September are migration months for most seabirds. Seabirds from around the entire Pacific seek out the coast of Oregon to take advantage of the bounty produced by the upwelling of deep ocean waters with its nutrients.
As the boat crosses the bar heading out, cormorants of several species work the surf for fish. Brandt’s cormorants take the deeper water while the others hunt closer to shore. They are joined by hundreds of murres. Many are young birds raised this summer on the offshore stacks nearby.
A few miles offshore, the cormorants are replaced by dark sooty shearwaters and others that cruise by on narrow wings either alone or in loose flocks. They never seem to feed. I assume they wait for evening when the squid and other prey rise from the depths. Most sooty shearwaters come from the islands around New Zealand, but some visit from Chile and Australia. It is here a pod of humpback whales, also migrating, may be encountered. Tiny swimming shorebirds, phalaropes, pick plankton from the surface.
Overhead, jaegers appear and vanish. They have dark caps and long tail plumes. Three species pass by our coast as they head south from breeding places, including the tundra around Nome, Alaska. Their flight is strong, and they terrorize other birds, forcing them to give up their hard-earned prey. They are joined by bulkier cousins, south polar skuas, that visit from Antarctica.
Fifteen or 20 miles from the coast in deeper waters, the albatrosses appear. With wingspans of 7 or 8 feet, they cruise huge distances each day in search of prey, which is often squid, again appearing as the sun sets. They have an excellent sense of smell and thrive on the inevitable death that occurs in the cycle of life. Carcasses of fish and even whales are a buffet. Most Laysan and black-footed albatrosses breed in the Hawaiian Islands. A third, the short-tailed albatross, visits from Japan.
About 25 miles out, the boat turns for home. It is time. The legs are tired, the nose is dripping, the chill and moisture have penetrated the layers of clothing, and the fingers have wrinkled. A hot cup of coffee in the cabin warms the hands on the trip to port.
Still farther out there are other birds, although beyond the abundance produced by the inshore upwelling. In these ocean deserts, mottled petrels pass by, departing the waters off the Aleutians heading for southern New Zealand and their breeding burrows.
I feel a bit better. Now, where shall I go tomorrow?
Stewart Janes is a biology professor, emeritus, at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at email@example.com.