April 25, 2006

Birding on Sea

Did you know that almost one-third of all species of birds on this earth spend the majority of their lives at sea and only come back to land to breed? It boggles the mind that so many birds are more at home roaming the open ocean than they are on solid ground.

Now you might wonder what kinds of birds are you likely to find so far from land?

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater
courtesy of Don Robertson

The sooty shearwater is an elegant, long winged bird that spends most of its life carving a huge circle eight across the northern and southern Pacific Ocean. In North America's springtime, over half a million sooty shearwaters can be found off the Monterey Bay coast feeding on the bounty of the sea. And during the southern hemisphere's spring, these same intrepid travelers can be found off the shores of New Zealand where they are also known as the muttonbird.

To see a shearwater, one must leave land and go to where the birds are. For those of us in the Monterey Bay, this is much easier than it would otherwise be. For in Monterey, you can find pelagic birding trips that can transport you to a place you can find shearwaters, humpback whales, and Pacific White-sided dolphins because of the Monterey Submarine Canyon which plunges to 6000 ft bisecting the Monterey Bay. To get close to the wildest creatures in the world, one only need take a journey of less than an hour. (Most other locations -- like off the Oregon coast -- require travelling out from land for several hours before reaching ocean depths where one can find the shearwaters, storm-petrals and other exotic ocean birds.)

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross
courtesy of Don Robertson

This weekend in honor of Rollo Beck, a famous ornithologist from the last century, Pacific Grove, California sponsored a three hour pelagic trip out into the Monterey Bay. I was fortunate to join some friends on a semi-grey yet rain-free day where we found some wonderful birds we could only see venturing away from land.

Today Rollo Beck is known for his extensive journeys across the Pacific studying and collecting seabirds from the Galapagos to the Oceanas. But a century ago, Rollo Beck was perfecting his craft by rowing out in a rowboat for upto a week at a time onto the Monterey Bay. When collecting birds, he would remove the guts so he could preserve the bird for museums. And then he would eat the "surplus" from the bird. According to his biographer, Beck would come back to land heavier than he went out. Although he had a sandpit he'd use to build a fire on his rowboat, something tells me his culinary experience was nothing like this Kiwi recipe for Muttonbird.

What a debt we more ordinary humans owe these eccentric, obsessed and yet totally fascinating scientists who built the foundation of knowledge we have today. And how wonderful it is to go out on a boat armed only with binoculars and water resistant gear knowing that land is just a few hours, not days and not weeks, away. And, oh -- what a thrill to see the Black-footed Albatrosses come almost within touching distance, and the humpback whales breaching within 15 feet of the boat, and the Pacific White-sided Dolphins bow-riding off the front of the boat.

Posted by Mary at April 25, 2006 07:47 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

I'll drop in an endorsement for Monterey Seabirds (http://www.montereyseabirds.com/), having taken a very enjoyable pelagic trip with them last August. Take a long lens, though, if you want to take photographs; my 10x Canon S1 IS PowerShot, great on land, just didn't cut it. The only decent shot I got was of a Townsend's Warbler (!), a dropout which landed on our boat (and on the knee of the guy next to me!) miles out to sea.

Posted by: Eli Stephens at April 25, 2006 04:12 PM

HI Natasha

I read a few articles of yours on Gather and wa scompelled to see your profile. There i found your Blog and that you have studeid Environmental Sciences i am also a student of the subject. This article Birding on the sea is very interesting i ll sugest you to post it on Gather in my Group Enviroinmnetalists.


Posted by: Wajid ali at April 26, 2006 08:03 PM