Trip—Debi Shearwater—Arthur Singer—The Short-tailed Shearwater—"Mutton
Birds"—$185 for a Day-Long Sea Jaunt—"A Crappy Hotel in a Bad
Neighborhood”—The Glass Beach—Patches of Blackberries—Crumbling
Cliffs—A Familiar Brewery—Blue Herrings—Lighthouse—A Graveyard—A Bum
Having Fun with a Bottle and a Gun—Uncle Donny Pops—Blue Whale—Chumming
with Pop Corn—Auklets, Jaegers, Shearwaters and Albatrosses—A Baby
Cowbird Bites Me!—Follow That Bird!—A Salmon Shark—The Cowbird Heads
This is a story about a sea birding adventure and a minor but
surprising rescue at sea. I went aboard the ship, the Trek II in Fort
Bragg, California because I had always been interested in the pelagic
birds, the ones that spend their lives soaring over the open seas
hundreds or even thousands of miles from land.
The Trek II
If you're a crossword puzzler, you know that the cue "seabird" calls
for the word, "auk" and the auks and their allies—murres, puffins,
auklets, murrelets, guillemots, and dovekies—are one major group you
are looking for if you go on a pelagic trip. I had never seen a single
one of these birds, nor had I ever seen any of the tubenoses:
shearwaters, fulmars, albatrosses, storm petrels, etc., so years ago, I
asked a friend how one went about seeing any of these pelagics. He told
me to call up Debi Shearwater.
"Who?" I asked.
"Debi Shearwater," he answered. "She organizes pelagic bird watching trips off the coast of Monterey."
"Well, obviously she wasn't born with that name; she changed it."
I called up Debi and none of her trips fit my schedule.
Well, way led onto way, and I didn't get around to calling her back for
several years. A coworker last year set me back on track when she gave
me a book called Water and Marsh Birds of the World. It was illustrated
by the great Arthur Singer, and I started to read it. The short-tailed
shearwater caught my imagination as I read. The short-tailed is a
pelagic species that, true to the name, visits terra firma only to
breed. Like the other pelagics, the bird spends its life flying across
the vast, open ocean far from the sight of land.
The short-tailed shearwater builds a deep burrow to lay its eggs on the
islands between Australia proper and Tasmania, and when it has finished
its reproductive duty, it takes once more to sea, flying up to New
Zealand and then clockwise all the way along the thousands of miles of
western Pacific, past Korea and Japan, over the Bering Straits, and
down the coast of California. Then, somewhere well off of the coast of
southern Baja, its path leads it outward, over thousands of miles of
open sea—half a world of water towards home.
The mature shearwaters may find their efforts to breed on the islands
somewhat disappointing; the Australians harvest the young shearwaters
from their burrows and sell them canned as "Tasmania Squab" or "Mutton
Birds." They are considered a delicacy. This at first would seem to
present some concerns. There are, after all, too many endangered birds
already, and some like the long-billed dowitcher are only with us now
because market gunning has been outlawed by governments. Happily,
Australia regulates the shearwater harvest now, and though hundreds of
thousands of "squabs" are wrested from their burrows and butchered, the
species still flies in enormous numbers over the Pacific.
The fascinating facts about the short-billed shearwater got me thinking
about Debi Shearwater and her sea birding trips, and I booked a $185
day-long jaunt on a ship in Fort Bragg, California.
I travelocitied everything, but I made one mistake when I booked a room
in the Fort Bragg Travelodge; I checked its user reviews too late. One
read, "A crappy hotel in a bad neighborhood." Another, "Don't stay here
unless you're a real budget traveler! I was seriously scared in my
room." Still another, "Not clean, not safe, actually scary."
"Gosh," I thought. "Two of them mentioned safety, and one talked of meth addicts hanging around. This lodge is not for me."
I'm the kind of guy that meth addicts bother. Junkies too. For
some reason, they see me as an easy mark. I rebooked, talking the nice
Asian Indian telephone staffers at travelocity into waiving the $25
cancellation penalty. It was, after all, a matter of life and death.
My new lodgings were at the Glass Beach Bed and Breakfast at a good
savings. I telephoned and told them about my Travelodge fears, and they
in turn sympathized but neglected to tell me that they were exactly—I
mean directly—across the street from the lodge and that the deadbolt
lock on my cottage was broken. But I didn't mind because it was such a
nice place, and I got free breakfast.
My host and hostess told me that their B&B was called the Glass
Beach because the ocean used to be used as a dump and all of the
millions of bottles in the trash got sanded and polished and now washed
up on the beach for people to collect. Before my trip ended, I made
sure to spend some time finding the prettiest of these nature-made
cabochons: clear, coke bottle, beer bottle, and green. I'd done much
the same thing thirty-seven summers before at Moonstone Beach in Rhode
Island, where stones washed up perfectly shaped for rings or bolo
slides. I never was lucky enough to find a real moonstone, though. But
I have kept what I found for all of these years. And I'll keep my Glass
Beach stones as well.
Glass Beach Bed and Breakfast
The Glass Beach itself was only five minutes from the B&B, and I
walked there, getting a good look at the Travelodge. It didn't seem so
bad. I went past a lumberyard and found a dusty path between giant
patches of blackberries. Many of the berries were ripe. Along the path
were also ice plants—those big stalked kind with the blades looking
like dill pickle spears. A few families with kids were on the path and
down on the edge of the ocean. The beach was surrounded by crumbling
bluffs and rocky cliffs. The water was filled with floating seaweed,
long yellow-brown tubes as big around as your arm with bulbous, frilled
ends. The air had a disagreeable smell. Some blackbirds were flying in
and out of some brush offshore, and I hurried over in the hopes that
they might be tri-colored blackbirds, but no luck; they were the garden
variety red-winged kind.
Back near the shore, I raised my binoculars and saw a fairly large bird
with white wing patches. It seemed a weak flyer as it struggled to get
over the water to the cliffs. Its feet were bright red. "That's a
pigeon guillemot!" I said to myself in surprise. I was pleased at first
because I had always wanted to see one. I was also a little
disappointed. The pictures in my field guides led me to believe that
this was a true pelagic, never near shore. A lot of the romance I'd
built up surrounding this species faded when I saw it puddling around
in the water like a common mud hen. But it was still a great bird to
get on my list.
On the rocks nearby was a group of black turnstones. Funny; they were
far and away more pigeon-like than the guillemot, as is the ruddy
turnstone, which I see at the family beach house on the Sea of Cortez.
The black turnstone is also present there. The black oyster catcher,
which I would see flying by in the distance a little while later
doesn't seem to be on the east side of Baja.
A giant western gull was flying towards shore with a long ribbon of
seaweed in its bill. Was it just showing off? No, it landed on a rock,
and I could see that there was a crab tangled up in the seaweed. The
gull started tearing off the crab's legs and flinging them down its
throat whole. A black turnstone waddled up to see if there might be
anything left for him.
I was happy to get two more life listers at the beach, Brandt's
cormorant and the pelagic cormorant, and then I was ready to go back to
my room. It had already been a long day. I'd taken a jet from Phoenix
to Sacramento and driven for hours on the long, twisting two-lane roads
to Fort Bragg. I had the whole next day free, so I would have plenty of
time to explore the beach some more later.
I remembered that when I drove into town, I saw a brewery, and it was
just three blocks from the Glass Beach Bed and Breakfast. My inner
compass unerringly led me there.
To my surprise, I had heard of the place. It was the North Coast
Brewing Company. They make Seal Ale, which is for sale in my local
Sunflower Market. I took my place at the bar. Through the window across
the street, I could see the actual brewery, a separate building.
The bar sold nothing but their homemade stuff. No Miller Lite® or
anything else like it. Good for them, I thought. I got an India Pale
Ale and chatted with some tourists who were drinking Old Rasputin, a
Russian imperial stout. One of the guys had lived in Phoenix as a
child. The barmaid was a native of Fort Bragg. Born there. An American
guy and his German girlfriend wanted to talk about birds after they saw
my bird book. They had many misconceptions. You know the kind: that
birds are ubiquitous except for maybe the ostrich, that they migrate by
flying at 40,000 feet and riding the jet stream, and so on. I always
try to straighten people out on the basics.
"No, no," I said. "You probably didn't see a crane. We've only got two,
the whooping crane and the sandhill crane, and neither was a likely
sighting for you. You probably saw a heron, a great blue heron."
I had a feeling of satisfaction because later, I knew, they would be
passing on this new knowledge and would say to a friend, "No, no! That
isn't a crane. It's a blue herring!"
The brewery served pricy food on white tablecloths, so I went and ate at a Mexican restaurant.
The next morning, I drove around the area. There was a nature walk down
to a working lighthouse near the town of Casper, and I took it. Along
the trail, I found a noisy little flock of bushtits and a few
chestnut-backed chickadees. I'd seen the bushtit five times before but
the chickadee only once, in Vancouver. Down towards the lighthouse, you
could look at the sea over crumbling cliffs. A sign read: "DO NOT
APPROACH THE CLIFF," and it had a drawing of a child in shorts who had
stepped too close and had caused the rocky edge to break away and fall,
taking him with it.
A little later, I pulled my rental car off the side of a road and
walked up a path up to a graveyard. All along the trail in the redwood
branches, chestnut-backed chickadees hopped and snicked, and I quickly
grew tired of them. An Epidonax flycatcher hopped down to the ground
and then flew back up into a redwood tree.
The graveyard had a sign asking people to be respectful and not to
desecrate the graves. Fair enough. I walked through the graveyard and
looked at who died and how long they lived and whom they were buried
with. One grave marker was made of welded steel in the form of an
anchor. It was spray painted green. Obviously, the person buried there
had made his living on the sea. He was born in 1941 and died in 2002.
Sixty-one years old.
I did not desecrate any of the graves.
I visited a few of the beaches. All of them were bordered by water so
full of seaweed that you would have trouble swimming through it without
getting tangled and drowned. I didn't know that not far from Fort Bragg
was a canyon where you could see wrentits, unusual little birds with
funny faces and an odd shape. I would have gone there had I known, but
I went back to my room instead, parked the car, and walked down to the
Glass Beach and collected glass gemstones. I saw a wandering tattler on
some rocks, and later I saw a birder walking down to the beach. I knew
she was a birder because she had roof prism binoculars. Hardly anyone
but birders buy that kind. She was doing a survey of the beach for the
Audubon Society. I told her about the wandering tattler and she said
that such a sighting was a big deal and went off to find the bird.
Graveyard with Anchor Grave Marker
I'd eaten up the day driving around. I had seen few birds, but the real
idea of this free day was to make sure I wasn't rushed and could ease
into the boat trip the following morning. I judged after a time that
another visit to the brew house was due, and I walked back to my room.
On the way, I ran into a drunken street person. He said, "How's it
"Great!" I told him. He was drinking beer out of a quart bottle. On his
hip was a long barreled pistol in a red leather holster. He seemed to
be trying to hide the gun under his untucked shirt. I was glad he
hadn't asked for money because I don't like to disappoint gun-toting
rum-dumbs. I thought of asking him if he was staying at the Travelodge
but thought better of it.
About forty-five minutes later, I started off from my room on the way
to the brewery. Then I stopped. There was the drunk not a block away
sitting on the side of the road. A young guy walked by and the drunk
got up and shook his hand. "Damn," I thought. "He sure hasn't gone
far." I walked across the street to avoid him, went the three blocks,
and then crossed the street again to the brewery. I drank two India
I decided to walk around a bit and find a cheaper place to eat. I ran
into the drunk again. Over by the Welcome Inn, he had the holster off
his belt and was doing something or other to it. I said to myself, "Are
there, like, police in this burg?"
Not all of the people were bums. The town folk were everywhere walking.
There were some young people, but most of the folks out and about
seemed at least fifty, beards and pony tails on many of the men.
Everyone looked a little wind blown. One family walked by, and a woman
said, "Thank you so much, Uncle Donny! We'll get it next time."
Uncle Donny must have popped.
Fort Bragg isn't a bad place. A little run down, but not bad.
I ate at the Mexican restaurant again.
I arrived at the wharf an hour early the next morning. I didn't want to
miss the boat by finding out too late that California had a different
time zone or something. I knew darned well what time it was, but my
compulsive nature would not allow me to tempt fate by arriving on time
instead of way early.
In a while, Debi Shearwater showed up and asked for ten bucks extra for
some fuel tax. Twenty-five others arrived a little later, and after a
ten-minute talk on boat etiquette, safety, seasickness pills, and
birds, we disembarked.
Five of the people aboard were leaders and experts at identifying
seabirds and other sea creatures. We hadn't even got beyond the sight
of land when one of them started screaming.
"Blue whale!" he shouted. He neglected to say, "Off the stern!" or "At six o'clock!" as we were all told to do.
Seeing a blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived, was quite a
big deal to everyone. We chased it with the boat. We'd stop and wait to
hear the animal breathe. It was a huge sound, and you could see the
column of spray out of its blow hole. The hump that I saw did, indeed,
look blue. The whale would disappear, and then we'd see it rather far
away. This made us think that we may have been looking at two of them.
After a while, we stopped chasing the whale as it was going in the
wrong direction. The boat headed out to sea and we soon lost sight of
land. Debi Shearwater had brought a huge bag of popcorn which she
explained would be used as chum. I wondered how long it would last, but
I needn't have worried. One of the leaders would stand at the stern and
every few seconds drop a single kernel into the boiling blue wake.
Western gulls appeared, followed the boat, and dove to pick up each
piece of popcorn. In no time, there were also Heerman's gulls and
California gulls following us for the corn. They would attract other
birds we were told.
Soon I heard the shout, "Common murre!" and looked to see a black and white bird flying over the surface of the ocean.
"Did you get him?" someone asked.
"Yes," I replied. "A fine old saddle shoe."
I'd been waiting to say that. Murres are in the auk family, also
referred to as the alcids. They are very penguin-like, though not
related. Like penguins, they are black and white, and they cannot walk
well as their hind feet are positioned too far to the rear, but they
can fly underwater using their wings. The common murre males were often
seen with a chick next to them floating on the water.
The next cry was "Sooty Shearwater!" It was a dark bird flying at great
speed just inches over the surface of the rolling sea. This was as
close as I would get to seeing the short-billed shearwater. The two
birds are very much alike and difficult to tell apart, and the sooty is
also canned and sold as a delicacy. Unfortunately, the leaders told me
that the short-billed didn't generally appear off of these waters until
the winter, so I would have to be content with the sooty.
The rhinoceros auklet was next. It was resting on the surface. It was a
bird I had always wanted to see because of its pairs of unusual white
facial plumes and the vertical spike on its bill. I could see neither
because of the distance or perhaps because the bird may not have been
in breeding plumage when those features are present.
When the first black-footed albatross showed up, I started muttering
lines from Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Yes, I knew it was an obvious
cliché to do that and really somewhat obnoxious, but I could not help
myself, and the other birders, one of whom was on his 65th trip out,
seemed to expect it and happily quoted along with me. The albatross
stayed with us for food or play the whole trip, and six or eight others
came by and stayed too.
The black-footed albatross is kind of a goofy looking bird. When it was
arching over the water with its long narrow wings, it was a marvel.
When it sat on the water, however, it seemed more suitable to the
barnyard. With its bulbous bill, it had a familiar look somehow—like a
brown hound dog sitting contented in the living room, happy to be at
Seeing the albatross at rest on the water gave me a clearer picture of
what being a pelagic bird means. When you think of pelagic birds, you
tend to assume they must either fly or drown, but the ocean is a great
habitat not unlike the land to them. If the birds wish to rest, they
simply sit on the water. All of them seemed to do this. The western
gull, when it wasn't flying above our wake, would float on the surface.
So did the little Cassin's auklet. In fact, I don't remember seeing one
on the wing.
Red necked phalaropes, small pelagic sandpipers, would stream by in
stringy flocks, and three species of jaegers showed up along with
another shearwater, the yellow-footed.
Far offshore, we would occasionally see buoys floating in the water.
They were sturdy metal contraptions each with a bell on it so that
seafarers could hear them on a foggy night and not run into them. As we
passed one such buoy, I looked up to see a fluttering little bird
fighting against the wind. "What was this little pelagic?" I wondered.
"Was it a storm-petrel?"
I heard one of the leaders behind me say, "Well, for goodness' sake!"
The little bird fought its way around the boat and finally alighted on
the cabin roof. It was an immature brown-headed cowbird lost at sea
miles from shore. It had been sitting on the buoy and left it for a
free ride with us. I'd never seen a baby. Its breast was heavily
streaked with brown. It made its way to the walkway on the side of the
boat where we threw it bits of cracker. It hopped over and ate them.
The cowbird would occasionally abandon ship and find itself battling
the wind to catch up with us before it alighted again. Some of the
birders grumbled about it. The cowbird is a pest that lays its eggs in
the nests of favorite songbirds such as the warblers. They don't make
their own nests. The baby cowbird that hatches is bigger and stronger
than the other nestlings, and it grabs up all the food that the parents
bring to the nest and in the end tips the other baby birds out. We had
one of these villains in our midst, but I am particularly fond of the
blackbirds and cowbirds, so I was happy to have him aboard. One of the
guys mentioned that he had never seen a bronzed cowbird, and I was able
to tell him about the times I had seen it.
I was looking out over the bow when I heard Debi Shearwater screaming at the top of her lungs. "Petrel!"
Cowbird On Board
Everyone ran forward and Debi continued shouting to the skipper, "Don't stop the boat. FOLLOW THAT BIRD!"
The skipper gunned the engine, and we went after the petrel. I could
see it ahead winging over the waves. We kept up with it for quite
awhile. In the meantime, Debi Shearwater was yelling, "Pictures! Take
pictures!" She wanted to prove that she had got the bird. There were
two guys with those cameras with long lenses attached—more like
telescopes. The guys were snapping photos.
"This is why we fucking came!" Shearwater shouted.
When the bird had outdistanced us, one of the guys showed one of the
pictures he had taken. I was amazed. It was a perfectly clear shot of
the black and white petrel angling over the sea with its pointed wings
tilted in the camera screen.
The bird was an Hawaiian petrel and was one of the very few sightings
ever made near the mainland of the United States. Later, we saw
Hawaiian petrels twice again, but we could not be sure if it was the
same bird or not. It didn't matter, Shearwater said. It was three
sightings. Not long afterwards, we got the Xantus's murrelet, which
caused about the same level of excitement.
I spotted a black fin in the water and Debi Shearwater said it was a
huge shark. "It must be ten feet long," she said. The skipper told us
it was a salmon shark.
I went back to the cabin. The cowbird had flown into the head, and I
caught it there. It bit me, of course. I showed it to the other birders
and asked whether we should put it in a box to make sure it got to land
"I think he's doing all right on his own," one of them said, so I let the bird go in the cabin, where he sat on a chair.
We spent nine hours on the water and I got fourteen life listers off
the boat, and seventeen for the trip with the three I got on the beach.
When we were chugging back into the harbor, I suddenly remembered the
cowbird and asked if it was still aboard.
"No," one of the birders said with a smile. "When we got close to
shore, he saw the land, flew off of the boat, and made a beeline for it.
I was glad to be getting back to shore myself, and I was glad the cowbird made it back to where it belonged.