Saturday, August 18, 2018

Seeking seabirds between the swells

            Traveling aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor earlier this month, I spent way more time than I probably should have staring out at the gray seas, scanning between the swells in search of birds. It’s my natural inclination when I’m in an unusual place – to watch for whatever birds or other wildlife may be about -- and many miles from land is indeed an unusual place.
            I was traveling with a group of local teachers and oceanographers, learning about ocean science as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, which provides educators with an opportunity to get hands-on research experience that they can use to illuminate their classroom
Wilson's storm petrels (Dan Izirarry)
lessons. And as energizing as it was to cruise the high seas, deploy oceanographic instruments, and gain a better understanding of how science works, I frequently found myself with one eye on the horizon wondering if a rare seabird might be darting by as we were collecting data.
            The birds I was looking for were species that most people have never heard of – shearwaters, storm-petrels and jaegers.  These seabirds are unknown to but the hardiest of birdwatchers because they are almost entirely pelagic, spending nearly their whole lives far out at sea and only returning to land – mostly on inaccessible, uninhabited islands in the Southern Hemisphere – for short periods to breed.
            To get a good look at these remarkable creatures usually requires a lengthy boat trip 15 or more miles offshore, out to where the swells churn your stomach and land is nowhere in sight. So the Endeavor was the perfect platform to find them. At a spot between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard called the Mud Hole, where the ship stopped to deploy some equipment, seabirds were everywhere.
            Mixed in among some gulls were hundreds of shearwaters, which always send my heart racing.  To the untrained eye, shearwaters look like dirty gulls.  But their stiff-winged flight just above the cresting waves gives them away.  They fly so close to the waterline that it’s easy to lose them as the waves rise and fall. 
            The most unusual part of a shearwater’s anatomy is its beak.  It appears to have tubular nostrils on the upper mandible -- hence their colloquial name “tubenoses.”  This odd growth is actually an adaptation that allows them to drink seawater and to rid their system of excess salt, since they never have access to fresh water. 
            Like shearwaters, storm-petrels are tubenoses, but that’s where their resemblance ends.  These robin-sized brown birds flit and flutter butterfly-like among the waves, often playing patty-cake with their feet on the water as they search for tiny edible morsels.  As their name suggests, storm-petrels tend to be most active and abundant in stormy, white-capped seas with gray skies.
            Then there’s the jaegers, perhaps the most unpredictable of the seabirds.  Sometimes they soar high overhead like a hawk or low to the water like a shearwater, and at other times they may initially go unnoticed and arrive with a flock of gulls. But they quickly give themselves away.
            For those who find the behavior of gulls or crows unappealing due to their aggressiveness and scavenging habits, you’ll definitely dislike jaegers.  They seldom find their own food, instead spending their feeding time harassing smaller birds into relinquishing their meal. 
            Far out to sea, beyond the reach of most of mankind, this behavior has allowed them to find a niche in the brutal oceanic world, and to flourish.  But at my dinner table, that’ll earn you confinement to your room.

This article first appeared in the Independent on August 16, 2018.

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