Saturday, July 28, 2012

For The Birds
By Michael

"Caw, caw, caw..."
During the days we are underway, out at sea, heading north along the U.S. West Coast, we are not alone. When the seas are steep and we’re bashing into them under power, we are not alone. In long pants, socks, and fleece, steeling ourselves against the cold drizzle of a Northern California coastal summer, we are not alone. Out there we’re accompanied by the desperate calls and answering peeps of the auks.

Now I’m not the naturalist aboard Del Viento. To me a whale is a whale, a bird is a bird, and a tree is a tree. To Windy and the girls, every living thing must be identified from phylum to species. Once identified, the three of them then take interest in most everything else that is known about the creature. The iPad is opened and the offline Wikipedia app* is referenced again. I feign disinterest, but I’m secretly glad someone aboard is taking this role—the world is a much more interesting place the more you learn about it.

So we’ve been seeing these birds en route. They're small, black and white, and they bob on the choppy sea, a few miles off shore. Windy thinks they are Common Murres (a.k.a. Thin-Billed Murres), a type of auk. She has learned all about them. They are fascinating.
Adult pairs make no nest, but lay and incubate a single egg on a cliff face. Less than a month after hatching, before they can even fly, downy chicks leap off the cliff face into the ocean below, using their wings to break their fall. We’ve seen some at sea, miles from shore, still molting their fluffy down chick feathers. They jump off the cliff because their dad tells them too. Once in the ocean, they venture far with their fathers, learning to hunt and care for themselves.

So these birds have become our little companions (babies are the size of my fist, dads are about three times that size) out at sea. We'll come across these birds all day without more than a few minutes passing without a sighting, fifty miles of Murres and more the next leg.

It is their behavior that makes these little guys so endearing. Ninety percent of the time, we see a father paired up with a chick. Because they disappear quickly behind even small swells, we often hear them before we see them—calling to each other.
Imagine the sound of a crow or black bird, that “caw-caw-caw.” Yeah? Okay, now imagine that sound more high-pitched and desperate. That is the sound of the father Murre calling to his baby. But it’s not a cute sound and nor does it lack emotion. No, this caw-caw-caw has all the gravity and emotional punch of a mother calling out after losing her child in a train station. It’s a call that stays with you.

Next imagine the chirp and peep of a newly hatched chick. Turn up the volume on that sound and that's it exactly, the sound of the tiny Common Murre answering its pappa.

Out there we hear and see these pairs calling and responding over and over: caw, caw, caw….peep, peep, peep. Sometimes we’ll see two birds, separated only by a couple of wavelengths of three-foot chop, calling and answering, but seemingly unable to connect across the comparatively mountainous seas, sometimes swimming in paths that don’t converge. We'll pass, left wondering if they ever find each other. The little dramas play out in very short spans and have given our crew new jobs.

“Oh, there’s the dad!”
“I see the baby.”

“C’mon….oh…yes, he found him!”

We've read they're good flyers, but we rarely see them take wing. Instead, they hang out on the surface like ducks or dive, either to hunt small fish or to evade us, using their wings underwater like fins. So in addition to cawing and peeping in a bid to find each other, they instinctively duck just their heads underwater to look for each other. 
Sometimes we see only a dad or only a chick, cawing or peeping away, checking underwater, but nobody in sight. Poor things. Sometimes our autopilot, Shaun, will steer through groups of birds and divide pairs on either side of the hull, leaving us to watch our wake, hopeful for successful reunions. As they disappear behind a swell or fade into our wake, we're soon distracted by the plight of another pair, and then another. 

--MR
* Wiki Offline is an iTunes app that is the full text of all Wikipedia articles compressed to 3.5GB (no pictures or graphics are included). We downloaded this thing onto our iPad for $9.99 and use it frequently when we don't have internet connectivity and want to look something up. Awesome.

We pass by a pair of Murres, upper left. 
These aren't auks, but harbor seals that greeted us as we
arrived in Half Moon Bay.
We berthed in the commercial fishing area of Half Moon Bay.
Here is Frances on the bow as we arrrived. Note the houseboat
hair salon behind her, used by the local fishermen.

2 comments:

Behan Gifford said...

Love this. I think we might have fondly referred to these birds as "bloopers" because you'd get close to them and- BLOOP! they'd disappear under the water! That highly non technical name aside... we've found that area-specific field guides for flora and fauna are the most used books on board. LOVE that there's an app for that (of course!). On a related tangent...what other apps are working well for you, Windy & the girls? We are new iPad owners and trying to figure out what to download before we sail away from internet access in Sept.!

Michelle Gates said...

They look like Murres to me. Just curious, but the father stays with the chick? The male and female don't tag-team?

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