Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Sea

Walter, a young Beechey Ground-Squirrel, heard the unmistakable sounds of a granola bar being extricated from its wrapper. Good news. Walter was hungry, so he emerged onto the sidewalk from the adjacent garden to wheedle an innocent tourist out of his snack. He was quick to notice the coveted granola bar cradled in the hands of a human standing in front of an odd, three-legged animal. The breeze shifted, and Walter caught a whiff of the prize - mmmmmm, Oats and Honey! Sauntering toward the human, Walter employed every little trick that usually won the attention of humans, only to be ignored. The human, standing immobile before the three-legged animal, did not even acknowledge Walter's presence. After a few minutes of unsuccessful begging, Walter stomped off in search of easier prey.

I yawned, jammed my eyeball to the scope eyepiece, and stared at the distant water magnified through the mist. Occasionally the shadowy form of a shearwater would flit out of the mist, usually quickly disappearing. A swirling flock of Sooty Shearwaters drew my attention to a small pod of dolphins offshore. There wasn't much else to see; the mist obscured everything more than a mile or two offshore, and few birds seemed to be flying. Already bored after only ten minutes of seawatching, I fished a granola bar out of my bike bag and began munching while scanning for seabirds, barely noticing a Beechey Ground-Squirrel moseying around on the sidewalk next to me.

Giving up on seawatching, I strolled down to the beach, thinking the whole time Darn, did I just ride twenty-one miles to see a bunch of mist and some Sooty Shearwaters? My shoes began filling with sand the instant I stepped off the concrete walkway and onto the beach. Working my way over to one of the rock formations (having to leap over a creek with my scope, camera, binoculars, water bottle, etc., in the process), I began scanning for shorebirds. Hopping from rock to rock until I found a good spot to set up my scope, I cursed the sharp, jagged rocks and made a mental note to wear studier shoes than Converse next time I visited the place.

Shorebirds were scarce. Suddenly, a medium-sized black shorebird appeared atop a distant rock. I couldn't believe my luck - a Black Oystercatcher! I trained my scope on it, finding a crow exactly where the oystercatcher had been sitting. Hmmm.

Two Black-bellied Plovers wandered through the flock of motley gulls, occasionally giving mournful whistles as if they were sad about being the only genuine shorebirds around.

After scrutinizing the rest of the rocks and finding no other shorebirds, I turned my attention to the jetty of the adjacent Newport Harbor. Shorebirds generally don't like the jetty as much as the natural rock formations, but they must have forgotten that this morning; I quickly spotted a few Black Turnstones. I watched a different grayish shorebird I suspected was a Wandering Tattler until it took flight, showing no white in the wings or tail. Wandering Tattler indeed. My first new Bigby bird. At last, the morning seemed to be shedding its grim atmosphere.

The mist appeared to be burning off a bit, so I climbed back to the top of the bluff to take another shot at seawatching. After scanning and finding nothing except the same shearwaters and dolphins, I turned my attention to the terns swirling and diving over the ocean, hoping to pick out a more unusual species. In just a few minutes, I did, though you wouldn't guess judging just by the name - Common Tern. This species is a rather uncommon migrant through Orange County, and I missed it for my Bigby list last year. This tern, in fact, led me to my next new Bigby bird as it was flyin' roun' an' stuff over the ocean: three Red-necked Phalaropes bobbing around amongst the waves.

I was busy watching another tight little knot of phalaropes buzzing in for a landing beside their buddies when a feminine voice brimming with curiosity asked "Whatcha lookin' at?"
"Seabirds," I replied laconically, jerking my head to acknowledge the woman's presence.
"Seabirds?" She repeated in a voice that suggested that she doubted the existence of such creates.
"Way out," I said, nodding, affirming their existence, as she continued walking down towards the beach.

They - the hordes of beach goers - streamed by, I'm sure all curious, but most not bold enough to ask what a scruffy teenager was doing pointing something that looked vaguely like a missile launcher out to sea. Most people just walk by, sometimes so busy staring that they trip over my tripod. At least a couple people usually end up talking to me about birds or cameras each time I go seawatching. The tourists are part of the fun of seawatching - scaring them, having conversation with them, ignoring them, or impressing them by informing them that yes, I really did ride that bike twenty-one miles to get here just to look at birds.

After the interruption, I looked back at the phalaropes only to discover a dozen more had arrived. Small parties flew by often, some of them stopping, others hurrying on. Lots of phalaropes. The novelty of the phalaropes wore off after a while, so I pointed my scope farther offshore. The decreasing amount of mist revealed increasing numbers of shearwaters. Lines of dozens of Sooty Shearwaters cruised by, and after some careful scanning I spotted a single Pink-footed Shearwater and a few Black Storm-Petrels. Then...

OHMYGOSH A SMALLDARKBIRD BUZZINGTHEWATERACLID! I followed it in my scope, carefully noting characteristics that identified it as a Rhinoceros Auklet. It was mostly dark (not smartly black and white like a Xantus's Murrelet), but with a paler belly and slower wing beats than a Cassin's Auklet. Needless to say, this was another Bigby bird for me, and a decent one at that - I think it's pretty neat to have an alcid on my Bigby list.

Around ten, I decided to leave after over two hours of seawatching. I packed up my affects and bade goodbye to the seabirds, shorebirds, and beach goers as I wearily pedaled off down the street in the direction of home. Seawatching is always enjoyable (at least when there are seabirds to see!), but it is particularly fun to do by bike. It's a long trip (I put forty-four miles on my bike today) and requires an early start (I had to leave my house before a lot of the birds woke up!), but the payoff is worth it.


Cathy Carroll said...

Neil, very good post of some birding to be envied out there in California.

Bob and Cynthia Kaufman said...

Developing a writing style! I like that. Keep it up, Neil!

corey said...

Great post...I especially liked the opening paragraph from the squirrel's perspective.