At sea with the birds

I’m getting ready for a pelagic trip in California in October, so I’ve raided the shelves at Broward County’s downtown library for reading material about seabirds. What I know so far:

  • Seabirds have evolved various strategies for excluding/excreting the salt that is an inevitable part of a life spent at sea. The most familiar such strategy is the development of tubes on the outside of the bill that seem to function as salt excreters and sense-of-smell enhancers.
  • Seabirds all look like gulls, and all gulls look alike. I’m joking, sort of. I’ve gotten pretty good at separating some gulls (ring-billed from laughing here in south Florida; Heermann’s from everything else out in California), but all the books say that Northern Fulmar superficially resembles a gull, and from the photos I’ve seen, some of the shearwaters look a bit like dark gulls as well. I’m sure that once I’ve seen a few for myself the separation will be easier to make, but for now, I’m, well, at sea.
  • Many seabirds don’t have to work too hard, once they get airborne, because the ocean provides plenty of opportunities for soaring on the prevailing breezes, or for strategies to “create” wind without needing to flap (dynamic soaring, slope soaring, etc.). Getting into the air is another matter, though, as anyone who’s seen the opening sequence of David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds can attest. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth getting it from NetFlix for the opening 5 minutes alone.
  • Northern Gannets plunge dive from great heights in order to reach great depths. I’ve seen them doing this from the shore at Cape Canaveral, and even from a friend’s condo in Boca Raton. Unfortunately, there is no regularly occurring equivalent species on the Pacific Coast; According to my Harrison, the only members of their family (the Sulidae) to have been sighted there are (1) the Blue-footed Booby, which normally hangs out in the Galapagos; (2) the Masked Booby, and the Brown Booby. All such occurrences are starred in his maps, not part of their normal range…

Nevertheless, boobies (and gannets) are so much fun to watch, that I’ve embedded a YouTube video of gannets diving off the coast of New Zealand:

In an effort to bring book learning to bear to supplement my lack of personal experience, I’m returning to Leslie Scott’s Sea and Coastal Birds of North America (2008, Key Porter Books; previously mentioned here and here) for its relatively informative (compared to a standard field guide), but still brief, species accounts. Trouble is, it only covers 50 “representative” species, so it’s no help if you want to learn the difference between, say, Sooty Shearwater, which it describes, and Buller’s Shearwater, or Pink-footed Shearwater, or Flesh-footed Shearwater, none of which are in the book. Still, for its small size and thorough discussion of the 50 species it does include, I like it very much.

Looking for more in-depth information, I’ll turn to Anthony Gaston’s Seabirds: A Natural History (2004, Yale UP/Christopher Helm) which covers in 10 chapters just about all you’d want to know about them: types of seabirds, adaptations that suit them to pelagic life, plumage, distribution, feeding behavior, migration & movement, breeding, population dynamics, etc. Don’t know how useful it will be for ID purposes, but as background knowledge it looks wonderful.

A third title I picked off the shelf on a whim is Ronald M. Lockley’s Flight of the Storm Petrel (1983, Paul S. Eriksson) which, according to the dust jacket copy is “the first book to look at all 21 species” of this “smallest and most fascinating of sea birds.” A few chapters are devoted to individual species (Leach’s fork-tailed storm petrel; Wilson’s storm petrel), while others are more general. I hope to get some good background knowledge from this title as well.

More, and more informed, commentary on these titles to come in October.