Summer Time Is Beach time

Even though the summer sun can be quite hot here in Boca, in one respect we don’t have it nearly so bad as people who live farther north. Our maximum temperature is usually quite a bit cooler than the maximum in places like Washington, D.C. or New York. We may get warm sooner, and stay warm longer, but for us a killer heat wave is the mid-90s.

As Henry, Portier, and Coyne describe it, the average annual maximum temperature in southern Florida is 5° less than “most areas east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes” (7).

That said, June was an extremely hot month. And July hasn’t started off much cooler. So we’ve gotten in the habit of going to the beach early in the morning (by early I mean the crack of nine,  not the dawn patrols of my misspent youth) on the weekends. That gives us plenty of time to enjoy the beach before the madding crowds arrive.

Eric loves the water, particularly when it’s as calm as it was last weekend. Glassy water, bright but not yet punishing sun: a recipe for fun!

This weekend, though, the winds were out of the east, and the ocean was quite a bit rougher. We still had fun, but the waves even in the shallows were stronger, and we didn’t last nearly as long. One of the last waves rolled us over and we got a dunking that took a bit of the fun away. Home time!

Mommy and Daddy got a good bird sighting out of the rough conditions, though: a Magnificent Frigatebird, fairly uncommon in Palm Beach County (image from Wikipedia, as I rarely take my camera to the sand and salt of the beach):

Female frigatebird (Wikipedia)

Our bird was traveling incognito, though, with neither white on the throat (female field mark) nor red throat sac (male field mark) visible. I assume this means it was a male with its throat sac hidden, because females and juveniles always display the white.

It was definitely a frigatebird, though; there’s no mistaking that wing shape or the piratical air, or the ease with which it plies its trade in the breezes over the beach. It owes this last trait to the fact that it has “the greatest ratio of wing surface area to body weight of all living birds. This fact, together with the bird’s very long, deeply forked tail, makes the frigatebird aerodynamically unrivaled for soaring and maneuvering” (51). (I would say that the Swallow-tailed Kite puts on a pretty good show, but for all its grace it is noticeably “heavier” on the wind than the man-o-war bird.)

Stevenson and Anderson’s map shows only spring and winter sightings from Palm Beach County; nevertheless, I’ve seen them often enough in summer that I’m not in any rush to report this sighting. (Our Palm Beach County Checklist of Birds lists them as unusual in spring, fall, and winter, and Rare (even rarer than unusual) in summer).


Henry J.A., Portier K.M., & Coyne, J. 1994. The Climate and Weather of Florida. Sarasota: Pineapple Press.

Hope, B. 2003. Palm Beach County Checklist of Birds. Audubon Society of the Everglades.

Stevenson, H.M., & Anderson, B.H . 1994. The Birdlife of Florida. Gainesville: UP of Florida.

Monterey Bay pelagic birding

I took a very brief business trip to California last week. Flew in late, had a late dinner at the best Chinese restaurant in the world (Golden Willow in Concord, if you’re curious). Met clients in the SF Bay area on Thursday morning, then drove down to Monterey for Friday morning meetings. The entire trip was very short; I had only 45 minutes at Moe’s, and barely enough time for dinner with Mom coming and going from SFO!

Despite feeling rushed throughout, and having a mild case of sinus congestion and cold symptoms, there was no way I would have cancelled this particular trip. Because for once, in all my long years of journeying from Florida to California on business, I was able to end up in Monterey on a weekend that Debi Shearwater was running an all-day pelagic bird trip. So despite the cold (my own cold, and the coldish weather–I am now a Floridian, at least as far as my heat-shedding capillary layer is concerned), I was one of the eager crowd milling around in the dark on Fisherman’s Wharf at 5 a.m. on a Saturday waiting to embark on a 12-hour tour (no wimpy Gilligan-style 3-hour cruises here!).

Here is the approximate location of our cruise, thanks to Google maps. Look at that topography; maps like this make me wish I’d gone into ocean sciences:

View Larger Map

As a result of the unique properties of the land/water interface here (underwater canyon, coldwater current, prevailing winds, etc.), pelagic birding in Monterey Bay is a Big Deal. People fly in from all over the country, and from elsewhere, for these trips; war stories fly thick and fierce in the cabin on the way out in the darkness. Tales from remote Alaskan islands like Attu, big years past and present (one lady told me about her big year starting out in the Everglades this year), reminiscences of pelagic trips of yore–all this and more can be overheard as the group attempts to ward off nervousness and anticipation, seasickness and excitement through conversation.

I have little to add to this banter, being a veteran of no trips to Alaska, no Big Years, and just barely (now, after this trip) 500 bird species seen worldwide. I am content to take what birds may come (really, what choice does one have?), and perhaps go a little out of my way for those that won’t come close by (10 business trips to India so far and I have yet to visit Bharatpur, although I have been to other bird refuges quite a bit less famous that happened to be on my business itinerary–Ranganathittu, near Mysore, and Sultanpur, in Haryana, along with “the” spot in Delhi, Anand Arya’s stomping grounds, the Okhla bird sanctuary on the banks of the Yamuna). I plan my travel, when possible, around the opportunity to see birds, but I have yet to travel outside Florida exclusively to see them.

So as the boat cruises out to the Albacore grounds, wherever in Monterey bay those might be–we went south, I understand, because the day was so calm–I listen more than I talk, and I go over the basics of pelagic birds, trying to remember how to distinguish pink-footed from flesh-footed shearwater (easy, it turns out: despite the confusingly similar common names, the all dark underwing of the flesh-footed looks nothing like the salt-and-pepper underwing of the pink-footed). In fact, though, most of the shearwaters we encounter on this trip are Buller’s, with very clean white underwings; the rest are pink-footed, with much more dark intruding into the white areas. Late in the day we see the lone flesh-footed of the trip, almost entirely dark throughout, particularly in the fading light. Here, from top to bottom, are flesh-footed, pink-footed, and Buller’s shearwaters, as seen by my camera:

As we begin the cruise, though, I tick off other possibilities, too, wondering just how similar a light morph Northern Fulmar might be to Western Gull (not very, it turns out), or Black-footed Albatross to Short-tailed (never got the chance to find out, on this trip).

And I freeze. Despite having geared up with “windproof” and (in Florida, anyway) warm rain gear before I left, and having purchased at the last minute a “Hot Peppers” thermal undershirt to complement it, and wearing tights under my jeans, I was just plain cold for most of the day. Fatigued from the trip, yes, sick, yes, so slightly more susceptible to the chill, but I  really did think that I had prepared appropriately–that I had in fact “geared up.” And I was wrong. And this on a very mild day–no wind to speak of, except that generated by the boat, and almost no swell. No sun, either, which I hadn’t counted on; the lack of light made picture-taking with my little non-VR 70-300 telephoto zoom something of a challenge, I can tell you (oh, for some real glass, or at least a bit more light!).

While the main object of the trip was birds, perhaps the most exciting sight I encountered on the trip was on the way out, in the early gray light. I was one of the people situated almost perfectly to watch a Humpback Whale breach the ocean’s surface vertically, pirouette on its tail, and flop onto its back. It was quite a ways from the boat, and I hadn’t even gotten my camera out of the bag, so I was unable to snap any kind of shot at all, but so impressive an event was it that I’m sure I will carry the sight with me to the end of my days. Such enormous grace, combined with such enormous size! It’s no wonder people fought so hard to protect these charismatic animals once their plight came to public attention in the 1960s. Below is a photo from Wikipedia that gives some idea of what I saw, although I was much farther away from the show than this; everyone on board who saw it erupted into applause and oohs and aahs:

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Many another marine mammal was seen on the trip as well: among the cetaceans, fin whales, Arnoux’ beaked whale, and some common dolphins. A few pinnipeds as well: Harbor seal, California sea lion, Northern fur seal, and of course the sea otter. A few snapshots below to give an idea of the diversity. In the photos, I can’t even ID the whales, though, so I’ve included a few shots of pinnipeds from other trips, just to round it out:

But, as I said, the main point of this trip was birds. Birds, birds, birds! A partial list of the birds seen from the boat, including all 22(!) lifers, appears below. And then is the gallery, such as it is. For better pictures, I recommend visiting Abe Borker’s website; he saw all the birds we had on the trip, and has some lovely shots of previous trips; I assume he’ll be posting shots from this trip sometime soon.*

Species seen:

Black-footed Albatross

Northern Fulmar
Pink-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater

Black Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Brown Pelican

Brandt’s Cormorant

Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope

South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

Heermann’s Gull
California Gull
Western Gull
Sabine’s Gull

Elegant Tern
Arctic Tern
Common Tern

Common Murre
Xantus’s Murrelet
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Tufted Puffin

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

Spotted Towhee

* Many another photographer was in the boat as well. They were all sporting long telephoto lenses and seemed to take great delight in showing me camera-back displays of lovely clear, sharp photos of all the birds I was only able to capture as fuzzy dark blobs. 400+ photos I took, and fewer than 30 are fit to appear in the gallery, and those only because I processed the bleep out of them. I’m starting to save my pennies… It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools, but I’m not a workman here. I’m an amateur, pursuing this out of nonpecuniary interest; I can’t “invest” in a good quality lens. I have to “indulge” in it, or forgo it.

The seabird syndrome

Tony Gaston’s Seabirds: A Natural History (Yale UP, 2004) is a book-length exploration of an idea that he calls the “seabird syndrome.” Based on the idea that feeding ecology in the marine environment is what drove the evolution of all seabirds, Gaston’s treatment ties together almost every aspect of seabird life that one can imagine. Taken in this light, seabirds’ “low reproductive rates, long lives, deferred breeding, coloniality, and sexes that behave alike and look alike” can be explained by that one element of their lives: their feeding ecology. All of the above characteristics of seabirds “form part of a strongly correlated suite of adaptations that characterise birds that feed far out at sea” (22).

Since I don’t have much experience with this group of birds, I can only absorb information that looks like it will help me when I do get out to sea. Here’s something that seems to make a lot sense:

At first sight, the most salient characteristic of seabird wings is their length. The Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of all living birds and even small gulls seem to have huge wings. However, when we examine wing length in relation to mass, we find that, for a given weight, the wings of seabirds are not dramatically different from those of other birds, especially swallows, swifts, and birds of prey. The wings of seabirds appear particularly long for two reasons: the tail is usually rather short…and the wings tend to be narrow. (51)

That’s the kind of information I’m looking for in a book about an unfamiliar taxon (seabirds isn’t technically a taxonomic rank, but a convenient grouping). Gaston gives me information in a way that I can process it easily. Short tails and narrow wings provides a “long-winged jizz” that, when analyzed with respect to mass, is surprisingly similar to landbirds.

Another example of Gaston’s helpful presentation is in a discussion of how the shearwaters (fulmars, gadfly petrels, and shearwaters) hold their wings in flight. All the bird ID books mention that fulmars “look like gulls but flight pattern is different.” Well, Gaston tells us why the flight looks so different:

Initially, the large gulls appear somewhat convergent with the medium-sized tubenoses (fulmars, gadfly petrels and shearwaters). However, the way that the two groups use their wings is very different. No one can mistake the flight of a shearwater for that of a gull. Despite the difference in relative wing length, shearwaters look more like auks than like gulls, in flight. This is because they hold their wings very stiffly while flapping and gliding. Some albatrosses, large petrels, and shearwaters have a very broad patagium (skin membrane) between the humerus and ulna, supported at the trailing edge by a tendon that is held away from the ‘elbow joint’ by a small bone. The patagium thus formed is an important part of the gliding surface (Warham, 1996), making these large tubenoses somewhat convergent with Pterosaur dinosaurs (pterodactyls: having no feathers they depended entirely on the patagium, like modern bats). In addition, the tubenoses have a system by which the elbow joint locks in place, reducing the muscular tension required to keep the wing extended, but reducing its flexibility (Yudin, 1957). (55)

Gulls may be less efficient than petrels at long-distance flight, but they are much more versatile and manoeuvrable at slow speeds. (56)

How’s that for explaining the “stiff-winged” flight of the Northern Fulmar compared to the “deep, steady” wingbeats of many gulls?

Not everything Gaston writes about is entirely accurate, though. When he talks about how birds use the feet differently for take-off and for swimming, he draws an analogy between swimming humans and swimming birds that is a bit off:

The use of alternate strides at take-off, where the feet may function to raise the body off the water more than to create forward thrust, probably maintains greater continuity of thrust between wing-strokes than would be possible with feet together. However, the preference for using feet together underwater, rather than alternating, is harder to explain. It is consistent with the practice in frogs and marine mammals, but contrasts with the most efficient form of swimming in our own species (crawl beats breaststroke) and the technique preferred by Polar Bears. (61, my emphasis)

I’m not familiar enough with the underwater propulsion of birds to comment on relative efficiencies of alternate versus simultaneous recovery motions, but I can say that Gaston has never had to go through entire weeks of swim practice with an injured shoulder. Anyone who has, and remembers the hours upon hours of “kicking-only” practices will attest that underwater “dolphin” kicks, with feet together, are much more efficient than  the crawl kick, with alternating legs. There’s almost no comparison in speed and power.

Of course, Gaston is talking about the underwater kick motion of birds, which apparently recover to the side, rather than underneath (except for penguins, right?), and who can’t do the dolphin kick, presumably “because the rigid design of the body skeleton, in which the majority of the vertebrae are fused, prevents them from developing the sinuous body motion evident in seals and dolphins” (61). But even the breaststroke kick performed underwater is relatively more efficient for humans than the freestyle kick, when you throw in the arm motion that is occurring simultaneously. There simply isn’t an “underwater crawl” motion that would make sense, hydrodynamically.

Here are Gaston’s conclusions on the evolutionary adaptations that make the seabirds as a group distinct from landbirds:

The things that are most characteristic of seabirds, compared with other birds, are their well-developed salt glands, webbed feet and the rearward position of the legs. [… S]pecialisations for marine life do not necessarily preclude a return to land. On the other hand, landbirds are totally excluded from moving out to sea by the wetability of their plumage. It is the development of methods for staying warm and dry at sea which constitute the essential element in colonising the sea. (66)

To sum up: Seabirds have all evolved to handle one important ecological requirement: finding enough food in a large, unpredictable offshore environment that they can not only ensure their own survival, but that of their offspring as well. Different species have done this in a couple of different ways. Albatrosses, for example, have huge bodies and wingspans, and spend days on the wing foraging over vast distances to gather enough food to get back to the nest and feed their chick. Auks, on the other hand, have small bodies, remain fairly close to shore, and make repeated trips daily to feed their offspring. But what they have in common is their adaptation to the marine environment: the seabird syndrome.

Fish oil

First, thanks to all of you on Facebook for wishing me a happy birthday; I did indeed enjoy a wonderful day. Seeing all your good wishes brought a smile to my face; I understand that’s somewhat out of character for the traditional man turning 40. So be it. I’m smiling, so thanks, y’all! Now, yesterday’s post was about WD40, which is NOT made of fish oil. So today’s post needs to be about, well, fish oil.

What is it good for? Everyone knows, nowadays, that fish oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which apparently we need in order to be healthy. (Can you imagine what life would be like if we had only lean acids in our bodies? We’d probably all die of scurvy, or something.) These fatty acids bioaccumulate* in the fish (they don’t produce the acids themselves), which makes oil derived from fish high in the substances, and, it has been argued, has led to overfishing. (Industries such as commercial fishing, whose existence depends on denying this possibility, naturally tend to disagree. And some of their arguments are quite reasonable. But I’d hate to rely on the fox’s assessment of the health of the henhouse population…)

In addition to the fatty acids found in fish oil, the substance itself used to be used as a digestive aid, a medicinal tonic, and many other things. In addition to all these properties, it turns out that fish oil–in this case, a cupful of unrefined cod liver oil ($100+/gallon back in 1990)–is absolutely what you need to attract a large gathering of pelagic birds. Here’s how Rich Stallcup describes it in his incredibly useful book, Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific (Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 1990):

On 27 August 1983, Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit, and I were 40 miles west of Westport, Washington, with a boatload of birders. The trip was going great, the water was glassy, and there were lots of birds. Four working shrimp trawlers were accompanied by over 5,000 shearwaters of five species, and we had seen Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and several alcids on the way out. It was still quite early in the day, and Terry said, “Shall we go out to albatross habitat?” Sure! So we left this area of teeming activity, put the bow on the compass’s big green W, and powered west. Birdlife promptly declined, and there was only the odd Sooty Shearwater to be seen. When we got to about 50 miles, there wasn’t even that. I did a 360-degree scan. Nothing. Nothing but water, and Bill and Terry said, “This is the spot. Stop the engines.” Passengers were glancing at each other in wonder as gloppy, smelly, clear liquid bloop-blooped from plastic bottles, clinging to itself in patches, floating on the surface of the sea. I scanned. Nothing. Then, at a great distance, a wheeling albatross! Within ten minutes there were 61 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting near the boat, a Long-tailed Jaeger circled near by, and two Tufted Puffins came roaring in like spiraling, black footballs and splashed to stops. Sabine’s Gulls and storm-petrels appeared from nowhere. Everyone was impressed.

Of course, as Stallcup writes, it doesn’t always work this way, but when it does, I can just imagine the excitement that must come over the boat. And, in a few days, I hope to be able to see it, or something like it, with my own eyes, when I take my first pelagic trip.

When I get back, I’m going to try to drum up some interest in our local Florida birding group to motor out to the Gulf Stream some day to see what’s what. I just recently got some leads on local captains who might not mind a charter without the pressure of finding fish…

* Now, don’t get all excited just because I used the word bioaccumulation. The word may have come to prominence because it’s how environmental toxins like DDT move up the food chain, but the word, and the process itself, is fine, even necessary. We rely on bioaccumulation constantly. Can you imagine trying to go out and capture or manufacture each and every essential protein or nutrient in the food chain independently? Much better to rely on bioaccumulation in the food web, from primary producers (autotrophs like algae and phytoplankton) on up, to aggregate all of these packets, which we then just appropriate through the magic of killing and eating those animals in which the required substances bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation, at its simplest, is just digestion.

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.

Sea and Coastal Birds of North America

Some interesting tidbits from Scott Leslie’s Sea and Coastal Birds of North America: A Guide to Observation, Understanding and Conservation. Nothing unusual, but nothing I’d thought of before either:

  • Seabirds (gannets, alcids, cormorants) tend to bunch up for breeding, favoring crowded, but out-of-the-way sites.
  • Shorebirds, on the other hand, disperse widely for breeding, but bunch up at migratory stopover sites.
  • Sea ducks, which we don’t see down here in South Florida, tend to be widely dispersed almost all the time, but might flock in winter.

The fact that I didn’t know these things about this entire category of birds means I’d better do some more observing, and some more reading…