26 October 2007

30 minutes for the birds

11September2007, Tuesday, around 430pm
On the beach in front of the Visitor Center, 5 minutes south of the mouth of the creek:

The food's returned to the shoreline after a quiet week, and with it the masses of birds. Not quite as many as last weekend, but this afternoon it's the pelicans and gulls and their winged comrades putting on the display du jour, rather than humpback whales and sea lions. I watched their floating and flying and diving for much of the afternoon, trapped behind large panes of glass and isolated inside the building, unable to leave as I'd encouraged my coworkers to take advantage of the quiet afternoon to get out and about themselves. Not 'til nearly 4:30, did one of 'em return, providing me a brief visit beyond the lip of the waveslope to witness another spectacular marine extravaganza.

Squadrons of awkward, ungainly pelicans flew in haphazard swoops and swirls over a broad swath of of near shoreline. Gliding lazily 30 or 40 feet above the gentle waves, the pelicans appeared to stall in mid-air. Heads downturned, they tumbled from the sky, folding themselves into a tightly tucked position at the last possible moment and, plunging into the chilly Pacific,. They quickly resurfaced into a casual float, their throat pouches wriggling with freshly trapped prey. Through the binoculars, I actually caught the silhouette of a small fish through the transparent pouch of one pelican. They'd float comfortably atop the soft waves for a few minutes before lumbering skyward once again, anticipating the next plunge.

Several times, pairs or trios of Heerman's gulls mobbed the pelicans as they re-emerged from their shallow dives, attempting to jam their own heads into the pelican's mouth to snatch the freshly caught sardine (or anchovy? perch? smelt?). I didn't notice any of the gulls finding success in their poaching, but they were relentless. The pelicans shook their heads and broad pouches side to side and up and down several times to force the gulls away, before tipping their heads back like an American tourist downing tequila shots in Playa del Carmen and swallowing the small fish whole.

A bevy of birds swarmed the ocean this afternoon. A poor naturalist in my own right, I'm trying to figure 'em all out.

A gull with a black tipped beak. Good size. Like a western gull but with a mottled gray head. I looked it up later...first instinct being a herring gull. But on further investigation, perhaps it was an immature western gull? Or maybe an immature California gull? With several phases, a couple different looks to the juveniles, and variations on the variations, separating out the damn gulls is gonna be a challenge.

Plenty of double-breasted cormorants with hooked yellow beaks, float across the ocean's surface. Tucking their long necks into their chests, they dive suddenly, disappearing beneath the surface for a few moments.

Western grebes also float off-shore. Long, white necks, a yellow beak and black cap atop its head. Looked this one up too, and durned if it too might have a close cousin. Did the black cap extend over it's eyes, or not? I hadn't noticed. If the black covers the eyes, its a western grebe. If not, a Clark's grebe. Both are common here. I'll have to look again tomorrow.

Common murres, smaller, mottled brown and sharply pointed beaks float a bit farther out

The pelicans with bright white scalps...mating males perhaps?

Two shiny seals pop in and out of the surf in front of me. We watch each other for a few minutes before they lose interest and wander off.

An osprey glides overhead as we walk to the cars after closing the place up.

When I first ventured out on to the beach this afternoon, all the birds - off-shore and on the beach, moved away. A palpable sense that I'd disturbed the party hung in the air as they skittered or floated off a safe distance from me. I stood on the beach for 10 minutes or so. The birds on or over the ocean returned to their stations shortly. Those on the beach kept their distance.

When I sat down, cross-legged in the sand, with only my binoculars and pen working, the gaps in the sand between me and the birds shrunk 'til I was soon fairly surrounded amidst the flock. But as soon as I stood realizing I couldn't stay here all afternoon, the birds both on sea and land, lifted en masse and returned to the safe haven 50 yards down shore.

Hasta la proxima.

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