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Sea Changes: Birding Washington’s Coast Pt. 2

We’d been standing there for nearly an hour and they hadn’t stopped. Any one moment framed at least 50, sometimes more, Sooty Shearwaters, winging past in what seemed an infinite supply. No number of encounters with this display make it less jaw dropping.

Birds of the order Procellariiformes are amazing enough as pan-oceanic conquerors, spending nearly their entire lives at sea. Throw in the reason for their other name, tubenoses, and one becomes even more enamored of their abilities. Their nasal adornments relate to two key traits. One, which pelagic birding trips take full advantage of by “chumming” the water with fragrant fish bits, is their ability to sniff out food (potentially) from miles away (and find their specific burrow when returning from nocturnal hunting in the case of some species). The streams of bird, which appear to be coming from the horizon, when chumming on a pelagic trip (scenting the water with fragrant fish bits) is quite miraculous. Equally amazing is a nasal gland at the base of their nostrils, allowing the birds to drink seawater (in tandem with complex metabolic pathways) and excrete excess salt. This is either a slow drip which follows the grooves of the bill or a blasting snort in the case of storm-petrels. These traits took careful study to understand and are truly marvels of evolution (then again most things are when using the refined lens of scientific understanding), but their lives at sea, through storm and fair weather, appeal to the poet as well.

Adam and I convinced ourselves that by standing on a salt-sprayed breakwater and staring at the constant stream of birds before us, we might pick out a rarer species in the milieu of wings. Sooty Shearwaters are one of the most abundant bird in the world, and this was an excellent example of their abundance. We tried to sieve through them as thousands sped by, giving the impression that they’d never stop.

Abundance should not be confused with resiliency. Sooty Shearwaters have seen a decline in recent years and the reasons for this are likely complex. People hunt their young in large quantities, at least a quarter of a million taken in season. In New Zealand (and elsewhere) they are called muttonbirds (along with other nesting shearwaters) and fetch a good price, providing food and income for traditional Maori hunters. This hunting is probably a drop in the bucket towards decline, but in tandem with a floundering global fisheries due to climate change and over fishing, predation by exotic species on their nest islands, and by-catch from commercial gill netting, it’s not inconsequential. Bird Life International estimates that the world population is around 20 million, but no one has actually quantified their global decline. One study of nesting populations in the Northeast Island of The Snares, off New Zealand, saw a decline of burrows from around 3.2 million in the early 1970s to 2 million in the late 1990s (around a 37% decline). You can’t gauge a huge world population off of one nesting colony, but it’s certainly telling.

Sticky with sea-spray, I was thinking more about how difficult seabirds are to protect, than searching for a rarity in the mix. These birds were headed to New Zealand, but spend their lives in bodies of water controlled by dozens of countries, and in a wilderness that people are still trying to grasp. Their islands are an obvious fulcrum for preservation, but as these birds span thousands of miles yearly, it’s obvious other things need consideration. Without abundant fisheries, these birds could easily disappear.

Standing on the breakwater, I looked into grays harbor, once a thriving series of ports, now increasingly derelict. People logged too much (still do), people fished too much (still do), people wasted precious natural resources (still do). Sooty Shearwaters don’t eat salmon, but I couldn’t suggest over-fishing of salmon doesn’t relate, we might not understand all the connections. Even logging deep up the river valleys of the Olympic peninsula is connected to fisheries. Deforestation encourages erosion, which changes the sediments that flush into the ocean (and the fish that breed in the rivers). In moments like these, the world seems entirely hopeless and out of control, until I focused back on the beauty before me.

Sometimes Sooty Shearwaters aren’t nearly as close to shore. They were close now that I could have lobbed a rock amongst them as they passed. The Ocean Shores Jetty has always been a great spot for birders, providing a viewpoint into the Pacific and habitat for choice shorebirds that enjoy rocky shorelines instead of tidal mudflats. I wanted to find a Wandering Tattler or some turnstones, and to venture out to where two boys were fishing amongst the dangerously breaking of waves. The masses of Sooty Shearwaters seemed closer where they stood. But, my common sense got the better of me, and I merely crawled out halfway, slipping over the rocks, juggling fragile equipment I decided I’d like to keep whole.

Instead I talked to a couple who expressed curiosity in the copious birds. This may seem strange, considering the spectacle at hand, but no one except this couple appeared particularly piqued by it. Did they not see them? Did they simply not care? Birders are inherently observant people, whether through meticulous practice or by intuitive gift, so it’s always an astonishment to them when no one seems to notice anything but the most outlandish events, like when a gull plops on their head (or Bald Eagles). So, I didn’t veil my enthusiasm at their simple question of “what are those birds,” and breathlessly gushed to these unsuspecting souls about tubenoses, and nest colonies, and figure eights around the Pacific Ocean, and, and, and.

After over an hour of standing, watching the stream of birds, and hoping for another species of shearwater or petrel, we decided to move on. Darkness was not too far off and we had a long drive up the coast to Kalaloch, where we’d camp for the night. Turning our backs on the shearwaters, we clambered down the slick boulders of the jetty, getting out of the wind and water for the day. This same display will happen next year and has been happening for thousands of years, regardless of people. My hope is that we’ll not be the end of it.

Here’s a silly little video I made of the Shearwaters, condensed to 42 seconds from 2:40 seconds. (Watch in HD)

Postscript: While not about Sooty Shearwater decline, this article about sardines and Brown Pelicans came out right after I posted.


  1. kathy

    These birds seem to be flying in a northerly direction but you mentioned they are heading to New Zealand. Also, are they just airborne all the time between islands or do they settle on the water ever?

    • Brendan McGarry

      Good questions!

      They are flying North! But that’s just at the moment, they’ll eventually make their way south. It’s related to foraging.

      They do land, but they are well adapted to efficient, long flights.

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