My brother died 25 years ago on July 4th. It’s our tradition to light a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I couldn’t do that this year; I was in a car headed to an island in Maine. Here, birds abound, which Marco would have loved. When I arrived at the island, I took the only existing paper copy of a letter, from Marco to our mom, and I retyped it onto a computer, so that the cloud can have it. Marco wrote it in 1978 when he was 19 years old.
September 12, 1978
I went out on a pelagic—open sea—birding trip. Without boring you to death with details, the pelagic trip off Westport, Washington, is the best in North America, perhaps the world. A large (20 to 30-man) salmon-fishing type boat goes 30 to 40 miles out into the Pacific Ocean where only great ships and the tuna fishing fleet occupy the great swells that one has to cross over the Continental Shelf to see. Birders from all over the country flock to Westport for these trips—New York’s best birder, one of Louisiana’s, three of Washington’s plus less experienced birders from all over the state and elsewhere. I was scheduled to go on Saturday’s trip; the weather was awful and leader Terry Wahl (a legend) cancelled for only the third time in eleven years. Luckily, three spots were left for Sunday’s trip—one for me and my two friends who accompanied me from Seattle, a three-hour’s drive. Weather on Sunday was quite acceptable and we went out.
Several species of gull—small, graceful ones, large, aggressive ones, peculiar gray-bodies ones seen only at such ocean ports, accompanied us out of Gray’s Harbor. Soon we were amidst flocks of shearwaters, smaller cousins of the albatrosses, sleek, gull-sized birds with long, amazingly thin wings. These birds were delightful—I christened them sea swifts, for they flew quickly, rarely flapping, mainly staying aloft on thrilling glides, rocking side to side often inches above the waves, sometimes disappearing behind one. They indeed seemed to “shear the water,” hence their name. Adapted for an ocean life, they are seen ashore only in their remote breeding grounds on rocky islands off New Zealand or South America. We were at sea! Immediately, there was a bird-watching challenge in this new environment—three species of shearwaters to tell apart! The most abundant was the small, dark, swift-flying sooty shearwater. Occasionally a smaller, lighter one with dark wing markings would fly by—this would be Buller’s; a large shearwater, dark above, light below, would be pink-footed.
Then there were the alcids to learn. Alcids are small birds, related to the gulls but not resembling them—most look like a cross between a duck and a penguin and have so much trouble taking off that one would guess that they would eventually lose their powerful flight. The cutest of the six species we saw from the boat (and the best-known) was the comical tufted puffin.
Throughout the trip we were delighted by flocks of graceful, white arctic terns diving for fish, chasing each other for fun, screeching weirdly as they whipped by the boat. These delicate “miniature gulls” occupy a singular place in the bird world as they migrate from the Arctic breeding grounds to their Antarctic wintering territory—all over water (and rarely, if ever, swim!)—an annual round trip of 25,000 miles, for the longest annual migration of any bird.
With the terns were always one of a trio of pelagic species, the pomarine, the parasitic, and the long-tailed jaegers, graceful, dusky birds halfway in appearance between their relatives the gulls and the terns. Their reason for accompanying the terns? Their method of feeding is to attack fish-eating birds, dive at them, chase them, harass them into dropping their fishy meal, whereupon the jaegers, built for speed, dive down and retrieve the food for their own. I loved the long-tailed, smaller and sleeker than the other two, with a characteristic pair of long, thin tail feathers and less of a robbing habit than its two brothers. It was a whole new world to observe and get to know. The aerial dancing of the terns, the beauty of the Sabine gull with its art-like black-and-white wing pattern, the unique habit of the jaegers, and the novelty of the shearwaters and alcids all thrilled me in an uncommon way. But can you believe I have not yet mentioned the highlights of the trip?
Not all that long after we had entered the open sea I happened to glance to starboard and saw what was apparently a shearwater. It was a large dark bird with ridiculously long, thin wings. But, no, these wings were so long that they seemed to go on forever—where I expected them to end just turned out to be the bend in this bird’s wings. These thoughts took about a second to pass through my head when I heard my voice scream out, “Hey, it must be….it’s an….an albatross!” And it was—a black-footed albatross, an admittedly drab and small (wingspan “only” 6 ½ to 7 feet) albatross as albatrosses go, but the only one regularly appearing in the Northern Pacific, and there are none at all in the North Atlantic. Still, all the intrigue, folklore and fascination of these incredible birds hit me as I marveled at the size of this bird that has somehow figured out how to fly without flapping wings that are so thin and stiff that they seem to defy all of Newton’s law of physics. As he rose several feet with one desultory flap of those great wings and glided away astern to disappear behind a large swell, I was consoled by the knowledge that we would see more of them and that the even larger, quite rare, Laysan albatross had been seen somewhere out here earlier in the week by an interested tuna fisherman.
You may remember that my “life list”—species seen—has continued to grow and as we left the harbor that morning I had seen 289 species. The feeling between my good friend and fellow birder Mike Donahue and me was that I would hit 300 sometime on the boat trip and, of course, all the way out we joked about how neat it would be to see that elusive Laysan albatross (seen only a handful of time in the history of the state) for my 300th bird, if at all. I do not remember the exact order but when I saw the south polar skua, a type of jaeger, I remember first the thrill I always feel when I see a new species—then I made a mental not of all the bird’s field marks as interpreted by one of our excellent guides. Then I would announce to Mike, “Hey, that’s number 294, six to go!” I do remember my first view of that attractive long-tailed jaeger and Mike asking aloud, “How many’s that?” A quick tabulation and I replied, “That’s 299, next one’s 300!”
Soon after, the boat stopped and Terry Wahl went to the back of the boat and tossed chopped-up fish and other seabird delicacies into the water. This attracted the omnipresent gulls which in turn attracted some other birds—a shearwater glided past, a jaeger examined the scraps in the water and dove down for a bite. Some more black-footed albatrosses showed up. Suddenly, the air was full of birds, some sitting in the water, some soaring overhead, some gliding next to the boat. The excitement brought even the seasick people out of the cabin. The seas were tall and one could see only a short distance in any direction. The stage was thus set for the most thrilling moment in all our lives, for when the Laysan albatross came gliding in over a nearby wave, it was suddenly within a few yards of the boat. As it banked its 85-inch wingspan past the boat, grown men, men who had seen birds never before or since seen on the continent, who had spent more time at sea than I ever will, men whose names I had read in books and dreamed about, these men were jumping up and down, screaming on the top of their lungs, “Laysan albatross! Laysan albatross!” “Oh, my Gods,” “Wows,” “Jesus Christs” and other gasps and squeals were heard everywhere. Camera shutters clicked, movie cameras whirred as the glorious beast with its dark wings, white body, gray eye patches huge, long bill and a wingspan surpassing even that of the bald eagle wheeled and glided nonchalantly by the boat. Great disappointment when it disappeared behind a wave, then more delighted sighs as it reappeared a moment later. Mike and the New Yorker and I came so close to it we could nearly touch it as it slipped past the bow where we were standing; albatrosses are known for their tameness. Indeed, on their breeding grounds they can even be petted and fondled by humans. This was one of those times when nothing else seemed to matter. We were all wet from the spray yet we didn’t notice it. Smiles came to the pale faces of those unfortunates who cannot handle the rough seas. The captain, no more than a salmon fisherman, came out of his cockpit to get a good view of the bird. And then it was that I realized—the Laysan was my 300th bird.