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Natural Perspectives: The wildlife of our waters

September 29, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
(Courtesy Lou Murray )

Our missing summer seems to have found us. It's been so hot here that our chickens are laying boiled eggs.

Vic beat the heat this past weekend by taking a pelagic trip with his birding class. They joined members of Sea & Sage Audubon Society on a cruise on the Sea Explorer, one of the vessels operated by the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.

Vic reported that they had a fantastic cruise, with clear skies and glassy seas. The smoothness of the trip made it far easier for Vic and the other leaders to point out birds on the horizon and for the students to get their binoculars onto the birds.

The avian highlight of their trip was a flesh-footed shearwater, a species I had never even heard of. This was the first time that even the most experienced of the trip leaders has seen this species. Flesh-footed shearwaters are medium-sized, narrow-winged, brownish-black birds with light pink feet and pale pink bills with black tips. They spend their lives at sea except during breeding season.

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These migratory members of the puffin family forage widely over the Pacific and Indian oceans. They are occasionally seen on the west coast of the U.S. and as far north as British Columbia. The main breeding colonies are on Lord Howe Island in eastern Australia and on the coast of northern New Zealand, as well as a smaller colony off the coast of western Australia.

Like many other species, these shearwaters are in rapid decline. On Lord Howe Island, the amount of suitable habitat has declined by more than 35% since 1978. These shearwaters seem to be suffering the same fate as the much rarer California least terns and Western snowy plovers that breed at Bolsa Chica, Upper Newport Bay and on other Southern California coastal dunes. Development and recreational use of their historic breeding sites has put them at risk.

Urbanization of breeding sites is only one of the major factors in the decline of the flesh-footed shearwaters. These pelagic birds are frequently caught on long-line hooks of fishing vessels. Ingestion of floating plastic is yet another hazard that they face. The Pacific Ocean is becoming filled with miles and miles of floating plastic, a byproduct of our modern world. Vic reported that he was rarely out of sight of Mylar balloons floating on the ocean, and they went halfway to Catalina.

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