In Hollywood's 2011 movie The Big Year, the seabirding guru "Annie Auklet" portrayed by Anjelica Huston is loosely based on Debi Shearwater. I use the term "loosely" because unlike in the film, Debi did not actually pull a knife on Sandy Komito, who was portrayed in the flick by Owen Wilson, a self-centered birding machine who would out-talk and deceive anyone to get what he wanted: more birds. This week I had the chance to bird with the cap-wearing sea bird expert, on two trips out of Monterey, California. The hat Debi donned today was an Island Conservation cap (visit islandconservation.org to learn about preventing extinction of island species) She received it for the work she has done in wildlife conservation, an area receiving just as much attention and effort from Debi as her birding trips- if not more. I learned that Debi's testimony as a plaintiff was instrumental in stopping the 30-year Eagle Take Rule, which allowed wind farms to incidentally kill Bald and Golden Eagles on wind farms for 30 years without penalty. The judge’s rule was called the Shearwater Decision. The Golden Eagle is actually Debi’s favorite bird; she shares her life with the eagles, which she knows by name- around her home in the foothills of California.
Out of all the different groups of birds in the world, how did you settle on seabirds?
I first started birding when I lived in Texas. We used the Peterson Field Guide in 1972. Many of the plates in that book are black and white illustrations. Warblers were colored. I was all excited about warblers. After a couple of years, I thought what about all these black and white birds? If you read the texts, a lot of the birds lived in open ocean. I thought “Who does that?”
Briefly I went to the East Coast. There I went on my first pelagic trip, and I loved it. Instantly, I loved it. I met a man who lived in Monterey, and I knew I was going to Monterey, I was married to an Army officer at the time. He said, “If you like sea birds you'll love California.” I did not want to go to California. I thought California had too many cars and too many people. I still think that, and it does.
So as soon as I got to Monterey, 10 days after arriving, I went out on a boat. It was unreal. I walked down to the harbor, and the ENTIRE HARBOR was covered with fulmars. Inside the harbor: everywhere. I thought, "Wow, this is pretty easy sea birding!" We pulled out of the harbor and I saw my first Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murres… I kept thinking, this is REALLY EASY!
So after the first trip, it was only a half-day trip in April 1976. I started talking to my friends who told me it was a big problem to get out on these boats. I thought, “Why doesn't someone just organize it?” So I organized a couple of trips for locals out of Santa Cruz.
Two years went by and I thought I was going to stay in California. This was 1978. I had a trip I organized, and we went out and saw a Streaked Shearwater, a seriously-rare Japanese bird. Then I thought someone should set up and organize these trips. I published a schedule and people came. That’s how it started. The whole thing started in my living room. Everybody that went on the boats, they were my friends. Afterwards they would come back to my house for dessert and coffee. Then it got bigger and bigger- people came and I didn't know who they were.
How has pelagic birding changed as technology developed?
Sea birding has changed a lot. First of all, when we started there wasn't a field guide for seabirds. Somewhere in the early 1980’s Peter Harrison’s sea bird book came out. That started to change everything.Same thing for marine mammals. Do you know how I learned my marine mammals? From a NOAA publication 444. It was all black and white photos of dead animals on beaches. Then more field guides started coming out. Another big change was digital cameras. Social Media.
In the beginning we put a bucket overboard with the thermometer. Now I subscribe to a service called Terrafin. It maps the surface temperature of the ocean and helps find upwelling areas where warm and cold water meet. Marine forecasts are better now than they used to be.
What advice would you give someone who has never been on a pelagic (seabirding) trip?
I’d start in Monterey. There’s nothing in the United States that’s better than Monterey Bay. Nothing!
It’s a half-moon shaped bay. It’s protected from the prevailing Northwesterly winds by the Santa Cruz mountains. It has a submarine canyon that’s as big as the Grand Canyon. Deep water is cold water. When everything in the ocean dies, it falls to the ocean floor and becomes detritus [dead and decaying organic matter] The combination of winds and currents causes something called upwelling, and that deep, nutrient-rich cold water comes to the surface and feeds the whole entire food chain from plankton to zooplankton, to blue whales. You can see the whole food chain in one day in Monterey. There’s no place better than Monterey. Marine ecologists consider 5 places in the world ‘the most productive places’ many of them consider Monterey #1.
Birding is fun… Birding is whatever you make it. It can be whatever you want to make it. That’s what I tell people. If you want it to be all-consuming in your life, it can be. If you want it to be just a casual hobby, it can be. If you want it to be something you do for photography, it can do that. It can be whatever you make it. I think it’s fun.
Check back to see an upcoming post on Pelagic Birding- what it is, where you can go and do it, and what you'll see!