Pacific Birds of Opportunity 14 August 2012
Gulls are opportunists, no doubt. So are ornithologists and bird photographers. For now, in my flight of fancy, I wish to share a few images from this day. Since my own “rules” for the blog is that each day in nature is devoted a single entry, this is one blog entry that will grow. It was a very big day, so come back again and stay tuned!
Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula! We enjoyed a day of beauty and great luck. Hurricane Ridge provided a spectacular show as Pacific Ocean sea fog rolled into the valleys and ascended as cloud cover into the high country, wrapping and embracing snow-capped mountain peaks and glaciers. Broad-leafed alpine lupines and magenta paintbrush flowers were in full bloom, and Sitka black-tailed deer fawns made appearances in protective woodlots.
A lunchtime hike and a day of “making miles” by car put us (delightfully) behind “schedule.” What, in all of the beauty of Washington, especially in vacation, could dictate a schedule? Actually, that would be a ferry schedule.
We were the last car of the last ferry before sunset. We made it. As our ferry finished the short crossing and we were called to return to our vehicles, I noticed a rock pile full of gulls. Sprinkled along the white-washed rocks were Western Gulls, Glacous-winged Gulls, and, more exciting to a Wisconsinite, the Heermann’s Gulls so unique to the area. The sun dipped low on the horizon, warming the photography light and making my heart skip a beat. How great it would be to get to those rocks! That’s when I noticed the parking lot and easy access. It would be a reality!
Within minutes, I found myself sauntering along through a diverse group of gulls, shooting images and feeling very lucky.
A strange, high-pitched squealing or screaming soon caught my attention. While I had first thought it may be young gulls, my taxonomist’s brain quickly placed the sound as “new and unknown.” This was weird. I knew it was a bird, but it wasn’t anything remotely close to what I knew! I searched the rocks and quickly found the answer. Pigeon Guillemot! Alcid seabirds! While this may not be exciting for somebody living on the coast, this is bird Heaven for a Great Lakes mid-continent land lubber.
I sat on a rock and took on a low profile, waiting to see what would happen. Within minutes, Pigeon Guillemots were flying from open water to rocks and perching on their hocks just a few meters away! Here, before my eyes, one ecological lesson played out in grand fashion—Phosphorus cycling. As phosphorous, a valuable and limiting nutrient is extracted from the sea through the food web, it is the birds that fly the phosphorous high and above the sea. In their droppings, they deposit the valuable nutrient back along the edges of the sea where it slowly erodes from rock faces, back to the beginnings of the food web. It is the wings of sea birds that cycle the Phosphorus and so contribute to the continuity of life’s webs. Bird guano whitewash is beauty on the rocks.
I had always known from pictures that pigeon guillemots were black and white seabirds, but I never appreciated how unique they are. Bright red feet, to my sudden surprise, were complemented by a bright red mouth. In the evening light, these birds glowed.