A fresh wind blows off the Oregon Coast. A Kiwi rises above the crest of a wave, banks and drops into the trough, wingtip almost skimming the backside of the wave.
The New Zealander to which I refer is a sooty shearwater. I trust you weren’t thinking I was referring to the flightless Kiwi.
Each summer and fall we are visited by a variety of Kiwis, Aussies and Chileans. They make incredible journeys from the waters near Antarctica to Japan, Alaska and the West Coast on long, narrow wings that allow them to glide great distances with little effort. They travel halfway around the world seeking cold waters that support a rich broth of squid and small fish. It’s not often you can see shearwaters from land, but take a boat a few miles offshore and you will meet them.
The sooty shearwater is the most common. It is the size of a gull and sooty brown throughout. While storms chase gulls into the estuaries for sanctuary, gale-force winds provide a playground for shearwaters. They are masters of the air, rising into the forceful winds to garner energy then retreating to the surface where the winds are less violent as they continue their odyssey. Fishermen encountering flocks of thousands off the coast often refer to them as “sea swallows,” acknowledging their aerial prowess.
Most sooty shearwaters nest in burrows on small, predator-free islands surrounding New Zealand. Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand, aren’t as romantic as our fishermen and instead call them “muttonbirds.” They harvest the fat young for food while still in their burrows. This practice is closely regulated to protect populations.
Slightly smaller and darker short-tailed shearwaters pass by Oregon later in the fall. Most of these birds head for Tasmania and nearby islands off Australia to breed. They are also called “muttonbirds” for a similar reason.
Then there is the pink-footed shearwater, a less common species in our waters. They are paler and mostly white below and breed in the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. Robinson Crusoe Island of literary fame is part of this archipelago.
The final species regularly occurring off our coast is Buller’s shearwater. This Kiwi is bright white below and has a distinctively patterned black and gray back.
The last several years have seen smaller numbers of shearwaters off our coast. “The Blob,” a large patch of warm water hundreds of miles across, has settled in and has kept the cold, nutrient-rich waters from reaching the surface since 2013. Fewer nutrients means less food, and the pelagic birds head for more productive areas. I hope the coming La Niña may help restore the normal pattern, but we may be heading for a new and unfortunate “normal.”
Trips are available up and down the West Coast that will take you out onto the ocean to view these and other birds. Excursions usually last four hours or so and head offshore about 20 miles. Such outings may also find albatrosses, fulmars, jaegers and auklets, not to mention whales, porpoises and fur seals. A quick search on the computer for “pelagic birding” will find several opportunities. Welcome aboard.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.