Last year, while on a Shearwater Journeys trip, we had a Red-breasted Nuthatch land on the boat, far from the mainland. It is not unexpected to see landbirds way offshore during migration, although it is always confusing and more often than not disturbing. If we were in the Carribean, this would not be considered strange...millions of birds migrate between the U.S. Gulf Coast, Carribean islands and South America every year. But this is off the coast of California...no one knows why these birds are over the open ocean, where they are trying to go, and how often they make it back to land. Why are they out there? How could they get so lost? And then there is the truly deviant question...do they actually know what they are doing?
Particularly tired landbirds frequently alight on boats. This nuthatch joined our cruise a few miles west of the Farrallon Islands, a notorious vagrant trap and migrant hotspot during the fall. The nuthatch still had a lot of energy...we nervously watched it make timid forays from it's perch by the gaffing hook toward Southeast Farrallon Island, change it's mind 50 feet later, and return to its perch. Open water crossings are always risky for songbirds, particularly when there's a lot of gulls around.
Finally, the nuthatch set off without looking back. I watched it for as long as I could as it rollercoasted up and down just above the waves, until it was too far away to see. I have no doubt the bird made it back to the island, but it was a poignant moment to watch something so fragile flying with all of its tiny might, as the swells of the expansive Pacific sloshed just beneath it. A nuthatch, lover of conifers and high mountain ranges, could not (should not?) fully comprehend the depth, reach and power of the ocean...but there it was, completely out of its element, doing something braver than most of us would ever understand.
What does it all mean? And how do we access our inner nuthatch, the one that yank-yanks at our heartstrings? How can something that is so content to cling to the bark of a tree and make tin horn noises be more inspirational than most people I meet? These are the sorts of questions that waft into your brain as you perch at the top of a cliff, for hours on end, with only unconcerned cormorants and guillemots for company.