Monday, April 15, 2013

The Handsome Necromancer: Buller's Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater is a special bird, there is no doubt. Most west coast pelagic veterans agree that this is the best of the lot...better than South Polar Skuas, better than Long-tailed Jaegers, Tufted Puffins, Sabine's Gulls, and all the rest of the alcids, storm-petrels, shearwaters and even albatross. This bird leaves an indelible impact. You want to see more. When the birder wistfully longs for a day at sea, this is the bird that first pops into their head. Their eyes glaze over and they speak only in stammers and stutters. Yes...I have been that birder.

The grace and ease this bird possesses in flight makes most other birds look like they don't know how to use their wings. Brimming with refinement and poise, the clean lines of a Buller's Shearwater are just about unmatched in other seabirds...which is really saying something, because they only wear about three colors and they have a lot of competition.

When Buller's Shearwaters depart our waters in late October, they head for a piece of land that only a select few other California birds know of....New Zealand, close to 7,000 miles away as the shearwater flies. What a bizarre migration to take every year. Every Buller's Shearwater calls the Poor Knights Islands home...they nest on two islands and five other islets/seastacks, according to Birdlife International.

Little known fact: less than a century ago, the species was at the brink of extinction, with an estimate of a paltry 200 pairs on a main nesting island one season. What sinister culprit decimated the beloved Buller's? Feral pigs of course....when let loose into field and forest, pigs are champions of destruction, pushing more than a few species over the brink of extinction. Luckily for the shearwaters, New Zealand has a long and beautiful history of committing horrific acts of genocide to invasive species on its islands...thus the invading pigs were wiped out, and the shearwaters flourished. Drift-netting used to kill thousands of Buller's annually as well, but that practice has largely been outlawed.

Despite these important milestones in Buller's Shearwater history, there remains no convincing accurate estimate of their global population. Overfishing, climate change, as well as more temporary events (La Nina/El Nino) can dramatically alter the availability of prey, which in a bad scenario could cause their numbers to plummet within a few years. With such a limited breeding range, it's very important that they have a stable food source within a reasonable distance (which, since it's a shearwater, is probably a lot) of the Poor Knights Islands.

And now, for the necromancing. Before Europeans arrived, the Poor Knights Islands were the realm of the Maori. Buller's Shearwaters have been known to nest in Maori burial caves, and are postulated to use human bones as nest material. I'll let that sink in for a minute. This bird probably squeaks and honks to fallen Maori warriors in the afterlife...not what the Maori were hoping for, but incredible just the same.

How fucking cool would that be??? Learning of this has forced me to make an agonizing reappraisal of my affairs after death. I think the sky burial is out now, I need to recycle my remains in order to help the next generation of Buller's Shearwaters...and if a shearwater were to ever summon me from eternal slumber, I would be more than happy to oblige.

All photos were taken northwest of Half Moon Bay, CA.

1 comment:

  1. High five to that bird for using human remains. Amazing. 7,000 miles. The mind reels when trying to imagine how these scenarios evolved.

    When I was in the NPS, competing for natural resource project money, Hawaii's feral pig fencing ALWAYS got major $$. 'Cause those piggies DESTROY ALL. Plus, HI has about 50 million endangered species & habitats, so tho' you'd like to whine, you always understand why those projects get funded. So obviously critically important. Yay, feral pig killers!! =)