Blue-footed Boobies, Sula nebouxii                                        photo by A. Sternick


August must be a slow month for birding since my mind has turned to the fascinating topic of bird excretions.  It may also be because of the daily reminder found on my dock.  Early in the season the dock was guano-free, perhaps due to the policing of the nearby nesting Osprey which mobbed any intruding gull.  But now the Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls are back big time and the Osprey all seem to have given up the dock patrol, perhaps preoccupied with planning their upcoming long migration to the south.

Royal, Least, and Forster’s Terns, as well as an occasional Double-crested Cormorant are now all contributing to the mess.  The rotating gull sweep and wind socks help some, but I sense the Laughing Gulls are defecating on my poor plastic owl with vocal hilarity.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Seriously, guano is much more interesting than you’d think.  It represents millions of years of evolutionary success and has even caused wars among us enterprising and competitive humans.

Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia

All animals require dietary protein (composed of nitrogen-containing amino acids) for maintenance of body structure and function.  The metabolic breakdown products of proteins are a toxic nitrogenous waste that must not be allowed to accumulate.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus (the first step in guano creation)

In humans and other mammals these wastes are excreted in the urine as urea, dissolved in large amounts of flushing water.  First dinosaurs, and later birds, have evolved kidneys that have the ability to concentrate these wastes as uric acid, requiring only 1/20th the amount of water needed by us humans.  It’s these uric acid crystals that give guano its distinct white color that daily spots my dock.

Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra                           photo by A. Sternick

When various berries are ripe the spots are a slightly more pleasing pink, red, or blue, reflecting the diets of my avian friends.  If you examine the guano closely you’ll see small piles of tiny bone and shell fragments, the remains of fish and blue crabs finely chopped in the bird’s gizzard.  If so inclined I could monitor the contents of the birds’ excretions and publish a significant research paper.  I’m not so inclined.

Herring gulls, Larus argentatus

The word “guano” is derived from “huanu”, coined by the indigenous Quechuan people of the Andes and South American highlands to describe bird dung.  For at least 1500 years these people recognized the fertilizing power of guano, later shown to be due to its high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphates, and potassium.  Alexander von Humboldt introduced guano to Europeans in 1802, forever changing their desire for this valuable fertilizer.  It allowed much more intensive farming with significantly higher yields per acre.

While some Americans headed west to stake their gold-mining claims in California, others headed south to the guano islands to make their fortune.  The U.S. Guano Island Act of 1856 gave exclusive rights of guano deposits to citizens staking their claims on any unclaimed island.  Some of these small islands in the Caribbean and off the west coast of South America had guano deposits 50 meters deep.  100,000 indentured servants from China came to the New World in the 19th century, specifically to become guano harvesters.  The “guano rush” was on.  Conservation laws were enacted to protect the valuable islands and the guano-producing birds.

Double-crested Cormorants, Phalacrocorax auritus

The “best” guano is found along the dry western coast of South America.  The control of this guano paid a key role in the Chincha Island War of 1864-6, fought by Spain against an alliance of Chile and Peru.  Peru and Chile later fought each other in 1879 for this same guano.  Some people speculate that it may have been guano from Mexico, infested with the Phytophthora infestans mold, that cause the severe potato blight and famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century.

Pelagic Cormorants, Phalacrocorax pelagicus

Things began to quiet down in 1909 when the process of industrial nitrogen fixation became the primary way to produce ammonia-based fertilizers.  To this day, however, guano is still used as an effective natural fertilizer, and is especially cherished by organic farmers and consumers.

Northern gannet, Morus bassanus

Knowledge begets toleration.  Tomorrow as I hose off the dock I’ll not be mumbling about all the b.s., but rather pondering the structures of urea and uric acid and the eons that evolved the differing kidneys that excrete them.  And how enterprising man found a use for the foul of the fowl, and even fought wars over the control of it.  I’ll also consider planning a trip to South America and the islands, and maybe even see a Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, or a Peruvian Booby, the most prolific guano producers of all.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages


The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.

Pelagic Birding on Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, California

Monterey Bay, California

Up and down! Up and down!

From the base of the wave to the billow’s crown;

And amidst the flashing and feathery foam

The Stormy Petrel finds a home,–

A home, if such a place may be,

For her who lives on the wide, wide sea,

On the craggy ice, in the frozen air,

And only seeketh her rocky lair

To warm her young and to teach them spring

At once o’er the waves on their stormy wing!

Barry Cornwall–The Stormy Petrel


I have been smitten by the sea and things of the sea.  Sailing ships, war ships, and tales of the sea have been a life-long fascination.  The childhood confines of the freshwater lakes and limiting shores were adequate to learn the basics of sail, but I sought the greater possibilities of the salty seas.  The tides bring the possibility of distant, unencumbered travel, and even if never realized, the dream exists.  Add to this the lure of the sea birds.  Oh, there are the interesting shorebirds, hugging the coasts and capable of remarkable travel, and the ubiquitous gulls, but its the seabirds that inspire and intrigue most.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

Sea birds spend most of their time in or over the oceans, far away from the sight of birders, only seeking land for nesting on small uninhabited islands or arctic shores. They have plumage shades of brown, black, and white and most are magnificent fliers, reveling in the wind and waves. The large-bodied Albatross with long, narrow wings actually requires significant wind for flight.  In a few locations ocean currents bring prey close to shore and the birds can be seen with a scope from land, but if you want a good view you must go to sea.

The Albatrosses, Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, and Petrels are collectively known as “tube noses”, all having a tubular sheath (naricorn) on the upper bill encasing the nasal openings.  Jaegers and Skuas are predatory gull-like birds that chase other sea birds, forcing them to drop their catch.  Murres and Auklets are smaller, plump seabirds with bulky beaks and are related to the Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin of the east coast.

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross

Every birder at some point confronts the challenges of a pelagic adventure–its almost a right of passage, but not undertaken lightly.  There is the issue of transportation to a coast, and reserving a spot on a boat, neither inexpensive. Its usually cold and may be foggy or windy,  but the greatest issue is sea-sickness.  It tough to enjoy and photograph the birds when you’re green and hanging off the back-rail.  If one chooses to endure all this you prepare by having warm, water-proof clothes, water-proof binoculars of relatively low power to minimize the affects of the rolling boat, and some sort of protection of your camera and lens from the salt spray.

Common Murre

Common Murre

A couple years ago we planned our first trip to San Francisco and I was sly enough to convince my wife that we needed to also spend a few days in Monterey.  And oh, by the way, it just so happens that Monterey Bay is the mecca for pelagic birders and we’ll have just enough time to schedule such a cruise.  She good naturedly agreed to come along for the ride, but my only concern was her tendency for sea-sickness.  I’ve never been afflicted, and always secretly harbored the suspicion that this condition was primarily psychological, looking at the pitiful souls affected with an air of superiority–just buck up.

Debi Shearwater (previously Millichap) is a pioneer of pelagic birding, and started her Monterey company, Shearwater Journeys in 1976.  It was her boat that hosted the three competing birders whose adventures were chronicled in the film, “The Big Year”, as well as 70,000 other birders. It was my first choice.

Pomarine Jaeger, the largest jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger, the largest jaeger

We followed every sea sickness recommendation, ate breakfast at the prescribed time, took the pills, and showed up at the dock early for the cruise.  It was somewhat overcast, foggy, and cool as we boarded “Check Mate” and Debi gave us dozen or so voyagers the introductory speech.  The captain and her crew were great teachers and spotters, calling out the birds, as we left the harbor and made our way out into the rougher waters of Monterey Bay.  You could tell whether a bird was routine or unusual by their level of excitement, but to us they were all new and interesting.

Captain Shearwater, pre-cruise lecture

Captain Shearwater, pre-cruise lecture

Yours truly, armed and ready

Yours truly, armed and ready

It snuck up on me slowly.  At first you barely notice and try to deny it–you attempt to head it off by looking at the horizon.  Then the nausea builds; you break out in a cold sweat and literally turn green as you run to the back rail to publicly add your contribution to the sea level of Monterey Bay.  The chumming from the stern does not help your recovery.  The worst part was that I was the only one affected.  My wife sympathized but had no problem at all, none at all; how humiliating.  I no longer believe it is psychological.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

Despite my state I was able to see and photograph most of the sea birds that crossed our wake.  It was a good day.  I saw twenty life birds including sea birds:  Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Buller’s, and Sooty Shearwater, Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaeger, Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklet, Common Murre, and South Polar Skua.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

One thing about sea sickness–you recover quickly when the boat enters the flat water inside the breakwater and you reach solid ground.  We ended the day with a great dinner at a dockside restaurant, watching our boat quietly moored, no longer rolling with the waves.  I’m not sure if I have another pelagic cruise in my future, but at least for one day I witnessed the flight and beauty of these amazing birds.

Check Mate, at dockside

“Check Mate”, at dockside