Tag Archives: shearwaters

Some reef encounters captured in blink of eye

Published November 26, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

One of the pleasures of being home after an adventure is sorting photos of the trip. But as I go through pictures of my recent sailing trip in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I’m also enjoying the images my mind took when it was too dark or too distant to shoot, or when I didn’t feel like looking at something marvelous through a lens.

One late afternoon, after sailing all day, the weather took a turn, and we raced for shelter in a mainland waterway called Island Head Creek. As our boat turned the corner of the large island protecting the creek’s entrance, the world, like magic, changed from screaming wind and bucking boat into flat, calm silence.

Craig dropped the anchor, and we stood on the deck watching herons, cormorants and other water birds hunt for fish.

“Look!” Craig said, “A crocodile!”

The estuaries along the northern Queensland coast are famous for salties. But no. When the brown back Craig had seen reappeared, the creature also raised its head to take a breath. It was a dugong.

Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s version of the manatee, both called sea cows and both endangered species. Like manatees, dugongs are slow, harmless vegetarians that graze on sea grasses in tropical creeks, rivers and estuaries.

When another of these rare marine mammals appeared on the other side of the boat, we watched the two pop up for air and dive down for food for a glorious half-hour. In the meantime the setting sun turned the water pink, then orange, then dark red. Island Head Creek — a dugong sanctuary, we later learned — became one of our favorite anchorages.

Another series of events I downloaded in brain only were endless flocks of shearwaters and black noddies. Soon after I wrote that I missed seeing flocks of seabirds at sea, we sailed to what’s known as the Bunker Group, the line of atolls that form the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The Bunkers’ coral reefs encircle sandy, wooded islands where black noddies build nests in trees and wedge-tailed shearwaters dig burrows for their eggs and chicks.

Near these outer reefs and islands, the water swarmed with seabirds, the shearwaters riding the air currents above the waves, and both species gathering in thousand-bird feeding frenzies, called bird piles in Hawaii, over schools of small fish.

Usually when one of us spots a bird pile, we point it out to the other. Not in the Bunkers. The birds were so abundant that we just sat in the cockpit, marveling in silence as Honu sailed through the feathered masses.

Near the end of the trip, three bottlenose dolphins came rushing to Honu to ride its bow wave. I made my way to the bow, purposely leaving the camera in the cockpit. I wanted to look at the dolphins the way they look at me. And it happened. As I looked down, a dolphin turned on its side to look up. Eye to eye, we shared a moment.

In this age when the phone I carry in my pocket is a camera as well, I often feel compelled to take pictures of everything that happens. No need. Without photos my experiences are as bright and animated in my memory as if I were watching a video. Fortunately, my senses record in high def.

Help wedgies by turning lights off near shorelines

Published November 5, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Wedgies, or wedge-tailed shearwaters, have haunting nighttime mating calls that can sound like groans or screeches. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

Wedgies, or wedge-tailed shearwaters, have haunting nighttime mating calls that can sound like groans or screeches. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

Honu is still inside the Great Barrier Reef, but because we’re on the move and near neither reef, islands nor mainland, the sailing feels a bit like Hawaii. Except we miss the wedgies.

“Wedgie” is the nickname of the wedge-tailed shearwater, the graceful seabird that soars over open ocean waves, nearly touching wings to water.

The windier and wavier the better for these 12-inch-long birds with 2-foot-wide wingspans. In rough weather, wedgies zip through the air-water interface like feathered hovercraft.

I have loved these gray-backed, white-bellied seabirds from the first time I heard them moaning at Tern Island in Hawaii’s Northwestern chain. Their nighttime mating calls ranged from dying groans to tortured screeches, often so humanlike it sounded like we were hosting a wartime field hospital under the house.

But those agonized sounds come from the most charming of birds. Besides their bills forming a permanent smile, wedgies are gentle creatures, perhaps delivering a small peck in fear but quickly settling down in workers’ hands during rescues and ID banding.

Around the Hawaiian Islands, wedgies form what anglers call bird piles, feeding frenzies that occur when large fish chase small fish to the surface. Pity the little fish. In leaping free of tuna teeth, the fish winds up in the belly of a bird.

Anglers look for bird piles to know where to fish.

Bird piles often occur here inside GBR waters, but the ones we’ve seen consist of beefy crested terns, black and white birds that are always having a bad hair day.

Some of Australia’s GBR islands host wedgie colonies, but breeding time here is opposite Hawaii’s. Here the mated-for-life couples are just starting the work of digging a nest, brooding the egg and raising their one chick.

In Hawaii wedgie parents are done parenting for the year. For most of this month, their chicks will be flying from their burrow homes at Kaena Point, Black Point and several islands off Oahu. The lucky ones make it to the ocean on their maiden flights.

The unlucky will get disoriented by lights, hit wires and poles and end up on doorsteps, sidewalks and roads.

The good news is that often the downed youngsters are just stunned and can be saved.

You can help Hawaii’s wedgies by keeping near-shore lanai, garden and garage lights off through November. If you find a stunned fledgling, put it in a covered, ventilated shoe box (they grow up in holes so are calm there) and take it to Sea Life Park. Or contact official wedgie helpers at hawaiiwildlifecenter.org/seabird-fallout-response.html or oahuseabirdgroup.org/how-you-can-help.