Bad day to be a northern fulmar

Click on the title of this post to read it and see a related header image.

Since the high litter season is upon us, I am out on Drakes gathering the man-made debris washing in with the strong southern winds of late.

Near to where the northern fur seal found me just over a week ago (turns out it is a female and very feisty as well as still alive), I came around a corner just as a juvenile red-tailed hawk lifted off the sand with an injured, but still very alive northern fulmar. It was slowly climbing and headed straight towards me with the struggling pelagic payload in its’ talons.

I dropped down to the ground to cut a smaller profile as I watched the hawk flapping and flapping, yet gaining altitude like an overloaded Bonanza at noon in august at Truckee. That is, it had a positive rate of climb, barely.

The fulmar was flapping and struggling under the hawk which probably did not help matters much.

As the pair was about to be overhead and about 70-80 feet up, the hawk jettisoned the fulmar and floated upwards with ease. The fulmar dropped like, well, a rock. SPLATT! Onto the hard sand with about 1 inch of water. The dazed bird looked around, not sure if this was better than being pierced by talons and flown away to be eaten.

I sat crouching for a couple minutes to see if the hawk planned to return and try again. It did circle us a few times but eventually flew off to find a smaller bird.

After walking east a few hundred meters and picking up oyster spacer tubes and tampon applicators by the dozens, I turned around and found the floundering fulmar being swept back and forth in a slowly rising tide. I dropped my bags of plastic and went over to see if I could move it to a less hectic place. Even after all it had been through, this bird was very capable of defending itself. I barely was able to grasp its’ wings and keep my hands away from the sharp end trying to peck me. I carried it up to where a pile of logs had been pushed up against the wall and laid it in a protected spot in which to die without the tide and raptors interrupting.

I wonder what that crab fisherman was expecting to attract with a bait bag full of tampon applicators?

Squid egg masses

I learned today from the folks at The California Academy of Science that these egg masses are likely from the Common Market Squid (Doryteuthis opalescens)

You can learn a bit more about it here.

Squid egg masses

Squid egg masses

Still tired of all the man-made debris washing up.

Did they pack all that sand and eel grass? Was Drakes Beach their final destination?

Marc from France – A photographer touring California for the first time. He has two small children back home and was happy to find a frisbee for them. I gave him the football I had just found for his 9 year old son Isaac. Marc was in love with the light and the Point Reyes area. I offered some travel tips for his next 12 days.

Humans are hard on the planet, but we can learn how to be less so, if we care to.

In the post below this one, “Fishing is hard on the sea …” I shared images of trash I packed off my local beaches from one storm.

I need to expand a bit on what I wrote. The items you saw in those images are mistaken for food and eaten by hundreds of thousands of birds all over our planet each day. Some of these birds fly thousands of miles to gather food for their offspring. After being fed a belly full of plastic, they die.

Look at this image showing oyster farming detritus:

NOT albatross food

Now look at this image by Chris Jordan of a dead albatross on the Midway Atoll:

Dead Albatross by Chris Jordan – See the oyster spacer tube in there!

Here is a live albatross for comparison:

See all the disposable lighters in this image:

Disposable, hmmmm……where do they go?

And again, a dead albatross by Chris Jordan:

Dead Albatross by Chris Jordan – where disposable lighters end up.

More human waste from Point Reyes beaches:

Discarded toys – NOT albatross food!

Another dead bird from Midway courtesy Chris Jordan:

Dead Albatross by Chris Jordan

Chris has been documenting the deaths of thousands of birds on Midway for several years. A movie is coming soon. You can see more of his work here

There, I wanted to draw a line between what I pick up off the beach and the impact it has on our planet.

Can you think of how you might adjust your daily living patterns a little so that you generate less stuff that may end up killing some hapless bird trying to put some food on the table?

So what is a Park for anyway?

To me, it is a place where I go to be away from the internet, curmudgeons, war, pointless consumerism. I go to places like the back-country of Kings Canyon National Park and remote beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore to be soothed by a planet unspoiled by the contrivances of humans. I go to these places to remember what life is all about. I’ve been blessed to be able to see all that I have seen.

It is important to protect these special places and I am glad (mostly) that we have the park service to do so.

I’ve been packing about 1 ton of trash off the beaches of Point Reyes each year since late 2008. My knees remember each stoop to pick up another bottle cap, another plastic wrapper, each step back up the hill onto to the Pierce Point trail.

When I started this cleaning, I secured permission to deposit what I gather in the park dumpsters. I’ve learned more about dumpsters than I care to know. When I find that the South Beach dumpster is so rusted out, that items placed in it fall out the bottom and are blown back on the beach, an email/call or two, or three will usually get it replaced. The same for South Beach and Drakes Beach. Thank you Cicely.

Lately I’ve become frustrated with the park service. OK, I have been frustrated with them for quite some time now. For example, seeing that the fellow who services the bathrooms at the many beach parking lots tosses large cardboard boxes into the dumpster instead of recycling them bothers me. If I, a volunteer, can sort and recycle the items I pluck off the beach, the paid staff can surely recycle the tools of their trade. I have been fishing them out, crushing them and recycling them at my house for sometime now.

I’ve told a number of NPS people, hoping to get the paid staff to do the right thing. It took a while until a small recycling bin eventually showed up at one site for staff to use instead of the dumpster. Bravo. Now, to get them all to use it…

Though, after hearing that one supervisor, having learned of me pulling cardboard out of trash bins again and again, said to another employee “I’m going to super-glue a box in the bottom of the dumpster so he has to crawl inside to get it,” a light went off for me.

I no longer track my hundreds of hours and submit them so the park can receive money for their volunteer program.

This may seem trivial on its own. But the above example is only one of many instances (nor is it the most troubling) I saw firsthand of “do as we say, not as we do” within the NPS.

I may still gather human trash off the otherwise pristine beaches around here. But I’ll do it for me, selfish bastard that I am.

And for those that come after us.

Tangled up and blue

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September, seductive winter light is coming on, beaches are covered deep in sand pushed ashore over the summer, making access easier. Not the high season for litter usually. Local fisherman have been plying the Marin coastline for months looking for crab, salmon, halibut and rockfish.

I can tell when they have been out. Beaches are covered in beer and soda cans, bait packaging, miles of plastic rope, hundreds of buoys and bait containers, snack wrappers and sometimes fishing poles or parts of boats. All blown or carelessly tossed overboard, then blown to shore. I pick it all up and pack it out on my back.

This evening a shiny flasher caught my eye in the wrack, I bent down to untangle it from the surf grass and other kelp. A long strand of mono-filament was threaded into the plants, a plastic hoochie, more line, a copper spring of some sort. Then I spied the scavenged body of a seabird, a murre or guillemot with a large nest of the mono-filament tangled around what was left of the wings and sternum.

NOTE: According to a bird expert I know, the bird is a common murre.

Had the bird seen a fish on the hook, swallowed it and died? Or had it surfaced and become tangled up in the line after diving perhaps 200 feet deep in search of a meal? I did not know. I only know that it was alive before coming into contact with this man-made trash, and now it was dead, wrapped in plastic.

Egg to bird to egg to bird and so on. Nothing in that cycle is toxic. All of it breaks down into something another creature uses for life.

Humans on the other hand have created all manner of clever tools. Tools made of plastic, which comes from oil. Plastic clothing, plastic fishing gear, plastic boats, plastic food wrappers. All of it so convenient for humans, for a moment that is. Once we are done with our “single-use” item, we generally toss it overboard, or into the land-fill, or the street, or out the window as we drive down the freeway.

None of this plastic breaks down or goes away or turns into something humans can eat.

What other creatures celebrate milestones in their life by releasing balloons into the air? Balloons made of nylon or latex that will fall back to earth eventually. Balloons that look like jellyfish and other forms of food to sea-life. Have a look here at the hundreds of images of balloons I found at the beach and in the High Sierra Nevada.

We are poisoning our nest, the nest of all the creatures on this planet, with our human conveniences.

Can we survive without so much plastic in our lives?

We survived until 1907 without any synthetic plastic.

From an article in the New York Times:

About 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year. Only about 10 percent of that is recycled. Of the plastic that is simply trashed, an estimated seven million tons ends up in the sea each year.

There, it breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments over the years.

The tinier the pieces, the more easily they are swallowed by marine life. (One study found that fish in the North Pacific ingest as much as 24,000 tons of plastic debris a year).

Sparky the brown pelican

Click on the title of this post to read it and see a related header image.

NOTE: The following events occurred May/June of 2011.

©2012 Richard James

As some of you know, because I called you for help as the following unfolded,
today while picking up the beach I came upon an injured brown pelican.

Sparky, wings dragging

Both wings were drooping a bit as it shuffled off when I first came upon it.

Pelicans soar over the water looking for fish. When a fish is spotted, wings are tucked back, beak out straight, they dive down and hopefully scoop up a meal in their over-sized pouch. If they are not so lucky, they miss, take off and try again. If they are really unfortunate, they hit the surface of the water at the wrong angle and break a wing or two, or their neck.

This bird was dry and other than the dangling wings (which I believe were broken) looked just fine as it eyed me crouching 30 feet away, admiring the gorgeous lines and feathers. I dropped my bags of trash, sorted out my camera gear and crawled around, awed by the beauty of this enormous bird and recorded images. After shooting pictures of it for about 15-20 minutes, I asked the bird out loud if it wanted me to leave it on the beach or get help. Without hesitation, the bird walked 10 feet towards me and stopped in front of me, staring, blinking, waiting it seemed.

Question answered.

I stashed the large debris I had collected above the high-tide line behind a large log and stowed my camera gear for the hike out. I pulled out one of the large white bags from my pack that I use to hold litter. After straightening the bag so I knew where the edges were, I stood up and eyed the bird before me. I’d have to move quick to secure it.

Up til now, the bird had been very docile during the photoshoot. Now, as I quickly strode towards it, I presented the biggest threat it had seen from me and raised both wings up high and opened its’ razor sharp beak. Closing the distance between us rapidly, I gently draped the entire bird, wings, sharp beak and all within the bag and closed down on it.

Carefully I tucked the wings into their natural closed state. With wings secure, I made sure the beak was closed and wrapped my hand gently around it, then tucked the bird under my right arm and walked to pick up my small bag of plastic rubbish.

Hmm, now to get to my car with a very large bird under my arm.

I could walk south, then east to my car, nearly 2 miles, or, I could walk north about a third of a mile to Ben Davis’ place. I decided to walk to Ben’s and see if he would give me a ride back to my car. If he was not there, I’d walk down his long driveway to the road and hitch a ride back to my car, I hoped.

After walking, occasionally stooping to pick up trash and re-cradling Sparky as I decided to call this bird, I reached Ben’s place. All the way down the beach, Sparky was quite relaxed under my arm, hardly moving. Only when I turned away from the sea to scale the bluff did it become active and struggle under my arm, trying to free itself.

Looking up towards the house, there was Ben, Pat and their nearest neighbor Ernie Spalleta at the bench having a beer, it was Memorial Day weekend.

As I walked up, Ben called out my name to see if it was me, I said yes and that I had a favor to ask.

I told him what I had under my arm and asked for a ride to my car.

He instantly got up and said sure.

Hos tiny dog hopped into the pickup with me as I sat down and sniffed my bundle. Sparky was none too happy about this. I suggested to Ben we leave the dog behind. He handed it to Pat and off we went down the long drive to Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

On the short ride to my car, Ben related that in days gone by, pelican feathers were coveted for fishing lures called “hoochies” and people would often shoot them to get these sought after plumes.

Back at my car I thanked Ben as he drove off and re-wrapped Sparky and packed my things. The bird rested on my lap so I could secure it while I drove back to my place. Sparky left several chalky white deposits on my lap, seat and center console. For a bird more at ease soaring inches off the waves, riding in this noisy metal box was likely not all that comforting. My several calls to friends in the know led me to a place where they rehabilitate wild animals. I hoped they would be able to help out this gorgeous bird. Tiny mites crawled all over me.

Once home, I placed Sparky in a large plastic tub I found on Kehoe last year, covering it with two plastic screens I had also found washed up on local beaches recently. I weighted it all down with a large piece of anthracite I found 2 years ago and got in the shower to wash the bugs off. Being sure to strip my bug infested clothes off while out on the deck where they still sit.

I checked on Sparky as I left for the event I had to attend and there he/she sat, quite calm.

After returning I have checked 2 more times to see the bird has moved to a new position each time and seems to be resting peacefully.

I’ll drive to Wild Care in the morning to drop Sparky off and hope for a speedy recovery.


Above is all I wrote that evening.

I continued to check on Sparky every 20-30 minutes. Each time all looked fine as it crouched in the large tub acting as home until I could get it to the bird care place the next morning.

At 12 midnight I came out to find Sparky was lifeless, head slumped down on the floor.
I reached in and found the body still warm, rigor had not set in.

Although not surprised, I was still sad. I had hoped to get this bird to where its’ wings could be mended and it could be released. No more.

I later learned that large birds like this, once they break wings, can never be released to the wild. So it is probably for the better. No animals belong in a zoo.

The next day I wrapped the pelican body in the same bag as before and hiked back to the spot I found it. I unwrapped it and left it for the scavengers and elements.

The next day I returned to see what had become of my friend.

Each evening and morning, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and bobcats roam the beach in search of food.

Nature is so beautiful, no lies, no hesitation, no waste, no greed.

Below are some images of brown pelicans from over the years. Click on an image to see it larger.

For Kate