On a calm day in July, my husband, Benjamin Boer, launched his Zodiac from Leffingwell Landing with the intention of dropping a line at his customary fishing spot.
Hearing an unexpected swooshing sound, he looked up to see thousands of dark gray gull-like birds flying low over the water directly at him. At the last second, the flock split and detoured around both sides of the boat.
Realizing it was his upright body that had caused the birds to alter their route, he stretched out on the bottom of the boat and lay motionless while the birds flew just inches above him. They were so close that he could hear the “whoomp-whoomp” sound of their stiffly beating wings.
Ben assumed that the flock of birds would eventually taper off, and that he could get back to the business of fishing. Half an hour later, there was no sign of abatement, and he realized he was in a seemingly endless passage of seabirds with no apparent end. Entranced by the experience, he forgot about fishing and headed back to shore.
Sooty shearwaters are one of the most abundant bird species in the world, with a population estimated at 20 million. They are sometimes called “endless summer birds” because their migration routes have them spending summers in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.
Their remarkable life cycle was only fully documented in 2007 by an international team of biologists using electronic tracking tags attached to the birds. They revealed a round-trip journey over the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to North America in a giant figure eight pattern. At 39,000 miles, it is the longest documented bird migration.
Sooty shearwaters feed on fish, squid and shrimplike krill, diving 30 to 50 feet below the ocean’s surface to capture prey. They nest during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere, primarily on islands off New Zealand. During summer, in the Northern Hemisphere, they concentrate on the richest feeding areas in California, Alaska and Japan. When they find a school of fish or krill, they fly over it in huge gyres as wide as a half-mile across.
Look for lines of sooty shearwaters flying outside the kelp forests and below the horizon line. From our vantage point on shore, they look like millions of tiny flies. Sometimes the flocks are so thick they look like undulating black clouds, and sometimes you can see the huge gyres they form when feeding. At this time of year, sooty shearwaters are heading south as they begin their migration to the Southern Hemisphere. Like the millions of tourists who fill our highways, they know that our long golden days of summer will soon be over. By the time winter storms arrive here, millions of sooty shearwaters will be nesting on islands in the sunny Southern Hemisphere. It’s another reason to be glad we call the Central Coast home.