The Sea Has Wings

FRANKLIN RUSSELL August 1 1973

The Sea Has Wings

FRANKLIN RUSSELL August 1 1973

The Sea Has Wings

FRANKLIN RUSSELL

Seabirds are the most purely dramatic of all winged creatures. The others live in the shelter of their land but the seabird lives in the hands of the wind, in the grip of the full force of wind and sea combined. In solitude I can imagine them, flung across a revolutionary constellation of wind and rain and ice, of giant waves and clashing currents. Out there, buried hundreds, even thousands, of miles deep in the spume of the storm, millions of them ride the wind, fighting for their lives. They are,' I believe, the toughest forms of life on earth, and it would be a churlish fellow whose imagination was not thoroughly captured by them.

But I would concede that they are not immediately the most colorful creatures. There are people who think seabirds are the dullest of earth’s animals. These must be people, I assume, who do not see them in their infinite subtleties; the texture of feathers, the cant of wings as they land on lichen-studded rocks, the symmetrical grace of their falls to earth, their frenzied chases in the troughs of waves, their motionless vigils in trees.

Seabirds are a small and independent example of the diversity of life itself. They are not merely an education to watch but also a drama, a comic opera, a tragedy, an entertainment played out on a vast stage. It is easy enough to type out an ornithological description of numbers, movements and the enumeration of species. All this work has been done. But such information says nothing about the strength of the wind at midnight in the deep ocean where there are hundreds of thousands of wanderers. It tells little of the impact of the hurricane or the unexpected freeze and ignores the joyous spirit that must grip seabirds when they smother the surface of the waters, penetrate its submarine depths, and rise hundreds of feet in the air in great dances that precede lovemaking.

This ocean of wings needs to be seen through humanistic eyes, with the odd glance at the bird guide to check an ornithological fact. Both word and picture are needed to describe the seabird, even if the major part of his life remains buried at sea, like the iceberg, nine-tenths beyond sight or comprehension.

The emergence from the sea of millions of seabirds and their arrival at the land is the most dramatic event of their year. For many of them this is not merely their first view of solid earth in months; it is also their first view of land in memory. These are subadults making a practice run, as it were, to the breeding colony. Immense reluctance to touch the earth at all characterizes the approach of some birds. Even the herring gull, which is at least half a land bird, is wary about taking over his offshore breeding islands. There are dozens of experimental offshore flights to check out the island. Many wary circlings precede any attempt to land. Even when it is time to land, the birds are highly nervous. They come down and scream apprehension or rage, then flutter upward again, only to fall once more without quite getting their feet to the ground. When one bird finally makes it and lands triumphantly, a score of his fellows are encouraged to land and stand in the weak March sunshine, their island safe under their feet.

The spring of the seabirds is more than mere courtship and mating. It is a point of vast transformation. The relatively dull-colored creatures are transmuted into something quite amazingly delicate in their behavior. The terns trickle into their island sanctuaries over days, or even a week or more, and show no early signs of emotion. They sun themselves along the shores of the various islands, particularly on Machias Seal. Nothing much seems to be happening. Fog rolls in and the foghorn roars. Clear skies reveal a perfection of blues all around. But gradually the excitement mounts and courtship begins. The males dance in front of their prospective mates with puffed-out chests and bills raised. They fly rapidly out to sea and catch small fish, particularly sand eels, and feed them to the females.

The male seabird courts one female and sticks with her throughout the breeding year, a model husband. He is so well “married” that the cynical human is hard put to explain how he is able to stay monogamous when he comes ashore and is surrounded by countless thousands of willing brides.

The terns imprint their island with the grace of their beautiful flight movements, yet this quality is made sharp edged by their bad tempers and their willingness to attack anything in defense of their territories. Thus, we walk across the island under a canopy of beautiful, buoyant, graceful creatures screeching the worst kind of obscenities at us. But they have come to agreement with man on their island and they return to their nests seconds after he has passed. Once an interloper, he has now become their savior.

Years ago, careless or heedless lighthouse keepers let their dogs run wild on Machias Seal and the dogs found great sport smashing up eggs and running down fledgling terns. Gulls from the mainland made regular sorties for eggs and young in such numbers that the terns could not repel them. But now, a new breed of lighthouse keeper has grown in response to the concern of conservationists, and prowling gulls are likely to be met with rifle bullets.

The spirit of the season moves through the early breeding murres and passes on to the puffins, those oddly beautiful, strange, clumsy, graceful seabirds that some people perversely describe as parrotlike. Actually, they resemble nothing except puffins because there are no other birds like them anywhere. The puffin is, you might say, the universally admired seabird. I am not one of his special fans, except to be an admirer of those extraordinary beak decorations. He is rather a humorless fellow, but the bird has a hypnotic hold over the imaginations of seabird lovers. Special expeditions are organized to see nothing but puffins. They respond, as best they can, I suppose, by putting on small comic shows of landing and taking off for photographers.

Scores of thousands of puffins smother Great Island, off Newfoundland, from end to end, and have so well riddled it with their burrows that it takes considerable physique to walk from one end of the island to the other. The puffin occupation is so complete that the island is studded with abandoned “cities,” where the digging has caused the soil to collapse, as if it had covered an overzealously dug coal mine.

In August or September, it is possible to visit many of the puffinries and find them apparently deserted. The adults have gone to sea and are dispersing. Behind them they have left their scores of thousands of youngsters alone in their burrows. The young puffins, meantime, are losing the last of their nestling down. The first feathers of their juvenile plumage, all the wing and tail feathers, are growing rapidly despite the fact that the callow birds have been deserted and are not feeding. Some of them appear warily at the entrances of their burrows. But they are scared of gulls and other enemies, and it is only on islands like Machias Seal, where the gulls have been kept off, that they venture into the sun to wander around the rocks.

On the more northern islands, their departure is unseen. They leave the burrows at night, tumble over rocks, or down cliff faces into the water, and begin their new lives in the plastic world of the sea.

The gannets waste little ceremony in actually making their landfall. Perhaps they have just had too much fun merely migrating. Certainly they seem to enjoy flying for the pure pleasure of it. As they come up the coast, they spend a lot of their time just soaring, and they are experts at seeking out cumulus cloud formations where they know there will be updrafts. Then they rise thousands of feet until they are out of sight of the watcher on land. They have the choice now of pumping along steadily, as is their custom, or of making a long fast glide to lower heights. But sometimes groups of birds choose to soar above 6,000 and 7,000 feet, disappearing into clouds and remaining there for an hour or more, just gliding for the fun of it. Sometimes the gannets travel in the company of Canada geese, and it is a moving sight to see the species separate because the geese customarily migrate at much higher altitudes than the gannets. The great white birds peel away and fall, like fighterbombers in attack, and approach Bonaventure at tre-

mendous speed. They set down abruptly and without ceremony at the cliff tops.

There is one certain truth about this world and that is its total uncertainty. Catastrophe comes out of a pure blue sky or out of a star-studded night as easily as it does from the guts of a howling gale. Once, at the height of the breeding season, a premature hurricane struck into the coastal world. The sea wind was so strong that, at Bonaventure, not even the powerful gannets could cope with it. Those birds nesting on the tops of the cliffs were luckiest; with the great gusts magnified to 80 miles an hour by the wind shooting up the cliff faces, they could overfly their nests without colliding with the cliffs. Some of them, however, were already so low in flight that they were swept among stunted spruce growth hundreds of feet back from the cliff top and were impaled, like the victims of a human-type massacre, on the sharp spikes of the spruce branches.

For those birds making their landfall against the sheer walls of the cliffs, their landings had

to be absolutely accurate. All that day of the storm, during which time the wind did not diminish, dozens of birds died. They came to the castle walls of the cliffs and smashed into bare rock. They collided in midair with others while straining to master the turbulence of wind rushing upward. Or they were caught in 100mile-an-hour gusts which sent them spinning into crevices where they were smashed.

As the winds continued, the waves heightened. Soon, one of these waves, perhaps a legendary “ninth wave,” struck up the vertical cliff face more than 50 feet. The wave lifted thousands of tons of water upward and scoured the cliff face like some liquid cleaner. It reached the lower levels of nesting gannets and everything was swept away — adults, eggs, chicks — leaving the cliff bare and dripping.

Within an hour, another ninth wave, but this one much bigger, hurled a solid body of water almost to the tops of the cliffs. The rise of the water was majestic and massive. Thousands of adult gannets could

see disaster looming and flung themselves away from the cliffs. Some were lucky and escaped, but others were caught as the wave peaked out, exploded at its crest, and roared backward, carrying hundreds of birds down with it.

At dawn of the following morning, with the wind subsided but the sea remaining a white torrent at the foot of the cliffs, the tide receded and revealed hundreds of injured, dying, and dead gannets. One night of the seabird was over.

The new day dawns and the grey seas tumble white as far as the eye can see. Five hundred miles from shore the black shapes of seabirds speed across the roiling waves. They have survived the night, the snow, predatory fish, the falcons and the eagles, the icing of their feathers, and they have come through to live another day. But they mock our own notions of security and question the real meaning of survival on this earth. ■

From The Sea Has Wings, text by Franklin Russell, photographs by Les Line, published this month in Canada by Clarke, Irwin and by Dutton in the U.S.