My First Six Months in California

Hello all!

Welcome to my very first OWCN blog post! I won’t spend much time introducing myself, as Kyra wrote a very kind post about me and my history back in January. But I will say I’m thrilled to be here! It has been a whirlwind few months, as I get to know some of the amazing people who make up the network and learn how I can contribute to this incredible undertaking.

As someone who has always been a caretaker (whether it was animals or kids depends on what time period you’re asking about), office work has taken some getting used to. There’s a lot of oil-spill specific structure and procedure to learn.  Between the OWCN webinars, the University’s requirements, and skill-specific stuff like ATV operation, I think I’ve taken more trainings in the past six months than in the rest of my life put together (excepting college, I suppose).

However, I can honestly say that the biggest change from the last chapter of my life has been the climate. I’m still not used to seeing the sun every day. Apparently my sunglasses weren’t up to the challenge, because they gave up the ghost a month ago. Last week, I walked outside and realized that my breath was cooler than the breeze. That’s just bizarre.

But my vampiric, rain-soaked Seattle tendencies aside, there’s a lot to love about the change of scenery. The sheer variety of new (to me) species of birds in my backyard or on the drive to work is awe-inspiring. I’m even fascinated by the common species, like the little Black Phoebes – what personalities! I could watch the White-tailed Kites hover all day long, and I still see the Swainson’s Hawks and say, “What a weird Red-tail…”

All this got me thinking about what new seabird species I might encounter during the course of my duties. Which, in true neurotically-organized fashion, resulted in a list and some self-inflicted reading. So I thought I’d end this blog post with a few of the astonishing facts I’ve discovered during my reading. I hope you enjoy! I’ll look forward to seeing you out in the world, when you can return the favor and share your favorite animal facts with me.

1) Eared Grebes change their organ size seasonally, depending on what part of their migration/feeding cycle they are in. On lakes with high prey abundance, these grebes will allow their pectoral muscles to atrophy while increasing the size of their digestive and food storage organs. During this period, they eat like crazy, more than doubling their body mass. When food abundance dwindles, the birds switch to flight mode, catabolizing the stored fat, increasing their heart size, and drastically reducing their digestive organ mass.  Then they’ll make a nonstop flight to the next feeding site. This results in the most extreme avian example of phenotypic plasticity currently known, and it happens 3-6 times each year.


2) Black Terns are cool because of their gorgeous coloration and their status as the only freshwater-breeding North American tern. But my favorite fact is that while in marine environments during the non-breeding season, these birds have been seen resting on floating coconuts, water hyacinth, and basking sea turtles (in addition to the more traditional driftwood).

Dookey and John

3) Rather than plunge-diving like Brown Pelicans, American White Pelicans scoop prey into their pouches from a swimming or standing position. And I’m sure you’ve seen the – let’s admit it, disturbing – Youtube videos of Great White Pelicans swallowing live pigeons whole (something that has been documented in AWPEs too, though not in such a dramatic fashion). But to me, the most interesting thing about the feeding behavior of these birds is their cooperative foraging strategies. These birds have apparently read The Art of War, because like the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, they surround and herd their chosen prey, often driving schools of fish into shallow water where they can be scooped up at will. Like mealworms under an apple slice, or fish in a barrel.


2 thoughts on “My First Six Months in California

  1. Hi Stephanie! So glad to see you posting on the blog! I find it interesting that the Procellariiformes (albatross, fulmars, etc) almost always smell like musty, old books. At least to me they do. People smell different things when we get them in. We usually get Northern Fulmars. I also know a Laysan Albatross that smells like a old book, too. But there is most definitely a smell there and it always makes me happy! They can also smell their prey from far away out in the open ocean. So they smell but also smell themselves.
    Hope you are well!

  2. Hi Amanda,

    It’s so interesting that you smell old books – I’ve heard sugar cookies, berries, and skunk for fulmars, but to me they always smell like porcupines, which is not (as you might suspect) a very useful comparison for most people! I’ve never had the occasion to smell an albatross, but I’ll put that on my bucket list 🙂 It also makes me wonder if the other tubenoses have the same scent, and what actually causes it.

    Have you seen this article about Cory shearwaters? Apparently they use scent maps to navigate! So incredible. We go from thinking birds have very little olfactory ability to finding that some of them use their noses extensively. I don’t think birds will ever stop amazing me.

    Take care!

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