By Andy Bankert
He awoke shortly after the sun rose, but he did not get up. He just did not have the energy. He was lost and confused, but he did not worry about this. He was hungry, he needed food.
Several months earlier, in March, this Greater Shearwater hatched from a small egg in a huge colony on Inaccessible Island, a rock in the Atlantic a little closer to South Africa than it is to Argentina. The south Atlantic; this bird’s home, where he learned to fly and feed and prepare for his big migration. This big migration was a journey from his home up to the cold waters off Newfoundland. Now, in June, this bird has survived the first seven thousand miles of an eight thousand mile trip. But he is in trouble. The recent winds had been anything but favorable. They came from the east, twenty knots every day, it was only a matter of time before the bird was off the path his brain told him to take. Torn away from the abundant schools of baitfish in the Gulf Stream weakened the bird. Large patches of grass at the edges of the Gulf Stream provide a home for the small baitfish near the surface of the water that he needed for survival. Fishing in near shore waters would not suffice, fishing here was demanding and required more energy; he needed to get back offshore. Unfortunately, he was not alone.
When the shearwater mustered the strength to take off, he joined a flock to search for fish. The flock foraged for a while before they found a larger shearwater congregation off a jetty. Birds were feeding here to take advantage of an outgoing tide, which swept small fish from shallow water out near the surface. This could not replace the bountiful fishing opportunities of the waters offshore, but this was the best substitute the flock could find. For hours, shearwaters splashed through the water trying in vain to catch enough food to make it to the feeding grounds up north. Some of the fishermen were captivated by the unusual birds, and began throwing left over baitfish that the birds would soon be fighting over. Some of the birds lucked into an easy meal, to the amusement of the fishermen, but most wasted more energy fighting than they picked up from the fish. By the time the focus of the humans went back to fishing, conditions switched to an ingoing tide. The shearwater who had tried all morning to find a good meal found himself hungry and exhausted like the other two or three hundred that passed by the jetty over the course of the day. As failure seemed inevitable, the shearwater moved down the beach in an attempt to find more food.
While flying further down the beach, the bird hit a wall. He could not fly any more. It was almost over. Death would soon arrive. There was no way for the bird to know this, his instincts only told him to survive, find food, then migrate north to find more food. The last thousand miles of the trip were now impossible, so the bird sat in the water and watched his surroundings. Floating on the water, looking at the open ocean, the same ocean that he had seen every day of his life since he had poked his head out of the nest burrow where he was born, the shearwater thought about the incredible distance he had traveled from home. Then a thought occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, he had reached the wintering grounds, with hundreds of his own kind looking for food that just couldn’t be found this year. Even though the sun was setting, these thoughts still remained in the tiny brain of the shearwater as he nodded off to sleep.
In the middle of the night something woke the bird. The water below him disappeared and he fell as the waves violently threw him around. His body, now at the mercy of the sea, was launched up onto shore then dragged back out to sea where he washed around in the breakers for a while, tossed around helplessly before the sea launched him up on the shore for the process to be repeated several times. Realizing that this could never end, the bird pulled together enough strength to remain on shore the next time the spiteful sea hurled him up that way. With his weak wings and feet he pushed himself up to higher ground where the sea could not take him back. The sea that had been so good to this bird, providing him with food, currents, and winds to help him on his incredible migration, now became an enemy. He wanted nothing to do with this adversary. So he kept crawling up the beach, and a small crowd came over to watch. An authoritative voice broke through the noise of the crashing waves, “Now don’t shine your light on it, or it will not lay its eggs.” As they cautiously approached the bird, an interested onlooker commented, “That’s way smaller than I expected, that can’t really weigh 200 pounds, can it?” “It must be a baby,” another person commented. A brief confused conversation broke out before the authoritative voice cleared everything up by stating, “This isn’t a turtle. This is a bird.” And that settled it; the group set out to find turtles and moved on.
When the sun rose the next morning, another crowd circled the bird. Puzzled, the crowd placed a small dish of water in front of the bird, under the impression that some fresh water would give the bird strength. Little did they know that shearwaters have a mechanism in their bill, a tubenose, which allows them to safely drink salt water, a great adaptation for a bird that spends its whole life at sea. Despite the thoughtfulness of his onlookers, the shearwater did not drink any water. He just sat there, and stared, stared at the crowd, which began to lose interest. As the group lost interest in the bird, the bird began to lose interest in survival. So after a few hours on the beach he put his head down in the sand and lost his life. No longer an animal fighting for survival, the carcass did not make it more than an hour before bugs came in to investigate. By the end of the week, the body was not alone. Over five hundred other dead shearwaters littered the coast. Beachgoers dodged the remains of Greater Shearwaters to find a place to enjoy the beach without being bothered by the disgusting dead birds. Ornithologists collected specimens to answer the many questions brought out by the event. Some of the questions brought about by the curious onlookers were answered in the newspaper when a detailed article was written, explaining what the birds were, where they came from, and some of the explanations for their deaths.
Investigations by ornithologists found the cause of death to be exhaustion and starvation, common sense, but very few theories explained why the birds arrived exhausted and starving. Nobody looked in to what might have changed somewhere in the vast ocean. Maybe a lack of food locally caused the problem. Or was it a problem thousands of miles to the south, somewhere between the breeding grounds and the birds’ deaths? Many problems can arise in seven thousand miles. Did the recent events pose a threat to an entire species, or reveal a far greater problem? A problem altering the currents and food supply the birds rely on for survival. If this is true, then there is a problem with several species of fish, which will affect more and more species in an endless chain. Understanding that a problem thousands of miles away can bring such an impact to a distant area allows us to appreciate how everything in nature is connected.