welcome, stranger

short-tailed shearwater image from www.charterfishing.co.nz Walking along my new plotting and scheming landscape (in other words, where to go for a walk at lunch time and let the wind blow new ideas in) I was happy to see a duck swimming on the harbour. Suddenly the duck dived under the water and – hey, that duck was no duck!

What ever the bird was it could swim underwater fantastically well – a real experience as it actually looked like it was flying, twisting and turning apparently to catch fish. When the bird surfaced I could see from the beak it was clearly not a duck. It was smaller than a mallard, but had similar colours. Eventually I decided it might’ve been a sooty shearwater – the ‘mutton bird’ of commerce (and a great name for a group of musicans like Don McGlashan).

A quick search or two this morning and I’m now inclined to think it wasn’t a sooty shearwater (they’re bigger and er, sootier), rather it was a short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) and they do get called ‘mutton birds’ elsewhere in the world i.e. Australia. Adult birds can have a wing span of about 1 metre and weigh approximately 500 grams. Their legs are placed well back on their body and their wings are long and narrow for efficient high speed gliding. The name ’shearwater’ reflects their ability to fly rapidly, very close to the water, in search of food – fish, squid, or krill. Such adaptations suit an oceanic existence but, as a result, they have difficulty moving on land or taking flight in windless conditions.

They are one of the great migratory bird species. Their migratory path has been difficult to define because they don’t come to shore while migrating. Exhausted and starved birds have been found on beaches in Japan, the Aleution Islands, North America and Australia – and so it’s possible the shearwater I saw wasn’t here just for the Lord of the Rings tours. Originally, scientists believed the birds flew a figure of eight course across the Pacific Ocean. Recent studies suggest the majority of birds merely fly north along the western part of the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic region and return southwards through the centre of the ocean. Either way the birds travel about 15,000 kilometres in each direction annually. They have been known to fly the distance in six weeks.

It’s also possible the shearwater I took to be a juvenile was just svelte after flying across the Pacific. That airline food can be foul, no doubt about it.

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