Pigeon Guillemot - The "Easy" Alcid
Alcids Aren't Supposed to Be Easy
When casual birdwatchers such as myself think of Alcids, more precisely the Alcidae group of web-footed diving birds that includes the Auks, Murres, and Pufffins, we think of remote, difficult to access places. We think of cold nutrient upwellings on rolling seas, reached by bouncing boats miles away from ocean coastlines. We think of rocky, wave-battered islands with sheer cliffs painted white by millions of years of nesting activity on the jagged pinnacles above. We think of cold, windy mornings standing bandy-legged on the prow of some barely seaworthy birding scow, numb fingers clutching icy binoculars as we wonder why we picked such an uncomfortable hobby that requires us to get out of bed so damn early on a Sunday.
In other words, to the casual birdwatcher finding Alcids is supposed to be hard. The logistics of looking for these ocean going flying submarines is just too difficult and too expensive. Let's go to the park instead and see if we can spot some warblers in the trees. It's just a block of easy walking away, we won't get seasick and best of all, we won't freeze our butts off.
So when we think of Alcids, we definitely don't think of standing on the shore of a breezy bay by a restaurant where we have just dined heartily, mulling about pleasantly amid flocks of passing tourists that dive into the climate controlled souvenir shops that line the harbor. But sometimes Alcids surprise us. Sometimes Alcids can be easy. The Pigeon Guillemot is one such easy Alcid.
A Brief Natural History of the Pigeon Guillemot
To begin with, the Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba),is not a real pigeon. In fact, it is not a dove at all, even though the columba in its scientific name hearkens to the Columbidae family of our familiar park pigeons and doves. In spite of what its names, both common and scientific might suggest, as far as I know the Pigeon Guillemot does not leave its messy whitewashing trails dripping down the sides of buildings and statues. Easy, yes, but not so cozy with humanity yet as to beg for bread crumbs and sully our public monuments.
In reality, the Pigeon Guillemot belongs to the Alcid, or Auk family. Many among us have heard tales of the flightless Great Auks, standing three feet tall, which were hunted to extinction primarily because their fluffy down was popular for making pillows, and their eggs were popular for making omelets. The Pigeon Guillemot, by contrast, is significantly more diminutive than its now defunct cousin, measuring in at a mere 14 inches. I'm betting you won't find any Guillemot-down pillows on the shelves at Wal Mart, either.
Where you will find the Pigeon Guillemot is among the kelp beds along the Pacific Coast. Unlike other members of the Auk family, which dive for prey in nutrient upwellings well past the breakwater, the Pigeon Guillemot feeds in the benthic zone, meaning the ecological region at the uppermost level of a large body of water. In the ocean, the benthic region extends past the shoreline out to the continental shelf. This habit of feeding close to the shore explains why the Pigeon Guillemot has been bestowed with the title of "Easy" Alcid. The auk-hunting birdwatcher, eagerly pursuing an Alcid to cross off his or her life list, doesn't even need powerful binoculars to find this kelp-loving diver bobbing atop the gentle waves of some Pacific inlet.
In awkward flight, the Pigeon Guillemot might appear somewhat dove-like, but its distinctive white wing bar with a black wedge alongside blazing red legs and feet reveal its identity immediately to the shore-scrutinizing birder. Identification, therefore, is not a difficult process. When I first spotted the bird I suspected it was an Alcid, but having not lugged my field guide to the shops, eateries and bars of The Row I had to wait until I got home to make a positive ID. Once home I found the bird right there on page one of the Alcid section in my bird book, and made a smug fist pump for having bagged another one for my list.
Alcids in general are not the most breathtaking of aviators. Some round bodied little Auklets barely achieve flying-fish height as they skitter and scamper their way skyward. But the Auks and their kin make up for this lack of airborne grace with supreme swimming skills. Like the other Alcids, Cepphus columba is a powerful navigator submerged, gliding along kelp beds and jetties as it swiftly and smoothly probes for prey by using both wings and feet for propulsion. In the air, this Guillemot has two left red feet, but underwater it is a veritable ballerina. The bird is known to dive to depths up to 145 feet in search of sustenance, but does its happiest hunting in waters 33 to 66 feet deep.
The range of the Pigeon Guillemot extends from the top of Alaska down the Pacific coast to central California. The bird nests along rocky shorelines, where it sometimes scales sheer cliffs by combining the brisk flapping of wings with sharp claws on its webbed feet, which it uses like mountaineering adzes on rock faces.
Birding by Accident
A few days ago, on our way back from visiting our son in San Jose, my wife suggested (more of a threat, really), that instead of returning home via the dusty, featureless Central Valley we head down the rugged, scenic coast by cutting through Salinas and over to Monterey. What the heck, I thought, we can go check out John Steinbeck's statue on Cannery Row and see if any real Pigeons have pooped on him lately.
In particular, my wife and I were on a quest to view the Sea Otters that are readily visible among the kelp beds at Monterey and other points along the Pacific Shore. Although I spotted one rather reticent otter bobbing its head up from the twining masses of the offshore seaweed forest, the back-floating aquatic mammals were not present in the numbers we saw on our previous visit. Our walk down the Row did not turn out to be a disappointment, at least for me, as there were other seaborne creatures on the water availing themselves of the kelp forest's resources.
Cannery Row is intersected by piers and jetties that jut out perpendicularly from the main drag, allowing easy access to views of the beach and bay. At one of these piers I was scanning the kelp bed with binoculars, hoping to see another furry mammalian head out there, when I spotted a gull-like bird with unusual markings that definitely distinguished it from any Larid I had previously spotted. Perhaps it was a strange gull hybrid in juvenile plumage, I thought. Certainly no self-respecting transitory Alcid, no matter how lost or blown off course, would be bobbing so close to shore in the tranquil waters alongside a well traveled tourist trap. I took note of the bird's white wing bars and red legs, then filed away the information for later field guide consultation, the outcome of which I explained in the previous section.
This is not the first time that an effortless stroll along Monterey's famed Cannery Row has resulted in a bird bonanza for me. While visiting the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2013, I viewed my first White-winged Scoter in flight over the bay. A mere 440 miles separate my San Diego County home from Monterey, but the bird fauna up north is different enough to reveal some surprises.
More Fun on The One
The trip my wife and I took down Pacific Coast Highway 1 confirms my oft-repeated maxim that if you want to see the good parts of America, you have to get off the flippin' freeway. The Interstate Five is fine if you want to see tomatoes fallen from passing produce trucks scattered along the roadway. It's fantastic if you love fine dining at fast food franchises, and if vistas of the same huge truck stop chains you've passed in the last 11 states thrill you speechless. But if you want to see nature and raw, rugged scenery at its best you have to ditch the high speeds and smooth traveling of the interstate and risk the dizzying curves of backroad USA, such as the highway which lies between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, California.
With my Guillemot trophy soundly trapped between the inescapable pages of my life list, my wife and I inched our way down the coast, weaving slowly through the towering Redwoods and past the rugged, rocky shores of Big Sur towards San Simeon. In the gentler rolling hills toward the southern end of this practically uninhabited 90 mile stretch we laid eyes upon the gleaming beacon of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. On yonder heights the spires of Hearst Castle rose from the pages of a storybook. Then came a sign advertising the presence of Elephant Seals, an added bonus to a breathtaking journey already filled with man made and natural wonders.
In the spirit of the lark, we stopped to go watch these enormous, long-snouted Pinnipeds basking on the beach. Huge males made menacing metallic growls and clashed necks together before calming their offended pride and rolling back over to resume naps. Young bucks extended their necks skyward and copied them, practicing for the day when they would battle for real to grab a strategic spot of sand. The passing pods of gawking tourists did not disturb or offend the massive mammals. When you weigh up to two and a half tons, an unarmed human is not much more nuisance than a fly. Here were the true Monsters of Piedras Blancas.
What is irony? I would like to use the term "ironic" here, but these days you can't employ the word without some bow-tied pedant who takes the Oxford English Dictionary for light reading slapping you about the head and neck with the grammar guidelines. I'll settle for amazing, instead, and say it was an amazing thing that in spite of all the natural thrills, such as these elephant seals sunbathing practically in pissing distance of California's Highway 1, it took the extended strip mall of touristy, money-sucking businesses along the paint and concrete of Cannery Row to deliver me the birder's ultimate natural high, a new bird for the list.
Had it been some stray, off course Warbler taking refuge in an ornamental tree or bush I would not have been particularly surprised. A coast hugging shorebird probing the mud flats for food would not have unduly astonished me. But the fact that it was an Alcid, a bird typically found in the log books of mariners exploring the icy, windswept climes of northern latitudes, has led me to the conclusion that in the birding pastime one must expect the unexpected. It turns out there are easy Alcids, after all, and the Pigeon Guillemot seems to be the easiest of all.
Pigeon Guillemots get Cozy With a Camera
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