Digging For Birds, Page 2

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Meanwhile, I stalked some oyster catchers whose black bodies, red bills and pink legs offered an intriguing subject for the camera. Soon we started inland, to sink shoulder deep into a thicket of salmon berries and fight a way through it into a little saddle where the stunted balsam firs shaded out the undergrowth. The fir-needled duff of the forest floor was here honeycombed with little holes, and our feet went through at disconcerting moments. To us, who had never thought of digging for birds, these holes were a riddle, but Bill Finley at once threw himself on his stomach and began to dig like a terrier. Presently he drew out his arm with his fingers firmly clutching a sooty-colored bird about the size of a small dove. Its long wings were crossed over its tail, and its beak was surmounted by something that the Skipper called a nozzle. "It's a petrel!" Finley shouted. ''I knew I smelled them somewhere, but I never knew them to burrow in a thicket like this," Petrels-birds of the open sea; birds of poetry and storm-and here we were digging them out of holes in the woods! It did not seem right. Finley identified this specimen as a Beal's petrel. We photographed one mother and then let her loose. Like a bar, she seemed hampered in the daylight and crashed against the branches. Yet we knew that these birds came in and out at night and flew far to sea, returning again to find one tiny burrow in the ground among a thousand others. Further digging uncovered more nests, each with a single white egg.


Through more thickets, out into the open, fighting through salmon berries again, we struggled to the ocean side of the little island, where sheer cliffs offered their gray faces to the roaring waves. Puffins circled above us, and, on a high ledge, a colony of California murres squatted, each atop her single, top-shaped egg. Resplendent in their dark coats and white waistcoats, they mimicked the penguins of the Antarctic on a smaller scale; and, standing on their ledges, they resembled nothing so much as a college glee club about to burst into song. We made one or two false starts at climbing the cliffs, only to reach obstacles that were impassable without ropes. At last the Skipper and Finley decided to leave the cameras and, freed from im-pediments, to try to catch a puffin in its hole. Mrs. Pack followed, while I again started in chase of oyster catchers.

Presently there were shouts from above, and Finley returned hugging an outraged parrot. The puffin, black bodied, with heavy orange beak, wicked red-rimmed eyes, white cheeks and golden tufts of feathers for head plumes, resembles a bird of the tropics more than any other northern species. With that beak he can do considerable damage, as we were later able to testify. The Skipper presently came sliding down the cliffs with a similar bird, which celebrated its arrival on the beach by biting its captor in the stomach. The men had captured these creatures by reaching their gloved hands into the burrow and grabbing the indignant mothers as they came out. Finley's bird had a nasty disposition and refused to perform for the camera, but the Skipper's parrot, without even a confining string about her webbed feet, lay on her back between the Skipper's knees, cocked her head on one side and pawed the air in humorous distress. She seemed such a well-behaved pet that the Skipper decided to take her back to the yacht and show her to the rest of the party. Accordingly, we packed the cameras and plunged again into the salmon berries to recross the island. A low branch caused the Skipper to duck his head. It was the opportunity for which Polly had long waited. With a triumphant "Awrkk!", the puffin clamped its beak firmly onto the Skipper's nose and hung there. With a yell, Polly's captor yanked back his head and pulled Polly in the opposite direction. The nose came free at last, with two great bloody cuts adorning it from bridge to tip. Thereafter, the Skipper was more circumspect in his relations with puffins. There was no more hunting that day. All evening the Westward rocked violently at her anchorage, but by this time we all had our sea legs. We had learned that bottles should be laid on their sides and that other movables must be securely fastened.


Getting ashore was not so easy the next morning. The Skipper and the engineer went off alone in the dancing dinghy. They dropped an anchor off the rocks and ran lines ashore, so that the cameramen could have something, to grab when the instant to jump came. Thus, we were able to get ashore on the main island with only a moderate wetting. Almost the first burrow we encountered ran far back under a rotten log, but we pried the log loose and it bounded down the cliffs, to splash into the ocean. Then more digging yielded, as a prize, another strange bird, a rhinoceros auklet whose name is derived from the rhinoceros-like horn on its beak. This creature has tufts over its eyes and on its cheeks, these white plumes contrasting with a dark gray head. She was duly photographed along with her dirty egg about the size of a chicken's egg. 'The hunters wandered on, overturning rocks and stumps like a group of bears looking for ants, and the wonders never ceased. High in the dense fir woods above' the rocks we found literally thousands of small holes. Axes were' wielded on roots, gloved hands dug with more vigor than ever. A long trench would open up, and there at the end, upon a nest of small twigs, would be sitting a bird the size of a full-grown pigeon, blinking strangely at the unexpected light. Once or twice we found little black fuzzy baby birds, which nestled warmly in the hands or pockets of the searchers. Later Finley and the Skipper returned from an expedition overland with two young Cassin's auklets, dark brown birds with white throats and breasts.

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