Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Malibu Armada

Gulls and dolphins welcome the arrival of winter with a fish feast off the coast of Malibu. Rumor has it that the first gray whales of winter were spotted last week off Westward Beach, but the presence of huge numbers of sea birds resting on empty Malibu beaches, or gathered into great flocks on the surface of the water just off shore is one of the most conspicuous signs of the season. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the turning point of the seasons. Winter officially began today, and all the winter sea birds have arrived in Malibu for the season. This vast avian armada is comprised primarily of gulls, but their are a few more exotic species that join the flock for the winter months.

Gulls congregate in huge numbers on Malibu beaches during the winter. The western and California gulls—Malibu's most common year-round gulls, are joined in the winter by ring-billed gulls, charcoal-gray Heermann's gulls, dove-gray glaucous gulls and more exotic members of the gull family that include terns and even the occasional black skimmer.

A quartet of royal terns join the seagulls at Zuma Beach for a rest from fishing. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Even when they're resting, sea birds remain on the alert. The slighted alarm, like the shadow of a passing hawk, will send the entire flock into flight. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Gulls also float in great armadas out in the water, or gather in chaotic clouds of airborne and diving birds to hunt for herring and anchovies. Their calls are one of the sounds of the season. The cry of the terns is high and piercing, the gulls' voices are full of raucous laughter.

The grebes are here, too. On calm days they float serenely on the water, disappearing to dive for fish, resurfacing like miniature Loch Ness monsters, elegant in an almost reptilian way.

A western grebe keeps a watchful ruby-red eye out for fish as it patrols on a calm day. That sharp beak serves as a spear and a forceps for stabbing and snatching fish. The grebe's feet are far back on its body, making it awkward on land but enabling it to fly through the water as well as the air. © 2013 S. Guldimann
The Western grebe resembles a black and white question mark in the water. It's a powerful swimmer, with paddle-like feet set far back on its body for maximum speed. Western grebes use their beaks to spear and snatch fish. They hunt under water and can stay down for an astonishing length of time. 

Grebes breed in Canada and the Midwest. Their arrival on the coast of Malibu is a sure sign that winter is coming, even when the weather is warm and summery. We don't get to see their wonderful courtship ritual that involves a synchronized dance on the surface of the water, called "rushing," or the way grebe parents carry their chicks on their backs for safety, but we do get to enjoy their presence throughout the winter.

Grebes hunt underwater, diving swiftly and pursuing fish with speed and agility. This one is half-way through its Loch Ness Monster-style disappearing act. © 2013 S. Guldimann
One second the grebe is there, the next it's disappeared under water, leaving only a small wake of rings behind as a sort of aquatic footprint. The bird may pop back up a long way from where it dived. When the water clarity is good and conditions are just right you can observe a diving grebe through the surface of the water.
Grebes aren't the only local Loch Ness Monster impersonators. This double-crested cormorant makes a fairly convincing miniature sea monster. © 2013 S. Guldimann

The "real" Loch Ness Monster, for comparison.

The black skimmer's appearance is nearly as preposterous as Nessie's. This exotic-looking member of the tern family is an occasional winter visitor. This one was spotted at Zuma Beach. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Like wind-blown snow or autumn leaves, sea gulls drift effortlessly out of the sky, their feathers flashing silver in the winter sun. © 2013 S. Guldimann

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