Whales aren’t the only creatures in the harbor these days. The port is full of birds: grebes, gulls, cormorants, herons, willets, coots, terns, hawks. It’s an ornithological orgy. The other morning we watched an osprey snatch a fish out of shallow waters, shadowed by gulls. Last year, a rare black swan was wandering inner Cabrillo Beach. Native to Australia, it had probably escaped years ago from some suburban farm or millionaire estate; our birder neighbor excitedly explained it might be the same one he had spied years ago. Another day, the neighbor and my son caught a guinea fowl across the street — also probably an agrarian runaway. And one day, and one day only, there were a pair of pea hens on our roof — migrants from nearby White Point, where they are as common as squirrels.
Surf scoters are among the most populous winter birds. There are whole families of these ducks floating just downstream from the cargo ships and cranes. The males are mostly black as oil, with pure white patches on the front and back of their heads matching their white eyes. Their bills are like Halloween masks: a great big bumpy honker decorated in black, white and orange. It’s a beak that makes a statement, a blinking beacon.
But my favorite thing about the surf scoter is the sound of the wind beneath its wings. When a scoter takes flight, the rapid pumping of his wings makes an incredible high-pitched whistling noise. It’s a sound as animated as the bird’s bill, straight out of a Carl Stalling cartoon soundtrack. I love it when I’m out there on the kayak and suddenly I hear that “whor-whor-whor-whor.” The surf scoter’s flight is all sound and fury; for all the racket, they barely rise above the water and usually stop 100 yards from where they stopped, where they resume fishing for mussels and herring.
Until they’re ready for summer vacation, that is. Surf scoters are snow birds. They winter along both coasts, in warmer climates like San Pedro Bay. Come summer, they fly home to the Arctic, where they nest, give birth, molt, and fly south again. For birds, and butterflies, and whales, and so many animals, home is not a singular place; homes are seasonal. They know nothing of borders or passports, but they know how to fly hundreds, if not thousands of miles, from one side of the equator to the other, year after year. I envy their nationless identity and freedom of motion. What a wonderful world it can be.