For the love of seabirds
Keynote speaker at upcoming Snow Goose Festival is seabirding tour guide
Debi Shearwater has a passion for seabirds, so much so that she changed her last name to match one of the species she seeks off the California coast.
“I thought that it was going to be easy to pronounce, spelled the way it’s pronounced, but I was wrong,” Shearwater said with a laugh. “People mess it up—they call me Sharewater, Lovewater, Stillwater, Deepwater, all sorts of things.”
Turns out the surname she chose and the one she was born with—Millichap—have a connection: “It is very possible that the Millichaps came from the Isle of Man [in the United Kingdom] where the Manx shearwater famously bred.” She kept her middle name, Love, which was her grandmother’s maiden name—and also describes the feeling she has for shearwaters and other birds that soar above the world’s oceans.
Shearwater will share that zeal next Saturday (Jan. 25) as the keynote speaker for the Snow Goose Festival banquet at the Bell Memorial Union on the Chico State University campus. Though migratory geese differ from seabirds, she hopes to inspire other bird-watchers with her presentation.
Shearwater, whose home base is Hollister, worked as a dental hygienist for 10 years before turning her hobby into a full-time profession. Through Shearwater Journeys, the expedition service she founded, she’s guided trips to such places as Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands. This spring, she’ll lead an expedition to Greenland.
CN&R:What first got you interested in seabirds?
Shearwater: Short story is I went on a pelagic trip, a boat trip out of Monterey Bay, in 1976, and I just thought it was completely magical. …
I was a bird-watcher and already looking at other birds. There was a section in my field guide that was all about shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and I thought, “I’d like to see those birds, too”—the quest for filling in the blanks.
After I did the first trip, I asked local bird-watchers, “How do you get on more of these trips?” They said it was very difficult; not many of those trips existed. I said, “Well, let’s do our own!” So I started doing my own trips, also in 1976, and then in 1978 the first rare bird that I saw showed up: a streaked shearwater, which normally occurs in Japan.
What drew you to the Snow Goose Festival? There’s not a seashore in the North State.
No, it doesn’t have anything to do with geese really, what I do. They invited me to be speaker—I’m the keynote speaker at many bird festivals—and I’ll be speaking about how we started looking at seabirds years ago and how are seabirds doing today.
The most threatened birds in the world are seabirds—albatrosses and shearwaters especially. Most people have not seen and probably will never see an albatross, and yet most of this planet is covered with water, not dirt. So I’m trying to bring more awareness to the general population, and bird-watchers in particular, about these birds that are facing monumental environmental issues.
What are some of the issues they’re facing?
Where do we start? [chuckles]. Seabirds are generally long-lived birds, but intentionally or accidentally, humans have introduced mammalian predators on breeding islands where these birds nest—like, say, long ago through shipwrecks: rats, cats, pigs, goats, mongoose—and the birds have developed no defenses against them because they never had to, they didn’t evolve together. So this is one of their major problems; they’re being decimated on their breeding grounds.
[And] there’s plastic. Everyone knows about the big garbage patch in the Pacific, but there’s plastic everywhere. So the albatrosses that nest on Midway [Atoll] go out to sea to feed, and a big cigarette lighter flashes like bioluminescence in the ocean water and looks like a squid to the albatross; it eats it, goes back to the nest and regurgitates that to its chick. Chicks are found to be full of all sorts of plastic, and of course, they die.
There are a lot of problems; we haven’t even gotten to the warming of the oceans. It’s pretty much an endless list, but there are many, many, many successes.
New Zealanders in particular have developed a way to eradicate rats from islands, and this is going on in many places in the world. Believe it or not, this needs to happen right off the coast of California—there’s an introduced house mouse on the Farallon Islands that needs to be eradicated to protect our endemic population of ashy storm petrels.
Are there other things that can be done?
People on their own can begin to think of plastic in their lives, and how much they use plastic. That’s big on my list. You’re still going to have your toothbrush, but all these small disposable items that people use … the “K-Cups” from coffeemakers are the next big cigarette lighter, in my opinion. Those things are deadly bad.
People can donate money to seabird-conservation organizations that have to raise a lot of money to do this eradication. It’s possible for someone to purchase a hectare of rat-free land on South Georgia [a sub-Antarctic island]. That’s another way people can help.
For people who are inland, what’s the concern for seabirds? Why should people who don’t see them all the time care about them the way you do?
You don’t have to have seen something to love it. I love dinosaurs—I had a little dinosaur set when I was a kid and have loved them to this day. I’ve never seen a dinosaur, but if there was a dinosaur alive today, I sure as heck wouldn’t want to see him disappear! You don’t have to see it to want to keep it and preserve it.