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No matter how messy, the seabirds are worth it


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POSTED: Monday, December 28, 2009

Sometimes when I'm gushing about experiences I've had with Hawaii's seabirds, I know my listeners don't get it.

“;I'll bet it really stinks,”; someone will say, wrinkling her nose. Or, with a shudder, “;It sounds like that horror movie, 'The Birds.'”; Another common comment: “;You must get bitten a lot.”;

Well, yes. All that is true. But it's so, so worth it.

Conservation biologist, photographer and Big Island resident Robert Shallenberger also thinks it's worth it. I know this from reading his new book, “;Hawaiian Birds of the Sea”; (UH Press, $21.95). In the preface he writes that seabird colonies are noisy, stinky and messy, especially when you forget your hat. No matter. His fascination with seabirds, he admits, is over the top.

Wherever that top is, I'm over it, too.

I was first smitten with seabirds at Tern Island in Hawaii's Northwest chain when I sailed there in 1989 to write a series about the refuge. I didn't know what to expect and was astonished to find that the seabirds nesting there were so unafraid of people the workers could just bend down and pick them up. At Tern I considered the 24-hour-a-day honks, wails, groans and screeches as exuberant music, a sort of avian heavy metal. I even came to peace with the odor of guano. When it drifts to my nose now, I think it's the smell of life.

Recently an editor for an upcoming publication asked me to describe what was special about Tern Island. I wrote (in part): “;My favorite job was fastening aluminum ID bands on the legs of seabirds, because this was one of the few times I could legally hold—and hug—these federally protected animals. Cradling a Laysan albatross in my arms was a joy like no other. The feathers of these goose-sized birds, with their 7-foot wingspans, were so soft my work-calloused hands could barely feel them.

“;But my lips could. When it was my turn to hold an albatross, I'd lower my face to the bird's head, inhale its fresh smell of the open ocean, and touch my lips to its velvety feathers. With this kiss I delivered to the bird my message: You are magnificent and I adore you.”;

You don't have to go as far as the Northwest chain to experience a Hawaii seabird gathering. Rob's first colony experience was years ago on Manana (Rabbit) Island, off Sea Life Park. He'd moved to Hawaii as a graduate student to study spinner dolphins, but while at Manana he found himself amid thousands of screeching sooty terns and moaning wedge-tailed shearwaters.

“;This was amazing!”; he writes. “;The dolphins would have to wait.”; He subsequently earned a Ph.D. from UCLA for his research on Hawaii seabirds.

I met Rob at Midway years ago when he was the refuge manager there, and although I don't know him well, I know that when it comes to being crazy about Hawaii's seabirds, he definitely gets it. His pictures are charming, his writing personal. And like me, he wants others to see these remarkable birds. “;If [this book] piques your curiosity enough to visit a seabird colony,”; he writes, “;then I will have been successful.”;

Rob's lovely book will help me explain to the uninitiated why no matter how busy I am, or how travel-weary, I will grab any chance I get to work with seabirds.

When you read this, by the way, I'll be heading to Midway to count albatrosses.

Susan Scott can be reached at www.susanscott.net.