Sunday, December 8, 2013

This Is Where I Saw the Black-capped Petrels

Black-capped Petrel - Photo by Chris Haney

The Biology Department at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls offered a course in Biome Biology during spring quarter 1973.  A biome, as defined by the dictionary, is “A major regional or global biotic community, such as a grassland or desert, characterized chiefly by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing climate.”  Major biomes in North America include the Great Plains grasslands, Arctic tundra, Eastern deciduous forest, Sonoran desert, and other large expansive conglomerations of similar habitat types in a similar climactic zone. In the spring of 1973, UW River Falls chose the Everglades wetland biome in subtropical South Florida (the second largest wetland on earth) as the biome it wanted to focus on. 

Sequestered in northern Wisconsin made it difficult to have hands-on experience with anything subtropical and especially the Everglades so during spring break 1973 the class (all 14 of them and 2 professors) headed south out of the Wisconsin snowbanks bound for Florida.

One requirement of the class was that everyone had to select some aspect of the biome to conduct research on while in subtropical Florida.  Some students chose birds and bird distribution as their research topic and others studied plants.  One student took along small live-traps and captured various species of field mice and other small rodents for identification.  One student and her husband chose to study the inshore fauna of Gulf of Mexico waters to determine what species of small animals occurred at various depths away from shore.

After the spring break trip had concluded each student was required to present a seminar on their research findings.  Some of the presentations were very high tech for the time and some were loaded with data.  Others, well, not so much.  One of the not-so-much seminars was presented by Marynell Redmann and her husband Jack who had studied the inshore fauna of the Gulf of Mexico.  As the seminar droned on Marynell showed slide after slide of the creatures they had found and near the end of the presentation as she told a story about seeing some species of shark swimming with its dorsal fin out of the water, she flashed a slide on the screen that showed nothing but open water.  There were no fins.  There were no birds.  There was nothing but ocean and sky and Marynell’s narrative for the slide was, simply, “And this is where we saw the shark.”  The picture could have been taken on Lake Superior or anywhere else where there was a large expanse of water.  It would have made no difference where it was taken because there was nothing in the picture but water and sky.

I thought about Ms. Redmann and her long ago presentation a few days ago while on a cruise as we were returning north along the northeast coast of Cuba.  There at about 7:40 a.m. on December 6, 2013, I found a pair of black-capped petrels in what was probably some sort of display posture out over the ocean about 30 miles from the Cuban coast.  Black-capped petrel is a fantastic seabird that nests only in the mountains of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and maybe Jamaica.  Finding one is the pinnacle of any bird watching trip on the ocean. 

This is where I saw the black-capped petrels

As I watched the pair flying back and forth in high arcing bounds over the ocean I took out my camera to take a picture.  Of course the birds were too far away to see with the inadequate focal length of my lens.  However I snapped a picture anyway and it’s displayed above.  As you can see there is nothing in it but water and air yet the picture gives me the perfect opportunity to paraphrase Marynell Redmann 40 years after the fact and say “And this is where I saw the black-capped petrels.” 

I have wanted to make that quip ever since that night in May 1973 when Marynell filled us in on shark habitat in the Gulf of Mexico.