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A Night on Land.


[Read before the Northern Division of the Cooper Orn. Club. March 3, 1990.]

From the day I was informed that "not a living thing' was to be found on the San Benito Islands. I made up my mind that they were well worth a visit, and when, one after another of the captains of coasting vessels repeated the threadbare statement, my anxiety grew until I began to regard the rocks as the most interesting spot in the Pacific. Many similar islands I had visited, all of which were forsaken by all living creatures—if the statements of the fishermen and sealers were to be believed—and I usually found that the more "accursed" an island was, the more interesting it was found to be from the standpoint of the naturalist. I was hardly prepared, however, for the appearance of desolation that greeted me when I first dropped anchor in the lea of the westernmost of the three islands that form the group, which lies about sixty miles off the coast of Lower California and about twenty miles from Cerros Island, the largest of the islands on the Pacific coast of the peninsula.

I have said that the outlook was not encouraging. Hardly a sea bird was in sight; in place of thousands of gulls, cormorants and pelicans that usually enliven the region of a "bird island" in these waters, a dozen or so Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis), half as many cormorants and one or two Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) seemed to comprise the avian census of the islands. It was evident at a glance that there were no large rookeries of these species to be found. On landing, the island was found to be fairly honey-combed with the burrows of Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus.) As July this species was nearly through with its season's housekeeping, and one or two burrows which were opened contained petrels. As petrels can be seen in their glory only at night, we paid them a call after dark and were well repaid for our trouble. Since then I have several times wandered over the more level paths of this island at night, and have always found a bird population that has surprised me, familiar as I am with that and similar rookeries.

As I recently tried to give a crude idea of what was to be seen and heard on the water after night-fall. I will borrow a few notes from my field book concerning what transpired on land during one of my night calls on the birds of San Benito. Leaving the schooner soon after it was fairly dark, we pulled to the landing a few hundred yards from the anchorage. On a high rock lying in front of and breaking the sea from the landing, we disturbed a Frazar's Oystercatcher (Hematopus Jrazart), which flew past the boat uttering its rattling alarm. There is always an Oystercatcher on this rock at night. Sometimes it is the present species, but as often the Black (Hematopus bachmant), and they never fail to herald the landing of a boat. Sometimes the Oystercatcher is accompanied by a Wandering Tattler (Heteractitis incanus), which is a great night feeder, and can be heard at all hours, though seldom seen at night.

Hauling the boat out on the shingle, a few steps places us in the city of birds, a fact we discovered by breaking through into the burrows at almost every step, but the birds themselves are very much in evidence. Hundreds of inky black objects are dashing about with bat-like flight, now here, now there, with no apparent object in their wanderings. Like butterflies they come and go, flitting so near at times that one attempts to catch them as they pass. Others are constantly coming from the burrows to join in the revel. Each, as it reaches the outer air, utters its characteristic call, flops along the ground a few feet, somewhat like an old felt hat before the wind, and is away, as graceful and airy as the rest. Those in the air are constantly calling and from the ground under our feet come answering cries. The noise and confusion suggests a busy street in a city.

From the harsher notes of the Black Petrel (Oceanodroma melania), the very