It seemed like a good place to look for the dead. The tide was ebbing, leaving behind orange crab casings, their goathead patterns staring blankly up at the gray-milk sky; huge clam shells jutting from the sand like small white tombstones; and sand dollar skeletons slowly fading from purple to bleach-bone white. A bitter north wind howled over the flattened beach, carrying sheets of sand that formed temporary rivulets and shallow dunes and whispered shhhhhhhh,counterpoint to the high wail of the wind in our ears. The ocean, crashing in messy, close-set waves, breathed heavily in, then out, in, out, as we walked beside it into the fierce wind. Faintly, we heard a raven cawing as it bucked with the wind, a wind-snatched reply as four gulls passed it in the opposite direction.
My hands began to freeze. I pulled my hat on, and a windbreaker over four other insulated layers, stuffed my hands into my pockets and still shivered. Cindy Moyer, walking to my right a few yards over, and Jenn Holland, several more yards to Moyer's right, were bareheaded. They walked slowly, seeming lost in thought, but their eyes scoured the drier upper waveslope where the water had been hours ago. Ahead of us, a raven crouched on the beach, jerking its beak upward in tearing motions. Holland honed in on it and the raven flapped off. We joined her, and stared down at the tiny, deflated feather-and-bones carcass of a seabird. Its bill gave it away - broad, flattish, orange. "It could be a horned puffin," said Moyer. She and Holland crouched next to the dead bird and pulled out clipboard, notebook, pen, assorted measuring tools and two copies of Beached Birds: A COASST Field Guide.Moyer pulled on white latex gloves, picked up one of the bird's legs and measured. She examined the wing feathers, made more measurements, while Holland recorded the numbers. Yes, it was a horned puffin. Moyer chalked an identification code onto a small board and Holland took two photos, front and back, of the carcass.
We rose, and continued forward, Holland pulling on a knit cap. Salt spray coated our glasses. My eyes burned and watered. As we walked, apart, each cocooned by wind shriek, I wondered about these two women. What drew a violin, viola and music theory professor (Moyer, who teaches at Humboldt State) and an elementary education major (Holland, an HSU freshman) onto this violently stormy Mad River Beach to intimately record the particulars of deceased birds? I mean, I knew factually who they were - trained "citizen scientists" with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), which documents seabird mortality along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
I knew they had agreed to walk this long stretch of beach once a month to identify dead birds and send the data to actual scientists to confirm. And I knew there was an overarching purpose: Dead seabirds are - as Peter Nelson, of U.C. Davis, had said at a Friday night Audubon talk in Eureka - "the canary in the marine coal mine." They can provide baseline data for research, reveal the effects of catastrophes such as oil spills, and tell us about natural trends in the ocean - in 2005, and again in 2006, for instance, scientists were alarmed when huge numbers of seabirds began washing up on beaches on the Pacific Coast; they think warmer ocean temperatures, after the normal upwelling that brings colder water and nutrients to the surface failed to occur, may have led to seabird starvation.
And I could even understand the citizen part - everybody's drawn to inspect the beach's offerings at some point. But dead birds?
"Birds were my draw," said Holland. "But I actually didn't read the flier that carefully - I didn't see the 'dead' part." She thought she'd signed up to monitor live birds. Moyer said she'd done live bird surveys with friends. This seemed a logical next step. Plus, a dead bird is a more patient anatomy instructor than a skittish live bird, they both agreed. And, most important, what the dead taught them might help the living.
Noble reasons. But as we went from carcass to carcass until at last we reached the mouth of the Mad River, I confess it was death that began to draw me in. These still afterlives, though sometimes shiver-inducing, were beautiful: the small, soft common murre whose neck had been pulled over its head - "like a turtleneck," said Moyer cheerfully - by a peregrine that had captured it in flight; the unidentifiable set of nearly stripped wings, no feet, head or body, propped like flight's stark symbol in the sand; the Brandt's cormorant lying on its side like a small, sleeping, fluff-black dog, long blond thread-like hairs fluttering on its cheeks; the Western grebe, its charcoal-colored legs and large lobed feet striped with white bands like a witch's stockings; the nearly intact gull on its back, pale pink feet shivering in the wind.
On the way back, my thoughts settled cozily into a newfound complacency toward such finality. It was short-lived. Up ahead, three white gulls hopped about on a large mound on the beach. We drew closer, and the mound moved and became a large seal, her wet coat shining and flashing as she humped in great leaps toward the waves. She turned and hurried back to the gulls, who were heckling something - her baby. The baby feebly lurched after her. The gulls kept pace, crowding it. The mother raced up, raced away into the waves as they washed in, then swam back to the baby. Repeatedly.
I quickly shoved death away - despicable creature - and prayed for the baby to make it into the waves. I cursed the gulls. Knots gathered in my stomach as the baby seal finally made it into the ocean and started swimming away with its mother, only to be nearly beached again. But at long last, they were safely away. The gulls stood about. One lunged at another and nipped it, making it jump.
And we walked on. The citizen scientists noted they'd made an especially good haul of data. This day, at least, this beach had indeed been a good place to look for the dead. It also turned out to be a good place to look for life.