National Geographic : 1951 Feb
Sea Birds of Isla Raza BY L IS WAYNE WALKER With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ISLA RAZA is not famous. In fact, it isn't even a speck on most maps that show the Gulf of California. Not a soul lives there, but it teems with life. Its deso late rocks ring with the cries of numberless nesting birds. From the lonely Gulf, flyers and fishermen brought back tales of an island alive with wings, one that would rank with the better known sea bird cities of the world.* Despite its huge population of birds, Raza had been explored by only a very few orni thologists; so, with a friend, I decided to visit the tiny island in the middle of nowhere and yet so close to the United States. In a surplus Marine Corps reconnaissance car, we traveled 400 miles from San Diego to Angeles Bay (Bahia de los Angeles) in Baja California, Mexico (map, page 240). Here we learned why so little was known about Isla Raza and other Gulf islands. Get-Out-if-You-Can Island Even in fair weather the area is treacher ous and inhospitable. High winds sweep off the peninsula of Baja California. Currents clocked sometimes at a speed of eight knots swirl between the islands and create immense whirlpools in otherwise placid waters. From hightolowtidethereisadropof12to30 feet. This shifting, surging mass of water prompted an early explorer to name a near-by island Salsipuedes, or "Get Out if You Can." Thirty miles east of Raza, Tibur6n, largest island in the Gulf, lifts high above the horizon. This is the last stronghold of the once warlike Seri Indians. Even to the present day, the pitiful remnants of the tribe are feared by local fishermen. Fresh water is another problem that besets the traveler. Although mountainous, most of the Gulf islands are parched and arid. Forty miles northwest on the peninsula lies Angeles Bay, the Gulf's most beautiful and best pro tected bay. Here is the only fresh water for many miles around. At Angeles Bay we got together additional provisions and recruited oarsmen from a turtle camp 100 miles to the north. After they arrived, paddling an ancient, well-patched dugout canoe, we loaded our equipment into the boat that would take us to Raza. We boarded with trepidation. Most pre tentious in the Angeles Bay fleet, the craft was 25 feet long with a 9-foot beam. But, except for a few special parts, it was home made from flotsam of the Gulf. Any pressure against the inside of the hull brought water through cloth-filled cracks (page 247). On the second day we reached Isla Raza. Insignificant in comparison with the moun tainous islands looming on the horizon, Raza is low, barely reaching 100 feet at the highest point, and is less than a mile square (page 247). In stormy weather, we were told, foam and spindrift blow completely over it. Vegetation is sparse. Hardy saltweed, or salicornia, dots some large tidal flats. There are a few dense patches of cholla cactus, but large boulders cover the rest of the landscape. Gulls Swell Up and Down Like Ocean White-headed, aristocratic Heermann's gulls were all about, perched on rocks, incubating eggs, or in flight (page 241). Gull nests can be found at least every 20 feet over the en tire island. In some areas they are crammed together less than a yard apart. To a distant observer, a person walking through a Heermann rookery creates the effect of an ocean swell made up entirely of birds. Gulls 20 to 30 feet ahead rise above their eggs as the intruder nears, hover directly overhead until he has passed, then drop to their nests. As the person progresses across acre after acre, thousands of birds stand, lift, and drop in unison, creating one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed in my ornitho logical work. Strangely enough, these birds, so tame at their Gulf rookeries, change temperament when they migrate to California at the close of the breeding season. A few possibly cross the peninsula where it narrows to about 40 miles. But most of them supposedly fly 450 miles south to Cape (Cabo) San Lucas, at the southernmost tip of Baja California. There they turn north and, after a journey of 800 to 1,000 miles, reach the Pacific coast of the United States. Some of the migrants move southward as far as Guatemala, but most of them stream northward along the coast and are common winter birds of California, Oregon, Washing *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Blizzard of Birds: The Tortugas Terns," by Alex ander Sprunt, Jr., February, 1947; and "Sea Bird Cities Off Audubon's Labrador," by Arthur A. Allen, June, 1948.