Monday, February 6, 2012


Official DoD policy is that military vehicles may not pick up hitch-hikers; in fact, any personnel coming aboard as "riders" must be screened and veted before ever setting foot on the Quarterdeck. This is true, at least, for human passengers...but at times the humans on board are somewhat outnumbered by hitch-hikers who haven't read DoD regulations, and couldn't care less!
Enter the birds. No, not a Hitchcock thriller; these Avian Intruders aren't intent on devouring Arctic's complement--just stopping by for a few hours or days' rest during a long migration, or perhaps blown off-shore and fortunate enough to find an underway haven. Whatever the reason, there are always a few winged supercargo flitting around the bridge wings, swooping between the cargo booms in search of prey, or startling forktruck drivers in the cargo handling areas with sudden aerobatics.

We have had birds--entire flocks of them--come aboard in one port, ride happily for a few days, and then disembark at the next anchorage as if following a posted itinerary. Dozens of what I grew up calling "Chickadees" have roosted on the forward deckhouse, only to be vigorously hunted by the mated pair of falcons making their temporary home atop the replenishment stations, where they can keep their incredibly sharp eyes out for prey. Once I was on lookout when a Peregrine "took" one of the smaller birds only a few feet before my amazed eyes--nothing I have ever seen can quite compare to that memory of "nature, red in tooth and claw"! 
Of course, land-birds taking passage in a ship at sea don't have it all easy all the time. The less predatory birds often have difficulty finding food, and fresh water is not common, especially in more arid regions. This is where the crew come in; many of "Polar Bear"s personnel put out dishes of fresh water daily, and it's a common sight to see bowls of corn or grains--even peanuts--in less traveled parts of the ship that our feathered shipmates can easily find. One of our Stewards is legendary for his efforts on behalf of the avian population, "liberating" leftover wheat bread and rolls from the Galley bread-box and tossing it to all comers, both in port and at sea. 
There was one shipmate named Luis, with whom I was fortunate to sail with many times in the past but who sails different waters today; a friend, a long-time mariner and a true seaman, but more important to our story, a man who has a special relationship with birds. I have watched him on many occasions whistling and whispering to a terrified fowl, calling softly and patiently until the animal visibly calms, and often jumps upon his outstretched finger. Luis has nursed wounded sparrows back to health with love and quiet conversation, and when the bird is too badly injured either by attack or accident he will quickly and kindly end it's suffering, speaking to it all the time in his way. I have never experienced anything like it, and I expect I never will again. 
In any environment teeming with wildlife such as this, one is bound to meet a few enthusiasts. Enter Jonathan, another fellow watchstander currently studying the mysteries of flight. At any free moment you can find him on deck, binoculars in hand, watching gull, mew, or tern with almost child-like enthusiasm. Jon reads from Peterson's and talks of taking up bird-watching; I think that's already a fact!
Sea-birds, land-birds...flickers of shadow about the bridge windows, stooping predators releasing victory screeches as they capture dinner in powerful talons, dazzling spots of color perched high in the rigging or on a topside handrail, contrasting vividly with the drab greys and blacks of deck and superstructure. It is something of a symbiotic relationship, I think; with our great steel hull, masts and rigging we give our feathered visitors a place of refuge on the ocean, and in return the birds give us wonder, entertainment, and a vibrant reminder of life beyond the bulwarks that enclose our tiny, mobile world at sea. An even trade, I think.
Tom Epps
Able Seaman
USNS Arctic
Gulf of Aden

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