WHO WAS WHO IN CALIFORNIA BIRDING
1965-1989
DEBI SHEARWATER  [Debra Love Shearwater]
Debi Shearwater is one of a kind. She doesn't meet the criteria set out for our 'whos who' gallery, as do almost all the rest of our selections, and yet her major impact on California birding is undeniable. Debi found an unmet niche in California a birder operating regular pelagic trips off the coast and filled that niche by creating Shearwater Journeys. Once the realm of the occasional boat trip sponsored by an Audubon Society or Western Field Ornithologists, Debi created a business and, in time, was able to earn her living organizing and leading pelagic trips from Monterey, Bodega Bay, Fort Bragg, and elsewhere.

Debra Love Millichap came to California from Pennsylvania, via Texas, having been on a single boat trip off the East Coast. As she tells it, "on the trip that day a gentleman whom I had met said that I was lucky to be heading to Monterey, as it was one of the best seabird destinations in the world." She continues: "I begged a ticket on a spring pelagic trip ten days after arriving. Imagine my excitement as I walked down Fisherman's Wharf, seeing hundreds of Northern Fulmars in the harbor. I did not even need to get on a boat. Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, and Rhinoceros Auklets were just off the jetty. I saw my first of many Black-footed Albatrosses that day. I thought: ' This is magic';" from Shearwater (2004a).

Debi had no particular plans to stay in California. She earned some money by house-sitting in Pebble Beach, and asked the Monterey locals how to see a Laysan Albatross or a Red-billed Tropicbird. Informed that the best odds were mid-winter and mid-summer, respectively, Debi chartered single mid-winter and mid-summer boat trips from Monterey in 1976, and advertised them to California birders. And, as luck would have it, the winter trip produced a Laysan and the summer cruise a Red-billed Tropicbird! As Debi recalls: "Magic seemed like a regular thing for me, or so it was in those early days. In reality, I was quite naive. Many years would pass before I would see another Red-billed Tropicbird on Monterey Bay. But those magical trips propelled me forward, as if riding a surfer's high wave. I organized a series of trips, which I offered to the general birding public in 1978. So began Shearwater Journeys" (Shearwater 2004a).

Shearwater Journeys initially offered Monterey Bay pelagic trips, and Debi recruited central California leaders like Rich Stallcup, Steve Bailey, Joe Morlan, and Don Roberson. In time the offerings would expand to the Cordell Bank from Bodega Bay, or to the Davidson Seamount from Avila Beach, or to canyons west of Ft. Bragg and Debi's group of leaders would include a goodly portion of our 'top 40' in this project. She pioneered trips to new places or at new seasons, recruited new leaders among the up-and-coming younger observers, and continued to find birds of interest. She even legally changed her name to Debra Love Shearwater. Her most spectacular finds would occur after the close of our period in 1989; in the 1990s and early 21st century, Debi would lead trips that discovered such incredible rarities as Shy Albatross; Great-winged and Dark-rumped and Bulwer's Petrel; Greater, Wedge-tailed, Cory's, and Little Shearwaters; a selection of boobies; and Crested Auklet.

Pelagic birding has continued to grow in popularity since Shearwater Journeys began in 1979. Debi herself has logged over 1600 days at sea. Today, there are other pelagic offerings from various California ports, but Shearwater Journeys continues to offer a full schedule of trips. The offerings now include cruises to the Arctic or Antarctic. Debi Shearwater is now a household name among North American birders. She is currently on the board of directors for the American Birding Association.

Photo 12 Oct 1996 Monterey, with Al DeMartini © D. Roberson
 


Official Bird Name: none was ever formally bestowed, but Debi legally changed her own name to Shearwater. I guess that's close enough.
 
Significant bird records: numerous pelagic records of interest from offshore California. Some of the incredible first State records discovered since our period ended in 1989 are set out above.

Selected publications since 1989:

  • Shearwater, D.L. 1995. The mysteries of Cordell Bank: a gathering place for tubenoses. Winging It 7(1): 1-3.
  • Shearwater, D.L. 2004a. I thought it was magic: tales of a seabirder. Birding 36: 582-585.
  • Shearwater, D.L. 2004b. A brief history of pelagic birding in North America. Birding 36: 634-638.

All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights reserved.
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

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Page created 27 Mar 2005