One day Debi Shearwater, who was then named Debi Millichap, walked onto the porch of her parents’ house in Chester, Pennsylvania. There she found her 12-year-old brother Scott Millichap sitting with a baby House Sparrow that had fallen out of its nest. Debi wasn’t interested. She was 18 with a husband deployed in Vietnam. Who could care? Scott put the bird in a shoebox and put the shoebox in the cellar. Later that night Debi, who was sleeping over, like you do when you’re 18 and your husband is at war, went into the basement, heard the bird in the box scratching and yelling, “Meep!” and brought the box upstairs. She gave the bird a shot of whiskey with an eye dropper—her mom’s idea. (Yes.) The bird “got totally drunk,” Debi told me this fall, 51 years later. “The little bird stood up and fell back down and then stood up and fell down again.”
Debi put the drunk bird in the box and the box next to her bed. In the morning, amazingly, it was still alive. Debi and Scott named her Meep, and the two humans spent the next week watching Meep bathe herself and pick at her little shards of feathers until those feathers started to unfurl. This was definitely the most exciting thing going on in Chester, Pennsylvania. The humans loved Meep; Meep loved the humans. Even once she was feathered enough to fly away, Meep chose to stick around. Outside the Millichap house, Meep sat on Debi’s shoulder or the shoulders of passersby. Inside the house she crawled up under Debi’s long, thick blond hair and slept on her neck. Most mornings Meep sat on Debi’s cereal bowl. Most nights Debi played Pinnacle and Meep dragged the cards around.
A year later, Debi’s husband returned from Vietnam and Meep traveled with them to Fort Worth, Texas, where he was stationed and where Debi would assume her role as an officer’s wife. “Hold onto your pants,” Debi said when she explained this part of her life to me. At age 68 she looks like a grown-up Pippi Longstocking—blond braids, nonconformist twinkle in her eye. In those days, Debi said, being an officer’s wife meant: white gloves, high teas, shined shoes, no jeans, no job, no school, how-can-I-serve-you-honey?, the whole bit. Debi accepted this fate. It was the world she lived in, the only world that she knew. But longing for much more, still thrilled by Meep, Debi spent one dollar to buy a used copy of Barton’s How to Watch Birds. Then she spent another dollar to buy Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas. When she was a kid at Girl Scout camp she met a counselor who knew the name of every single tree. Debi, then, wanted to learn the name of every single something. Maybe she should finally fulfill that dream? But alone with the books, Debi still couldn’t identify anything other than a Turkey Vulture, and to be honest, she wasn’t too sure about that. So she followed Barton’s advice in How to Watch Birds: Find the nearest Audubon club and sign up for a field trip. Debi drove 70 miles, to Austin, to join up with a Travis Audubon Society excursion. She arrived five minutes late and the group had already left.
None of this seems like the kind of thing that should land a person on a chartered fishing boat in Monterey Bay giving her 1,000th (give or take) orientation talk for a group of pelagic birders. None of it seems like the kind of thing that would lead this woman to transform said birders, and scores more, into Bonine-popping seabird superfans, making her an icon in the still (still!) male-dominated subculture that is the birding community. Nor would one think she’d become a character in a book (The Big Year) that then becomes a major motion picture (The Big Year) in which she’s played by a gruff-talking Anjelica Huston, who, in the course of playing her character, pulls a knife on a man. Nor does it hint that this woman would sue the federal government for the personal damages that result from wind-farm violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
But Debi is not quite like the rest of us. In her hands, little things become big things. Yes, saving a sparrow and bumbling at birding is not an auspicious start to a life as a birder. It’s not an obvious entree to an epic, original life. Yet humans are a strange and varied species. Most of us drift along, floating on life’s prevailing currents, passive, even blind, to the possibilities lurking all around. Yet a few of us, like Debi, have a magical talent to take whatever simple raw materials drop into our path and turn them into something grand.
his August, Debi stood on the stern of Checkmate in black pants and blue sunglasses, a penguin embroidered on her baseball cap, a clipboard in her hands—a woman in full control. “The boat is not going to go over,” she told the 50 birders assembled. “Nobody is going swimming. Least of all me, because I don’t swim.” She’d been giving this talk to her Shearwater Journeys customers several dozen times a year for 44 years, and she still seemed to love it.
“Don’t ask me where I’m going—I don’t know yet.”
“Someone is going to yell, ‘Sooty Shearwater!’ after we’ve seen 10,000 of them. Should you look at every one? Yes.”
The man standing next to me was in awe of our guide: “You know that movie Pumping Iron?” He was referring to the 1977 documentary that followed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, before they were the Terminator and Incredible Hulk, as they vied for the Mr. Olympia Bodybuilding title. It’s not a natural analog for a late-middle-aged woman talking to several dozen late-middle-aged people in field pants. “She reminds me of that film,” he said.
Then we motored away from Fisherman’s Wharf and out into Monterey Bay. A raucous football team of barking California sea lions cheered (and jeered) us from the rock jetty. Debi started into her calls. She reads the seabirds on the ocean as if the boat were a clock. A bird off the bow is at 12; a bird off the stern is at 6.
“Tourists out on the balcony in their bathrobes—11 o’clock!”
“Two Pelagic Cormorants at 8 o’clock!”
This bay—the fish below and the seabirds above— has been Debi’s elected home nearly her entire adult life. After she missed the Texas birders in the parking lot in Austin, she finally caught up with the group and saw “all these people standing there with binoculars looking at birds. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ” The birders themselves were more important than any bird she’d ever seen—they were her people. One man in particular walked toward Debi with a big smile and an outstretched hand—Ed Kutac. He became her birding mentor, she his birding daughter. “He was everything,” she said. They spent days together in his VW camper, driving country roads, looking at prairie-chickens, and seeing every species of rail. He instilled in Debi the importance of keeping detailed records and supporting conservation, “even if you don’t have a million dollars.” He also told Debi about Connie Hagar, a woman in Rockport, Texas, who didn’t fly around the world, listing. She birded the same circuit every day, year after year, and that way was one of the first to notice the fallout of the warblers along the Texas coast.
Debi decided that just as Connie birded her trail, she’d bird Monterey Bay, where her husband was stationed after he finished his assignment in Texas (and before she divorced him because, as she put it, she “wanted to have a life”). The place is vast and wild, “as amazing as Yellowstone or Yosemite,” she said, though to the untrained eye it just looks like water. The terrain below splits into cold-water canyons to about 12,000-feet deep, not far from shore, and upwelling currents supply nutrients for the plankton blooms that anchor the food chain of all marine species.
Above these waters Debi has seen hundreds of her four or five thousand life birds. (She’s not a lister, don’t ask. She has 2,500 on eBird.) Among the many rare birds spotted on her Bay trips: the first Bulwer’s Petrel and Chatham Albatross, and the second Streaked Shearwater for California. On her first fall birding trip in Monterey Bay, Debi also saw a blue whale, the largest animal to live on Earth. Since then, she’s openly professed her polyamorous feelings for birds and cetaceans. She’s famous for defending her right to make her pelagic tour-goers spend time taking in non-avian creatures—if not with a boning knife (as portrayed in The Big Year) then with knife-like ferocity.
“Do you smell that?” Debi asked late morning, inhaling a waft of putrid sea air as if the scent of baking brownies. “That smell is actually whale’s breath.”
Debi’s 8-, sometimes 12-hour, sometimes “very hairy-chested overnight” pelagic trips are all treasure hunt, no joy ride. Debi is here to do a job. The seabirds come first, the cetaceans second, the people third. You want to see a Long-tailed Jaeger? She’ll take you to see a Long-tailed Jaeger. “I have a relationship with these seabirds! They know me,” she said, though she also noted: “This is not a multi-million-dollar amusement park. I can’t make the wildlife jump out on cue.”
Along the way, she launched an industry. “She didn’t invent pelagic trips and she didn’t invent whale watching,” Todd McGrath, a lifelong birder and 30-year veteran of Debi’s trips, told me. “Almost every other pelagic trip or every other whale-watching thing—it was like something people did when the fishing wasn’t good. Or, you know, an Audubon chapter or a bunch of guys would get together and say, ‘Let’s see if we can charter a boat and go out and look at seabirds.’” Debi changed that. She turned Shearwater Journeys into a viable full-time business, a bucket-list item for serious birders—one many didn’t do just once, but repeatedly. Word spread. “It’s not enough just to do a pelagic trip in California,” McGrath said. “You have to go with Debi Shearwater because it’s the show.”
In the bay, to encourage the Black-footed Albatrosses and a variety of shearwaters to pay her visits, Debi chums (on a NOAA permit that took six years to secure) off the boat’s stern, tossing stinky pieces of frozen anchovies and a drip of menhaden fish oil. For a while all this produced, that August morning, was a tremendous flock of gulls. Then the first tubenose showed up, a Black-footed Albatross, his wings majestic and otherworldly, a cross between a magician’s cape and tightrope walker’s balancing stick.
Twenty minutes later, another albatross appeared. Then another. Then another. Then rafts of Sooty Shearwaters, hundreds of them Lindy-hopping on the ocean’s surface.
Some of the species looked so vulnerable, some looked so impenetrably serene. Next came the sleeping humpbacks. (“We woke him up!,” Debi said. “Here comes the tail!”) Then the Pacific white-sided dolphins. Then the Baird’s beaked whales.
“Pink-footed Shearwater! Coming in on the boat’s wake! You can see with the naked eye! Naked eye!” Ashy Storm-Petrel! Arctic Tern! Sabine’s Gull! Northern Fulmar! By 2 pm, all the humans were exhausted, their eBird checklists as checked as they were going to get for the day. Several clients assembled near the chumming station and asked Debi the question that was on everybody’s mind: Was this really it? Was she really cleating off this incredible life she’d built at the end of this season?
Debi found the incredulity funny. “I’m not sailing off into the sunset. I’m going full gallop!”
n 1980 Debi walked into Santa Cruz Superior Court and changed her name from Debi Millichap to Debi Shearwater. She’d grown tired of people mispronouncing her last name. “I thought why not pick a bird!” she said. She’d seen shearwaters on the first pelagic trip she’d ever taken, which happened to be on the East Coast. “Shearwater is pronounced the ways it’s spelled,” she said. “You really couldn’t mess it up.” Plus she’s a woman who was meant to be her own creation.
So it’s hardly surprising that she created her own second family—the birds. She’s had 40 pet birds, including a jay named Eddie, who, like a college kid, left but kept coming home to eat. Iolair, a very poignant Golden Eagle, came into her life eight years ago, when she noticed him sitting on a telephone pole, crying out to find a mate. Debi felt for him. He cried—mournfully, painfully, kind of pathetically, really—for years. “He was just this lonely guy,” she said, “and I’m thinking, ‘God, is he ever going to get a mate?’ ” Debi posted a picture of Iolair on Facebook. “If it was possible to marry a Golden Eagle, I would marry him,” she wrote. Then one day she noticed that in addition to calling his desperate call, he was looking up to his left. A female Golden Eagle! Debi thought, “Oh God, this is it!” And then the female eagle kept flying by.
Finally, in 2017, Iolair managed to hook up, and Debi watched, happily but also tearing her hair out, as the couple began collecting grass and branches to build a nest. Which they did in just the stupidest possible place: on the top crossbar of a power tower. Debi stepped in and lobbied Pacific Gas & Electric to put covers on the live 5,000-volt wires. Still, the whole situation was a little hard to watch. Iolair “was like that boyfriend you didn’t want,” Debi said. “Every time she’d go do something, like go catch a ground squirrel to get away from him for a minute,” Iolair followed and hovered, squawking and calling her the whole time. “Now they’ve been together two or three years and he’s okay,” Debi said. But the nest is still in a preposterous spot—too windy, zero shade.
Debi met Bob and Bernadette, her Bald Eagle best friends, in 2004. She noticed a nest nine miles from her home—notable because Bald Eagles had never nested in San Benito County before. For the past 15 years now, Debi has been checking on Bob and Bernadette, “five days out of seven.” The two are very faithful to each other, so Debi named them after a very faithful couple of Homo sapiens, Bob and Bernadette Ramer, in the Santa Cruz Bird Club. They’ve weathered a few traumas over the years. In 2014 their nest collapsed. After they rebuilt, some Golden Eagles attempted a hostile takeover, and Bernadette, the fierce one in the couple, had to fight them off. Also: Bob was shot and killed. “I think we’re on Bob number two now,” Debi said.
These eagles are so important in Debi’s life that American Bird Conservancy lawyers asked Debi to join their lawsuit to protect the raptors. They’re cited in Shearwater v. Ashe, the 2015 lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior, which challenged the “30-year take rule.” The rule would have authorized FWS to grant wind developers permits to kill or “take” eagles for 30 years without penalty—replacing the existing five-year limit. Debi’s side won, and the ruling is known as the Shearwater Decision.
ebi estimates she’s spent a cumulative six years on the water. She’s been to every continent, more than 100 countries, and experienced just about every disaster one could imagine. “Death is biting at my butt! Each time I take a trip it gets closer,” she told me. In Canada, on her way to Churchill to see Snowy Owls, Tundra Swans, Arctic Terns, and Northern Wheatears, her train derailed. In the Russian Far East, en route to see Steller’s Sea Eagles, a volcano erupted. Near the Darien Gap, where she’d seen Pirre Hummingbirds, Pirre Chlorospingus, Pirre Warblers, a Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, and a Red-throated Caracara, she was on the last plane out before rebels started killing people on the grass runway. In Antarctica, on a trip to see Emperor Penguins, brash ice hit her as she was boarding a Zodiac boat and she fell in the freezing water.
Along the way, at less physical peril to herself, she also founded World Girl Birders, to celebrate women in birding, as far too often the main speakers at events are male birding experts.
But more than that, Debi’s presence changed the community. “The fact that she’s a woman and did what she did at the time she did is a testament to her personality—just not caring what others think of her and following her passion,” Anna Weinstein, Audubon’s director of marine conservation, told me. She took people out on the water and brought them back with a deeper connection to the natural world. You see a specific bird, Weinstein said, “you have skin in the game. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I care about the Black-footed Albatross. I saw one of those on Debi Shearwater’s trip. I’m going to write a note to my legislator asking him to support the national marine sanctuary system.’”
All the records Debi has kept trip after trip, year after year, in her black-and-white composition notebooks have become an invaluable resource of their own. Take the 40 years of relative abundance data she has on Ashy Storm-Petrels. The elusive nocturnal bird had been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act but FWS didn’t list it when petitioned because the agency didn’t have data to prove the population was unstable. “It’s very difficult to get a population count of Ashy Storm-Petrels from breeding sites because they come and go in the dark,” Scott Terrill, senior ornithologist at California ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates, told me. Counting seabirds on the water is no easier as research cruises have to chug along their set transect lines and “can’t deviate from that line to go look for stormy-petrel rafts.” The thousand data points Debi collected on Ashies is the best tool we have for estimating the global population. The seabird’s numbers are declining, and while FWS decided not to list the species, Debi’s records helped inform a range-wide conservation plan. Likewise, her data have been vital in identifying steep declines in Sooty Shearwaters and changed our understanding of where the birds gather in rafts to molt—a stage when they’re particularly vulnerable. NOAA adjusted shipping lanes off the California coast to avoid whales that Debi helped document as well.
Debi’s time on the water has provided her with adventure, passion, connection, meaning, a way to give back to the world. Still, when I saw her again in early September, she confirmed that, yes, the rumors were true. She’s done. She really is. Why? Her hips hurt. She’s tired. She’s done her duty. She wants to travel more. She hopes to see a narwhal. But those are the rational reasons, the easy expected reasons. Given the life Debi has created up until now, they’re the reasons that come with the drift. The deeper answer, for Debi, is that something beautiful has fallen into her life and she’s turning toward it. This happened one afternoon in May 2018, when Debi was on track to break the record for a Big Day in San Benito County, which was a rather low-stakes operation given that it was her own record she was on track to break. She was birding a lonely dead-end road when she saw a mangy dog. She knew the dog was too big, too old, and too wormy to get adopted. So Debi took her home. She named her Birdie Bear—Birdie for obvious reasons, Bear because her head looked like a polar bear’s—BB for short. Debi tried bringing BB on the boat. It was a disaster. “She was so afraid,” Debi said. Debi hated to see BB with her tail between her legs, suffering all day.
And that’s okay. Debi had a great, long run on the water, and now BB needs her, and that feels good. On land Debi plans to bird San Benito County, a relatively untapped area, just like Connie Hagar birded Rockport, Texas, and Debi herself birded Monterey Bay. The data she collects will help track the health of local bird populations. And she’ll still have her bird family. She’ll always have her bird family. She plans to volunteer, as she does every year, for the California Tricolored Blackbird Survey. She also volunteers for the California Roadkill Observation System, calling in dead badgers. But she said her official daily schedule, now that Shearwater Journeys is up for sale, is “sleep, walk dog, read, walk dog, gardening, walk dog.”
“Bob and Bernadette, you know, they have their own life.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2019 issue as “The Birds Saved Debi...Is She Really Calling it Quits?” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.