What a Songbird Lost at Sea Taught Me About Survival

Aboard a mission to explore the alien life of the deep ocean, a chance encounter with a migratory bird offered a point of connection—one that has felt poignant this past year.  

The bird was olive-green and yellow with a chunky beak. No one knew where she came from. But she probably wasn’t supposed to be here. She just appeared one day, tattered and listless. She must have been flying quite some time before she found us.

On our steel island, songbirds didn’t drop from the sky every day. For weeks the R/V Atlantis had been stationed on the open sea some 40 miles from shore. Erik Cordes, an ecologist at Temple University, was leading a team of scientists from about half a dozen labs on a mission to explore life along the continental margin in the Pacific Ocean.

There, just west of Costa Rica and hundreds to thousands of feet below the water’s surface, underwater mountains are liquid rainforests. In nearby areas, Earth’s crust has cracked open, and methane and other gasses seep out in the pressurized depths. These seeps are oases for life in the ocean’s sunless, plant-less deep—an environment deadly to many other familiar life forms. Some of these deep inhabitants fuel themselves by eating microbes that transform methane and hydrogen sulfide into energy. Others get sustenance through symbiotic relationships with those microbes, which live in or on their bodies.

Little is known, however, about how these communities truly survive, or just how much their lives mean to ecosystems in the surrounding deep ocean, toward the surface, or even up on land. This team was there to find out. They also hoped to develop support to protect these seamounts and unique deep-sea habitats. The remoteness of these places was no longer enough to shelter them from threats like mining, fishing, and climate change.

Even as scientists aboard the ship hauled up alien creatures from the deep sea, our avian visitor was a unique and mysterious sighting. Everyone welcomed her aboard with homesick hospitality, putting her up in a cardboard cottage high on a shelf with ocean views. Before long, she was eating blueberries, and nibbling on watermelon rinds and clementine wedges. Cannibalistic as it may or may not have been, she acquired an affinity for scrambled eggs.

The food and company lifted her spirits, and she began exploring the deck. Her favorite jaunt became a table and chairs just outside the vessel’s main laboratory door. She was the talk of the ship as she hopped about. Step onto the deck at nearly any time of day, and you’d likely find the chubby gal surrounded by human admirers, basking in the bounty of her newfound oasis.

Shana Goffredi, a biologist and biochemist at Occidental College who specialized in deep sea symbionts, became a sort of godmother to the bird. Besides hooking her on eggs, Goffredi hooked the rest of us on a nickname for this visitor from land. We started calling her Homeslice.

During that cruise, these researchers studied hundreds of creatures, many new species, some unknown to science. These organisms hailed from depths so cold, dark, and weird that their existence was once thought impossible. But that bitty bird bewitched me. Who was Homeslice, and why was she there?

I'd been obsessed with the deep sea since the previous year, when I learned about the work of William Beebe, an early 20th century naturalist, writer, and explorer. He was one of the first humans ever to dive into this abyss and witness its otherworldly inhabitants. I joined Cordes’ team on the second leg of his mission’s journey in October 2018, as a science communicator to research a book proposal.

I had never spent more than a few hours at sea. And those two-and-a-half weeks of ship life were different from anything I had experienced. There’s a reason we use the expression, “runs a tight ship.” Everyone does their jobs and follows a strict schedule.

The R/V Atlantis was no exception, even with all the unpredictable discoveries. More than a few times while aboard, I heard variations of a common theme: Every day is Monday. Without some kind of framework to shape routine, uncertainty sprawls into chaos.

Each day revolved around the highly-orchestrated 8 AM launch and 5 PM landing of the DSV Alvin, the ship’s human-occupied submersible that explored the deep sea. But the days were far longer, and scientists often worked through the night. I followed along, recording everything. I went to bed exhausted and woke up from sea-born fever dreams.

The cycle continued. Time warped like waves in the Pacific. It rose, crested, fell, crashed, and stretched smooth like mirrored glass. A minute could swell to months. Months could cinch to seconds. Ship time, local time and three or more zones of home time: I couldn’t keep up. Time became an artifact of land life.

About 50 people shared quarters on this 274-foot-long vessel. We slept on bunks in small cabins and shared bathrooms and all other facilities. We ate meals together in the mess hall. On a lucky day, I could sneak some alone time in the humid, windowless workout room or hide out in a six-foot-wide slither of space between two metal shipping containers.

In these cramped quarters, each of us was cut off from personal relationships and routines. We were allotted 150 MB of data daily and shared a crawling internet speed. “You can Google it when you get off” was part of everyone’s vocabulary. No matter a person’s joy in being at sea, normal stresses heightened in this atmosphere. As an Alvin pilot explained to me: You immediately feel trapped, and you “get squirrely toward the end.” A hobby, a book, something unrelated to the sea: That was how not to lose it.

Homeslice helped, and we humans developed a partnership with her. We gave her food, attention and shelter. She provided a land-born distraction and an open space for our thoughts and conversations to wander. Homeslice was also a ham.

Soon after she’d arrived, a BBC film crew visited the ship to film the Alvin. On Saturday, Alvin checked out an unexplored underwater mountain. On Sunday it surveyed an extinct volcano about a mile below the ocean’s surface. Normally, only researchers awaited the vessel’s return. But on these days, nearly the whole ship came to watch.

Homeslice stole the show, performing for her largest audience yet as the film crew followed along. She roosted in Goffredi’s hair, perched on another researcher’s shoulder. When Alvin wheeled into the hangar, Homeslice flew to its basket, hopping from one container of sea life to the next. She perched high on a ledge and peered down. Perhaps Homeslice was as curious as we were about the mysteries the containers held.

Goffredi used her 150 MB to email with a friend, an expert on equatorial birds. We learned that Homeslice was a female or young male migratory songbird that ate insects and fruits and had likely gotten lost on its migration.

Recently, I inquired more about Homeslice’s identity. I spoke with Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist and editor of the Kaufman Field Guides, as well as a field editor for Audubon magazine. Judging by the bird’s size and plumage in my photos, he confirmed that Homeslice was a female Scarlet Tanager, a common and widespread migratory species. Scarlet Tanagers summer in the deciduous forests of eastern North America. They winter in South America, just east of the Andes, along the western edge of the Amazon basin.

It wouldn’t have been unusual to find a Scarlet Tanager at the same latitude as our vessel in late October, but Homeslice was a little too far west from its typical route, and “a little bit lost,” Kaufman said. “Being out there wouldn’t really be on its way to any place it wanted to be.”

Sometimes land birds show up on ships, and they can get there two ways. Some are “doomed by their own instincts,” said Kaufman, born with faulty navigational systems. Others are unwilling passengers of the wind. Because Homeslice was only slightly out of range, she likely belonged to the latter category. She may have been flying along her normal southern route when a wind carried her out over the Pacific. She was probably tired, trying to make her way back, when she spotted the ship and landed for a rest.

At first, she would have been a bit disoriented. “Here it is, after this near-death experience,” Kaufman explained, “and here, these large creatures are offering it food. It wouldn’t take long for the bird to adapt to that,” especially if Homeslice were young.

It was hard to pinpoint her age. Females and juvenile Scarlet Tanagers are both olive and yellow, with subtle differences in tail feather shape and coloring. Adult males, however, replace this duller plumage with bright red and black for summer breeding.

Getting to see a Scarlet Tanager is often a treat, said Kaufman, even for experienced birders. Despite the male’s flashy resort wear, Scarlet Tanagers live rather cryptic lives in their summer homes. They spend most time perched high in the canopies, raising their young toward the center of large swaths of forest. They avoid forest edges, where parasitic Brown-headed Cowbirds can trick tanager parents into raising their cowbird young.

To the uninitiated, tanagers are often “spark birds”—sightings that transform casual nature lovers into avid birders. Most people, however, only notice males in their summer plumage, Kaufman said: “The winter birds, and the females, and the younger birds in their olive tones are often overlooked.”

That is, unless one of these olive-toned birds is the only lonely songbird at sea.

Homeslice was not my spark bird, but Beebe was kind of a spark human. As head of the then-New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research, he recruited artists, writers and historians on his expeditions. His writings transformed me into a deep-sea geek. In 1928, Beebe set up a field station in Nonsuch, Bermuda, in buildings once used to quarantine Yellow Fever patients. There he explored the ocean’s depths, folded like a pretzel inside the Bathysphere, a 2,000-pound steel orb connected to a ship by a cable. On August 15, 1934, Beebe and its designer, Otis Barton, set a world record at the time for the deepest dive, lowering themselves 3,028 feet into the ocean. The descent was broadcast on BBC radio.

Long before the bathysphere, however, Beebe was a celebrated ornithologist. He published scores of essays, popular books and scientific papers, including an early study on the changing colors of the male Scarlet Tanager. Beebe even discussed the issue of lost land birds finding vessels at sea. In his 1906 “The Log of the Sun, a Chronicle of Nature’s Year,” Beebe wrote: “Overcome with fatigue, they perch for hours in the rigging before taking flight in the direction of the nearest land, or, desperate from hunger, they fly fearlessly down to the deck, where food and water are seldom refused them.”

He went on to write that “small events like these are welcome breaks in the monotony of a long ocean voyage, but are soon forgotten at the end of the trip.”

Homeslice disappeared the day after we identified her, after about five days aboard the ship. We discussed her whereabouts. She had gone “to a farm upstate.” She was macerated in a powerful engine fan where an engineer had found “a little piece of yellow bird.” Perhaps Homeslice left with the BBC crew. It was possible that with regained strength, she reoriented and headed for South America. I wonder now if Homeslice was Beebe stopping by for another glance at the deep.

In the last year, I have often thought of Homeslice. As the pandemic began last spring, my New York City apartment became its own island. I lived and worked, crammed into a tight space, isolated from friends, family, and the life I had known. For the first time in a decade of living in the city, I heard chirping birds and windswept leaves instead of car horns and engines.

Those days stretched to months. Time twisted, again. And as everyone around me worked to understand what we didn’t know, the unpredictable became predictable. Minor stresses and exhaustion ballooned as Monday followed Monday.

These days, picturing life before or after COVID-19 has often felt impossible. As of today, a novel virus has killed nearly 3 million people and infected more than 100 million others. Much of the world remains in isolation, waiting like suspension feeders, arms out, for vaccines. They’re coming. In the meantime, there is Homeslice.

Homeslice may have been a common bird, though one hard to spot in a familiar world. Out of place, she was hard to miss. She has reminded me that all of us can find ourselves lost. Winds don’t only carry songbirds to sea.

And here, floating atop this undulating unknown, Homeslice reminds me I am still on Earth. There is air and water, light and dark, and there is life in all forms, including restless humans, migrating birds, and the symbiotic methane-fueled fan worms discovered on our trip. Including even the sort-of-living viruses that plague us. We travel the wind, walk on land, float in currents, or remain anchored in sediment. We’re all surviving on this spinning island in the cosmos. And there’s more than one way to survive, even at the bottom of a sea of Mondays.

Beebe was a visionary about a lot of things, but he was wrong about at least one: We do remember lost birds after the journey ends.