Imagine a slender, mouse-gray bird, no bigger than a starling, that spends most of its life on open ocean.
In cold water and all weather, the ashy storm petrel—a warm-blooded animal that weighs less than an ounce and a half—forages among the waves for tiny fish and ocean invertebrates. Fluttering with dangled legs, its toes skimming the surface, it gives the impression of walking on water, like the biblical Peter.
Although storm petrels as a group are among the world’s most abundant and widespread birds, ashies are rare and found only in California waters. They have a distinctive strong musky odor; you can smell them in the fog. They’re most at home on the water, but, like all birds, they need to be on land to lay eggs and raise their young. For this, they prefer undisturbed islands. To escape the attention of predators, they nest underground, in rock crevices or burrows, and come and go only at night.