Tuesday, October 12, 2021

September 19th-My Second Pelagic

 Back in May of 2015, I went on my first ever pelagic birding trip out of San Diego.  The trip lasted all day, and we went as far as 30 miles offshore on a boat called "The Grande".  Pelagic trips are of course those that are out on water.  Most of the time they refer to ocean birding, but birding by boat like I did on my last post in Arizona can qualify as a pelagic too.  "Classic" pelagic trips though, result as those for going far out on the ocean.  What I like about this ocean birding are the endless amount of possibilities that can be seen or missed.  Birds we all look for on these trips are Jaegers, Albatrosses, Petrels, Storm-Petrels, Shearwaters, Tropicbirds, and Alcids.  There are expected, possible, rare, and extremely rare species.  Each trip yields a different deck of cards, which means one has to go on many of these trips to see as many species as possible.  That first pelagic of mine was in May of 2015, over 6 years ago.  We had hopefuls of species such as any Jaeger, South Polar Skua, Red-billed Tropicbird, and Black-footed Albatross among a cast of much more likely species.  The trip was basic for the first 9-10 hours and we were seeing casts of Sooty, Black-vented, and Pink-footed Shearwaters.  Hundreds of Black Storm-Petrels were joined by Ashy Storm-Petrels.  Scripp's Murrelets, Cassin's Auklets, and a Rhinoceros Auklet became my first alcids.  The birds were exciting, but the hopefuls were lacking until two uncommon Black-footed Albatrosses flew in as well as an extremely-rare-for-San Diego Laysan Albatross too.  Any Albatross species on my first pelagic trip was my first pick, and seeing two species closely together like I did still ranks high in my birding journey.  And ever since that May day, I've wanted to go on another pelagic.  And over six years later on this past September 19th, I finally got another chance.  I'll also add that I've had 2 other pelagic trips get cancelled on me, but that wouldn't happen this time.


 I made my reservations for another San Diego trip earlier this year (which was sponsored by Buena Vista Audubon Society) after talking to my buddy Caleb, back in March (sadly Caleb wasn't able to end up going).  The aspect of going on a trip in a different time frame than last time frame was exciting to me.  I joined my buddies Ronnie Reed and Kavanagh (Kav) McGeough for the trip, and we were not only going to go on the pelagic trip, but bird from land in southern California too.  When September 18th came around, Ronnie, Kav, and I made the trek to San Diego.  It's not a far drive when really thinking about it, a little over 5 hours.  We stopped at Spot Road Farm in Yuma County en route, and also made a stop at Kitchen Creek Road once entering San Diego County to hear some species at dusk like Wrentit, California Towhee, and California Thrasher.  Once in San Diego, the pelagic was right around the corner.  The morning of the 19th came, and I prepared my body against getting sea sick.  I didn't get sick on my first trip, and I was hoping to repeat that.  This time, I took Dramamine, which was different than what I took on the first trip.   When we got to the meeting place at Seaport Fishing Marina, we joined a meeting with about 60 other birders that was held by the trip leaders, which included Paul Lehman as one of the primary leaders of the trip.  They went over the basics with us before we boarded our ride, which was a 60 foot long boat called "The Legacy".  I was impressed with the boat, it had a lot of room and was huge compared to the boat from my previous trip.  Ronnie, Kav, and I all had many lifers we could get.  For Ronnie, any pelagic bird was a lifer as it was his first pelagic trip, and like me, Kav had been on one previous pelagic (his was out of Washington).  For this trip, we would be going at a time when we could see a variety of Storm-Petrels, and scarce species like Red-billed Tropicbird, Buller's and Flesh-footed Shearwaters, South Polar Skua, Black-footed Albatross, Craveri's and Guadalupe Murrelets, and Arctic Tern.  South Polar Skua (which is pretty much a Jaeger) was probably my most wanted bird of the trip, and seeing tubenoses (Albatrosses, Petrels, Storm-Petrels, and Shearwaters) were right up there too.  I was also hoping to study Jaegers and get my first look at a Pomarine, seeing some alcids, and maybe even get lucky with something rare like a Nazca Booby or Cook's Petrel.

Once boarding, we went up to the upper deck of the boat and claimed our own "spot", which was our spot and no one else's.  Our spot was in the back, and other than roughly 11:30 to 12:30, we had a great view of everything.  That one hour referred to a tall part of the front of the boat that towered over the rest of the boat and made it hard to see from our viewpoint.  And by time codes, that is in reference to where the bird is from the front (bow) of the boat.  It sucked when a bird was called from 11:30 to 12:30, but most of the time, we got to see everything.  

The Legacy made it's way out to go as far as the 30 Mile Bank out of San Diego right after 7 A.M., the same route as my 2015 pelagic.  It was great to be out at sea again.  Western Gulls followed the boat in abundance as trip leaders were chumming them in with popcorn.  When birds are chummed, it often brings in rarer species who fly in to investigate what the food source is.  Paul Lehman called everything out on the intercom.  Black-vented Shearwaters led things off for pelagic birds.  This Shearwater can often be seen from land, and during the early stretch of our way out, they were everywhere out on the water as long as it was relatively close to land.  The further one goes out at sea, the Black-vented Shearwaters decrease.  Not long after, Pink-footed Shearwaters were commonly seen as well as a few Sooty Shearwaters.

Western Gulls following our boat
 
Western Gulls following our boat

Black-vented Shearwaters

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwaters

Black-vented Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Things got exciting when a few Jaegers were sighted ahead of the boat.  They kept in front of the boat for awhile, but we came upon a stretch where they kept increasing.  It wasn't long before great Jaeger looks were seen among everyone around the entire boat.  Throughout the day, from 5 to 30 miles of distance on our journey, we had great looks at many Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers.  Pomarine was a lot more numerous than Parasitic, and I enjoyed that because Pomarine was a life bird for me and the final Jaeger I would need for my life list.  They are bigger than the other two species, and much bulkier.  It was especially great to see some beautiful adult Pomarines with thick breastbands and finely rounded tail feathers, almost as if there is a spoon at the end of their tail.  I was too pumped at the sight of every Jaeger that I think I didn't study them as well as I could've.  Seeing Jaegers in numbers was a first for me, and it was awesome.  After seeing numerous Pomarine and Parasitics, a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger helped round out the diversity.  The bird I wanted most on the trip, the South Polar Skua, would've made it a Jaeger "Grand Slam" if it showed up, but that bird will have to wait another trip.  Here is a selection of Jaeger photos, most of which are Poms.  Labels will be applied.  Man I love Jaegers.

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger in molt

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Pomarine

Juvenile intermediate Parasitic Jaeger

Juvenile intermediate Long-tailed Jaeger

Adult intermediate morph Parasitic Jaeger

Adult intermediate morph Parasitic Jaeger
 

The trip was a pretty calm one overall in terms of chop and pitch on the water.  Swells weren't too bad, but there were still times it took getting used to and felt like a lot.  For the first few hours, I feared sea sickness.  Luckily for me, it didn't hit me.  It did hit Ronnie though, and that pissed me off because I wanted Ronnie to have a great trip.  Kav and I watched from our spot for quite some time, and the birds were awesome. I kept hoping that Ronnie would somehow get to see them, but it's clear that being seasick is a bitch.  Aside from birds, Short-beaked Common Dolphins entertained throughout the day and were awesome to watch.  I got lucky with some shots a few times.  Flying Fish and a Hammerhead Shark (dorsal fin only..) also made an appearance.  

Short-beaked Common Dolphins






The biggest story of the day, one that got the crowd of 60 passengers screaming, were 3 species of Boobies.  I don't think anyone was expecting 3 species, but it happened.  The first was expected, which was an adult Brown Booby.  Most pelagic trips out of San Diego feature this species.  As Kav and I were watching from the spot, someone screamed, "Look, a white Booby!!".  I looked to see the bird, which I knew was either a Masked or Nazca Booby, screamed "Oh shit!", and started snapping pictures away.  It turned out to be a younger Nazca Booby upon photo examination when confirmed by those who got much better pictures than I did.  It became my 2nd lifer of the day, and a great one.  Nazca and Masked Boobies both occur in the waters out of San Diego, and are similar to each other and were considered conspecific until recently.  Not long after the Nazca, a strange looking bird flew into the boat and joined the chummed Western Gull flock.  I didn't know what to think, but I said to Kav, "is that a small albatross, what is that?!".  It really turns out I haven't studied pelagic birds in my field guide enough.  "Red-footed Booby", Paul yelled out on the intercom, and it made perfect sense.  The bird gave everyone killer looks as it flew by and directly over the boat, and  thendid a loop around to fly right by the boat again.  I've looked at pictures of adult Red-footed Boobies before, but hadn't studied young birds much prior to this trip.  This was another lifer for me, and I was freaking pumped.  This bird is really rare.  The birders were stoked for 3 Boobies of 3 different species, but not long after the Red-footed Booby's appearance came another Nazca, and this one was an adult.  It too, flew right by the boat, giving killer looks.  Kav and I then started rooting for a Masked Booby to show up, and if it would, it would give us all 5 North American Booby species.  The adult Nazca would be the last Booby the boat would get, and it was sure fun.  Both Nazca and Red-footed Boobies used to be extremely rare on San Diego waters or anywhere north of Mexico on the Pacific Coast.  They've expanded their range in recent years.  Nazca has been more frequent than Red-footed, but these two species are being seen more and more.

Adult Brown Booby

The first Nazca Booby

The first Nazca

First Nazca

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby

The 2nd Nazca Booby

2nd Nazca

2nd Nazca

Not long after the Booby mania we got into much deeper waters, and Storm-Petrels became something we would see often.  These are small to very small seabirds and they are often hard to get close to and to get good looks at.  Out of the tubenose family, they are by far the smallest birds ranging from the small but big for a Storm Petrel (the Black Storm-Petrel) to the tiny Least Storm-Petrel.  These birds nest on islands as other tubenoses do, and can be challenging to identify.  Size is a good clue, as well as tail pattern, flight style, and wing pattern.  Some species like Leach's and Townsend's need careful examination as differences are subtle, and they are of species that were once considered conspecific with another until recently.  Black Storm-Petrels made the first appearance, and they stick out easily with their larger size and bouncy, choppy, and complete flight motions.  They ended up being common.  Paul then called out both Least and Leach's Storm-Petrels over the course of the following few hours, both of which were lifers for me.  Least Storm-Petrel is a tiny bird, and was described of by captain Dave Povey as, "the tiny bird out there the size of my fist, they can be very hard to spot".  Luckily a few of them were pretty viewable after the first few that were called out gave horrible views.  Least has a short, diamond-shaped tail, long wings for such a small bird, and an erratic, bat-like flight.  Leach's Storm-Petrel, which has a wide range of appearances from completely dark brown to having lot's of white on the rump, flies in a way that is similar to a nighthawk.  One Storm-Petrel was missed by Kav and I as it was in front of the bow, the Townsend's Storm-Petrel.  It was distant and kept flying in front.  This is a species that used to recently be a subspecies of Leach's Storm-Petrel that was recently split off.  Much more extensive white on the rump that wraps down to the flanks is a good indicator of Townsend's, a trait that isn't shown as highly by Leach's.  After Least and Leach's were distant, we came upon a point where slick in the water was fed upon by a large mixed flock of seabirds.  One of each species came much closer to the boat, and it was great to study Least and Leach's up closer in midst of the more numerous Black Storm-Petrels.  A bird that was seen and called out as another Leach's had to be put down as Leach's/Townsend's (one of the two).  Everyone saw this bird well, and some believe it is Townsend's.  If it does end up being that, I'll get to add it as a lifer.  Regardless, this trip was great for studying Storm-Petrels.

Least Storm-Petrel

Least Storm-Petrel

Least Storm-Petrel

Least Storm-Petrel

Least Storm Petrel

Least Storm-Petrel

Least Storm-Petrel
Least Storm Petrel (Above)
Townsend's/Leach's Storm-Petrel (Likely Townsend's) (Above)

Townsend's/Leach's (likely Townsend's)

Townsend's/Leach's

Townsend's/Leach's

Black Storm-Petrel (far left) with the Townsend's/Leach's (far right)

Leach's Storm-Petrel (mostly a dark-rumped bird)

Leach's

Leach's

Leach's

Leach's

As the trip went on, there were a few times I walked around on the boat for things.  It was cool to see a few different views other than the upper deck at the very back, and I also had to get supplies that I needed that I brought along.  Even though this trip was considered a calmer trip, it was difficult to walk around.  Everyone had to take a few quick steps before grabbing onto something as the boat would go up and down.  I also felt bad for Ronnie, who was out and lying down sleeping every time I walked by.  It was truly a bummer, and I figured that he didn't get to see a lot of the birds.  But it also crossed my mind that Ronnie's nickname is "Rollup Ronnie", and he often drives up right at the right time to get good birds a lot of the time.  Back up on the upper deck, another awesome bird came when a Northern Fulmar was spotted.  Northern Fulmar (my 6th lifebird of the trip), is a tubenose that is abundant throughout much of it's range, and one that is uncommon during the timeframe of our pelagic.  They have a stocky appearance to them and come with dark and light color morphs.  They have stiff wingbeats that are interspersed with gliding and are about the size of a California Gull.  This Fulmar that was in front of us appeared to be sick and not doing well, and we didn't get to see it fly around at all.  It gave us a couple of wingbeats to go a few feet, perhaps because the boat was drifting pretty close.  And perhaps we didn't want to get to close to the Fulmar.  When they have danger or predators nearby, they will not fly or hide, but will stay put and intentionally vomit at their seekers.  This vomit is more like a spray, and it shoots the barf out up to five feet at whoever is doing the seeking.  Good thing Paul didn't explain that over the intercom, the sick folks probably would've barfed again and would never want to see a Fulmar again.  

Northern Fulmar


Northern Fulmar
 

Northern Fulmar
 

After reaching the extent of our trip, which was not far beyond the 30 mile bank, we went through a quiet stretch of close to an hour where not many birds were seen.  I was similar to my 2015 pelagic, but that trip did end in stunning views of Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses.  With this trip, I knew things would get active again.  I did drift off and take a short nap.  I believe I woke up when a Parasitic Jaeger was called out.  This time span was similar for others, as I saw plenty of folks drifting off or going to get snacks.  It was great when Ronnie came up to the deck and joined Kav and me.  He said he was still feeling bad, but at this point, the fresh air felt good.  Ronnie made a joke out of it and had me laughing, and on top of it he had a great attitude and said, "it's all part of it man".  When I said "sorry you had to miss birds", Ronnie quickly said, "I didn't miss nothing.  When they called out stuff I jumped up, took a look, shot some photos, and ran back to lie down as fast as I could again".  I was cracking up laughing, and Ronnie had some of the best pictures of the Red-footed Booby out of all the ones I saw.  Not many people can pull that off.  For the remaining three hours, we watched for birds closely.  A time came around when another good push of birds were within range of the boat.  None of them were anything new for the trip, but it was fun to see more and more Jaegers, Shearwaters, a few Sabine's Gulls, and more.  As we got closer to land, the Black-vented Shearwaters became abundant again.  It was fun to watch them and try to get better photos.  One of them was a very rare and mostly leucistic bird, odd to see on a shearwater.  The boat landed at about 6:30 P.M., wrapping up an awesome day of seabirding.  6 lifers:  Pomarine Jaeger, Nazca Booby, Red-footed Booby, Least Storm-Petrel, Leach's Storm-Petrel, and Northern Fulmar-were awesome to see and study.  And maybe that other storm-petrel will end up being identified as a Townsend's... 

Sabine's Gull

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater

mostly leucistic Black-vented Shearwater

Elegant Tern

Black-vented Shearwater

Same leucistic Black-vented Shearwater from above

Western Gull

Black-vented Shearwaters

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater dorsal

When Paul announced the numbers later, some of those numbers included:  20 Pomarine Jaeger, 11 Parasitic Jaeger, 1-2 Long-tailed Jaeger, 12 un-identified Jaegers (mostly Pom and Sitics), 3 Sabine's Gull, 40 Common Tern, 8 Leach's Storm-Petrel, 1 Townsend's Storm-Petrel, 17 Least Storm-Petrel, 240 Black Storm-Petrel, 1 Northern Fulmar, 140 Pink-footed Shearwater, 5 Sooty Shearwater, 1100 Black-vented Shearwater, 2 Nazca Booby, 1 Brown Booby, and 1 Red-footed Booby.  Bird of the trip for me was the Red-footed Booby.

We birded some more of San Diego the next day and got to see a selection of birds before heading back to Phoenix.  We think we saw the "San Diego Little Stint" and we found out we walked by a Canada Warbler a few times.  A Red-throated Pipit was also found a minutes away from where we stayed at.  It was quite hilarious.

Being able to go on a second pelagic trip was freaking awesome.  I have plans right now that it won't take 6 more years until I go on another pelagic, and there's much more to see out there.   Big thank you Kav and Ronnie for this awesome trip!