On September 9 we flew to San Jose, CA and stayed in Carmel in preparation for the following morning’s first of four planned pelagic outings with Debi Shearwater. Each year in August, September, and October countless seabirds migrate through the food-rich waters off central California, giving pelagic birders from all over the world an opportunity to view species that are difficult if not impossible to find elsewhere.
The boat departed Monterey Harbor at 6 AM on Saturday, September 10 out to the Albacore Grounds. It was foggy and windy, wet, and rough, not the most ideal of conditions, especially for photography, but after mid-morning the conditions improved steadily throughout the day. Over 40 birders from many states and several countries participated, including some well-known, and two birders were in the midst of big-year quests. This first day’s outing produced seven of the fifteen life species total for the four trips, and numbered 1 through 15.
The first new species was Pink-footed Shearwater (1), easily distinguished from the also numerous Sooty Shearwaters by the light-colored bill and white on the underside. Soon we saw the first of the day’s at least 40 Black-footed Albatrosses (2) that came up in the wake, sometimes as many as eight or ten simultaneously. An occasional Buller’s Shearwater (3) was noted by its crisp dark cap and extensive, almost complete, white under parts. Several South Polar Skuas, (4) members of the jaeger family, were seen during the day, distinguished by their dark, bulky silhouette and the striking white wing markings visible even at a long distance over the water.
Sabine’s Gull (5) is a breeder of the far north, but is seen during migration over the open ocean. This is a small, black hooded gull, with a fine black bill with a yellow tip, and strikingly contrasting white and black wings. They were seen in small numbers on each outing, usually just flying by at a considerable distance from the boat. They do not tend to follow in the boat’s wake like the numerous California and Western Gulls that accompany the boat nearly all day, chasing the popcorn that is strewn off the stern, and thereby attracting other species into the wake, drawn by the gulls’ noise and feeding activity.
Jaegers are often an attractive feature of pelagic excursions, and these were no exception. In addition to South Polar Skuas, all three of the other jaegers were seen at various times during these four west coast outings. I had seen Pomarine Jaeger before off the Rhode Island coast, but both Long-tailed Jaeger (6) and Parasitic Jaeger (7) were new. On this day, one Long-tailed Jaeger showed off its namesake long tail plumes, while a second one had no long tail feathers at all. One Parastic Jaeger offered very close-in photo-ops, while a second one was observed characteristically chasing and harassing an Elegant Tern in the Monterey inner harbor, and there were a couple of immature Pigeon Guillemots.
The second Monterey Bay outing the following day yielded four more new species. It began slightly later and under much more favorable conditions with no fog, and relatively calm seas. This made for dryer equipment, more stable footing for photography, and much easier visibilty of birds sitting on the water. Small alcids such as Cassin’s Auklet (8) are virtually impossible to see in rough seas, but on this day we observed a number of them, although they were always some distance away when spotted, and invariably would fly off on a heading directly away from the boat as it began to approach them.
Several small groups of migrating phalaropes were also seen on the water, usually a mixture of Red-necked Phalaropes and Red Phalaropes. (9) Both of these species, especially the Red Phalarope, are spectacular in their brilliantly colored breeding plumage, but during migration they are just small plain gray and white birds. The Red has a plain gray back while the Red-necked has noticeable streaking on its back.
One group of birds especially sought after by the eminent
birding group aboard was the storm-petrels. On this day photo ops were limited to a good number of Ashy Storm-Petrels, (10) many of them in one large flotilla, as well as a few scattered individuals here and there. However, the most unusual sighting of the day turned out to be a single Manx Shearwater, (11) which was spotted sitting conspicuously in the water among a group of noticeably larger, darker, Sooty Shearwaters. This species is seen regularly off the Atlantic seaboard, but it is a rarity in the Pacific.
On September 12, we visited Pinnacles National Monument, which happens to be right on the infamous San Andreas Fault. Here we climbed half way up, but when a group of birders on the way down reported no California Condor sightings, we headed back down and instead looked for Lawrence’s Goldfinch near the campground where this group had seen two earlier in the day, but to no avail. We did see three Yellow-billed Magpies along highway 52 near the town of Tres Pinos.
On September 13, after a morning at the spectacular Monterey Aquarium, we drove
up California Highway 1, across the Golden Gate Bridge, which was so shrouded in fog that both stanchions were invisible, and up to Bodega Bay for the September 14 pelagic outing. This was the spot for storm-petrels, with numerous Ashys, and several Black Storm-Petrels, (12) along with numerous delicately toned Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, (13) many of which flew across the wake very close to the boat. There was also one Flesh-footed Shearwater (14) (all dark with a light bill and rare in North American waters), and two very entertaining Laysan Albatrosses (15) which stayed with the boat for a long time and turned out to be real crowd-pleasers. There were also photo opportunities for numerous other previously seen species including both light and dark morphs of Northern Fulmar, Rhinoceros Auklet, Common Murre, Black Oystercatcher, and Black Turnstone.
After two days visitng wineries in Sonoma and Napa, and a side trip to both Lake Berryessa (lots of Western Grebes) and Lake Hennessey (a pair of Clark’s Grebes), the last stop was Half Moon Bay for the final pelagic outing on September 18. The beach here had nine Whimbrel and a pair of Marbled Godwits, and the marsh had small groups of Northern Shovelers, and phalaropes which turned out to be all Red-necked. The Half Moon Bay outing itself featured a couple of Tufted Puffins, a juvenile Mew Gull, another Laysan and a number of Black-footed Albatrosses, Sooty, Pink-footed, and Buller’s Shearwaters, two more Skuas, all three jaegers, and lots of Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres.