Thursday, September 22, 2011

3rd Day out on Half Moon Bay

I am back home from my trip to northern California after completing one more all day trip out of Half Moon Bay with Shearwater Journeys this past Sunday. John Vanderpoel was able to be on board, but only because Doug Koch gave him his spot since the boat was totally sold out. On the way out of the harbor we saw a few surf birds (photo above--click on it to enlarge). Under sunny skies we proceeded to head northwest and eventually went 30 miles which took us out to and a bit past the Farallon islands (photo below).

These small islands are where tufted puffins and ashy storm petrels breed. We were hoping to find some large groups of ashy storm petrels, but did not. This was a portent for the day as we saw very few seabirds as we kept motoring over some very good sea topography without any success. The day wound up at 7:15 PM after traveling almost 90 miles. While the seas were not too rough, and the sunshine was nice, the trip proved to be one of the worst days for seabirds that I can remember with only one laysan albatross, and a couple of south polar skuas to raise people's spirits.

Last year Debi said this same route was covered with seabirds plus 75 humpbacked whales feeding on krill, but this year there seems to be very few food patches for the birds. This is one of the challenges of seabirding since day to day, and year to year you are never sure what you might find in any given area. Only Monterey Bay consistently has large numbers and variety of birds.

The next day I visited friends in the north bay area before heading home, and heard from John that Monday's trip had even fewer birds than on Sunday. He has now returned home, and will be heading up to Alaska this weekend to continue his big year effort. Doug will still be going out on Monterey Bay for a few trips. Once he returns home to New York he has promised me several photos of many of the good birds we saw on the Bodega, and earlier Half Moon Bay trips. Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Great Winged Petrel Miss

The past 2 days I have been on pelagic trips out of Half Moon Bay. On Friday John Vanderpoel and Doug Koch were also on the boat. We left the dock about 7:30 AM, and headed into some rough seas that were almost as bad as the ones we had most of the day at Bodega Bay on Wednesday. On the way out of the harbor we saw surfbirds; black turnstones; brandt's, double crested and pelagic cormorants plus a single surf scoter, and a lone wandering tattler on the breakwaters. We then powered thru a large group of mostly sooty shearwaters on our way out to deeper water. The day overall was pretty birdy, but not as good as on Wednesday at Bodega Bay. We did have south polar skuas which had not made a showing at Bodega. We ended the day with good views of winter plumage marbled murrelets, but arrived back at the dock almost 2 hours past the normal 5 PM return time.

This morning I was out on the boat again, but John V. was down in Monterey doing a pelagic trip there instead. Doug was on the boat, and my friend Rob Lowry also was on board (photo just above). We cruised out initially thinking that we would need to stay close to shore because the forecast was for winds up to 30 knots, but after about 90 minutes we got an updated forecast that said the winds were much lower than predicted. So we again headed out to deeper water, and the sun came out. The photo just below is of Debi Shearwater pointing out a pomarine jaeger flying by the boat.

Soon after making the decision to head out to deeper water, a birder from Australia called out "great winged petrel". At first Debi did not hear him, and then said, "wait did you say great winged petrel?" He said yes, it just flew by the front of the boat. Debi had the captain stop the boat, and then immediately told him to try to chase in the direction that the bird flew, but within a minute she realized that it was not possible to catch the bird. So instead we put out a small oil slick and waited for about 20 minutes hoping the smell of the oil might bring it back. The oil slick did not do the trick which meant there were many very depressed birders on the boat today since only 4 people actually saw the great winged petrel in the 10-15 seconds it took for it to pass by our boat. Having not seen the petrel go by, I was among the bummed since this was only the 5th record of this bird being seen off the coast of CA.

The rest of day was sunny with fairly calm seas, but birdwise it was even slower than yesterday with almost no storm petrels, and no laysan albatross to cheer people up. We did have very good views of a single cassin's auklet on the way out of the harbor, and then a very cooperative tufted puffin later in the morning. One of the birds we saw closer into shore, but also throughout the day, is the common murre shown in the photo above--click on any photo to enlarge. We also found a large group of sea lions feeding.

We returned to the dock about 4 PM, still under sunny skies. As we came into the dock area we had very good looks at a clark's grebe. It had been a nice day to be out at sea, but the missed petrel is still weighing on me some since I may not get another chance to see this bird given how rarely it has been found. Ever optimistic that something else good will show up, I will be on the boat again tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bodega Bay Pelagic

Yesterday I went out of Bodega Bay on a Shearwater Journey's pelagic birding trip. The boat was jam packed, and included some birding friends. The 2 guys mugging for the camera just above are John Vanderpoel (left) and Matt Stenger who are both doing full ABA area big years in 2011, and finally met face to face after several near misses earlier in the year.

The boat left the dock finally about 7 AM under overcast skies. We made our way out in some heavy seas with winds up to 15 knots. It was one of those awkward days to be on a boat--not so rough that the boat could not go out, but rough enough that several people were adding chum to that provided by Wes Fritz, Debi's main chummer on these trips. Unfortunately one guy was sick much of the day which meant he will not have fond memories of seeing his first laysan albatross (photo just below--click on any photo to enlarge).

John and Matt however had very good days for their big year count. They both added flesh-footed shearwater to their totals--a difficult bird to pick up in the fall on the west coast. Matt also added fork-tailed storm petrel and buller's shearwater to his list. John's total is now at 712, and Matt is up to 655--both excellent numbers with 3+ months left in 2011. The main difference in their totals is that John has made more trips to Alaska, and had a well thought out year plan whereas Matt has pretty much been just out there birding around the country going where the "wind" and some planning has taken him.

After a bit of a slow birding start, the trip got much birdier. Besides the laysan, we also had several black-footed albatross; lots of fulmars; sabine's, western and california gulls; elegant and arctic terns; wilson's, ashy, black and fork-tailed storm petrels; pink-footed, buller's, sooty and flesh-footed shearwaters; pomarine, long-tailed and parasitic jaegers; cassin's auklets; red and red-necked phalaropes; and 1 distant tufted puffin fly by.

We stopped twice to put out a fish oil slick which kept lots of birds coming in to check us out, but also meant for a rocking boat making it hard to take photos as well as raising the seasickness level. It was good to get back to land about 5 PM where the sun was shining. Right after we docked I was able to get the photo just above of a black oystercatcher. I am on land today, but tomorrow will be going out of Half Moon Bay on another pelagic trip. Stay tuned!