Category: Trip Report

An Albatross, Buttered Popcorn, and County Lines at Sea

The bait

A Tale of Birding Glory and Shame

Last Saturday, word went out that fishermen had photographed a Short-tailed Albatross just a few miles off-shore of Long Beach, California. This was a big deal. The species was declared extinct in 1949, only to be rediscovered on a tiny Japanese island 2 years later. Conservation efforts have brought the global population to over 5,000 birds. But 5,000 birds isn’t a lot.  (A recent study estimated that there are 1.6 billion House Sparrows on Earth.) Moreover, they typically stay in the northern Pacific Ocean. Ebird contains less than half a dozen sightings for Short-tailed Albatross in the waters off Southern California (one of them from 1898).

So it was not surprising that a boat ride was quickly organized for Sunday morning. The cost for the chance to see the bird was $100. My son had a little league playoff game that morning, and I’m just not enough of a twitcher to spend $100 on the chance to see a particular bird, however astounding and amazing it is to watch an albatross fly. And it is astounding and amazing. I was lucky enough to watch them take off, and soar, at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai a few years ago. 

Laysan Albatross, Kauai, Hawaii

The Sunday boat trip was a success.  Close and sustained looks were had by all aboard the boat.Photos of the Short-tailed Albatross clearly showed some extensive right wing damage. Reports were that the albatross appeared quite reluctant to fly. It was even spotted in both Los Angeles and Orange County waters, rewarding those on board with two county ticks for a mega-rare bird. 

On Tuesday, the story got a little complicated. A former LA birder, and well-known pelagic bird guide, Todd McGrath, posted an email to the LA County birds listserv expressing concerns about what went down on Sunday. [Note: neither Todd, nor I, was on the boat. So all I’m relating here is what I’ve read and heard]. Todd’s concern was that those on the boat put in substantial effort, using popcorn as chum, to lure the albatross several miles from L.A. County waters to Orange County waters. Why would someone do such a thing, risky to the well-being of even a healthy bird, much less an impaired bird? For one reason and one reason only: to add Short-tailed Albatross to their Orange County life list.

A map showing approximate county borders at sea

Todd called these actions regarding a highly threatened and injured species, if true, “inappropriate at best, unethical for sure, and quite possibly illegal at worst.” He acknowledged he wasn’t on the boat, and welcomed anyone who was on it to share their version of events or respond to his concerns. No one has responded, at least not on the listserv. That suggests to me that “lured a threatened and injured bird miles away with popcorn so a few nerds could add it to another list of birds they’ve seen in an arbitrary spot” accurately describes what happened.


If true, it’s a shame. Most of us love our lists, and delight in adding to them. But at the end of the day, they are nothing more than an artifact of our wonderful experiences in the field. To the extent that listing encourages birding and (more importantly) concerns about conservation, then listing has value. But if the list is more important than the birds, you’ve got your priorities mixed up. And if you’re not satisfied getting up-close looks at a globally-threatened species in one spot, but insist on seeing it from a particular spot just a little bit over there, too (and then use human food to lure the injured bird to that particular spot where you want to see the bird), then you’re doing birding all wrong.

A Quick Trip to San Diego – Lifers!

Black-throated Magpie-Jay San Diego, CA

Too crested to be just a magpie; too large to be just a jay

Visions of Albatross

A couple of months ago, a friend invited me on a tuna-fishing trip. He’s a pro fisher, and he promised tuna sashimi on the boat. The trip would head out of San Diego, and we’d be fishing around the Islas Los Coronados in Mexican waters. When I got the invitation, I understood it as an invitation for a pelagic birding trip that would involve other people fishing for tuna. And while the Coronados are not that far off-shore, the trip would bring the possibility of a Black-footed Albatross, Black Storm-Petrels (both would be lifers), as well as breeding Brown Boobies and who-knows-what you might encounter on a boat trip.

I headed down to San Diego Saturday afternoon, ahead of our 4:30am scheduled Sunday morning departure. Not wanting the afternoon to go to waste, I checked out eBird to see if there were any possible lifers I might find while in San Diego. The only “countable” lifer I had a chance at was a returning Little Stint at the very south end of San Diego Bay. A Little Stint is a peep, not all that different from a Semipalmated Sandpiper. This bird has been showing up since Fall 2018, and prefers a little spit of land close enough to a viewing platform to be seen regularly, but far enough away to make photos and confident ID difficult.

It’s usually seen in the morning to mid-day, but I showed up at the spot at 4:40pm. There was a birder present, with a big zoom lens. Displaying classic birder social awkwardness, he left the platform as I was approaching. I yelled “it is out there?” and he said “yes.” When I scanned the island, there were 5 peeps moving about. One was (almost certainly) the Little Stint. But it was a gray overcast sky, and I don’t have a scope. I had about 10 minutes with the peeps before they flushed with some Black Skimmers. During that time, I became pretty confident that I could pick out the Little Stint. It had a white chin, clean white sides, black legs, and I could convince myself it was smaller than the other peeps (which were Western Sandpipers). I didn’t see the aggressive behavior so many eBird reports include from the bird I tagged as a Little Stint, but each time I came back to look over the peeps, I kept ending up on this one bird as being different from the other 4.

As you can see, my photos were not helpful.  My eBird description was truthful, and my report was not confirmed (even though the photoless report from the guy who was there as I arrived was confirmed, as were numerous photoless report from others).  It seems like all you have to say is “aggressively chased away Western Sandpipers”, and that’s enough to get it confirmed. But I didn’t see that behavior. Since I’m an out-of-town birder, with no diagnostic photo, my sighting remains hidden. No skin off my back.

After that stop, I headed down to the Tijuana River Valley Bird and Butterfly garden, searching for a Black-throated Magpie-jay. It was a good visit, but a failure on the magpie-jay account. The place was active with warblers and other migrating birds, though. Border Patrol agents in the area were making sure there were no human migrants.

The Weather Started Getting Rough

I peeked at the weather report before driving down, and was not happy to see strong winds predicted to move in Saturday afternoon, and 8-10 foot swells for Sunday. As we had the most amazing Korean BBQ at the firepit behind our hotel room Saturday night, the winds were picking up. Around 9:30pm, the trip organizer got a call from the captain of the boat we’d chartered. He said NOAA was issuing a red-flag warning for small craft tomorrow because of 10-12 foot short interval swells with 20 mph wind gusts. He advised against going out. 

We were disappointed, but also a bit relieved. I decided to make the most of the trip and get up early Sunday to go find me a Black-throated Magpie-jay. When I arrived at the Bird and Butterfly garden, some familiar LA birders were staring at a silk oak tree trying to find an Indigo Bunting. As cool as that would be to see, I had my ears on alert for loud parrot-like sounds that would indicate a magpie-jay. After 45 minutes of quiet, I confronted the age-old conundrum of birding: sit, or move. Should I stay still, in the spot where my target bird is most regularly seen, or do I wander and try to hunt one down? Relying on their supposed loud call, I could drive around the area with my windows down and maybe find one that way.

I chose to move (as I usually do). I drove down the road a half-mile, and then along Monument Road (which parallels the U.S. Mexico border; you can see the wall almost the entire time) a mile in each direction. Nothing. So I headed back to the garden. As I pulled up, a loud screech was coming from trees just beyond the parking lot, and my LA birder friend was standing in the parking lot looking for me (because he knew I was looking for the magpie-jay). This ID was an easy one. There was no confusing this crested, black-throated, long-tailed glorious beast for anything else. It perched and called for a few minutes from up in the tree, and then flew to the lamp post for more posing. All the nerds were happy.

Black-throated Magpie-jay San Diego, CA

The closest thing to a Resplendent Quetzal you’ll see in the U.S.

Black-throated Magpie-jays are endemic to the Pacific Ocean slope of Mexico. The birds in San Diego were likely escapees from the pet trade in Baja California and aviaries on both sides of the border. They’ve been continuously documented in the Tijuana River Valley since the early 1990s, but probably never in numbers greater than 15 or 20 birds. This was my third visit to the area in search of this exotic bird.

The next possible (“uncountable“) lifer I might find were some Blue-crowned Parakeets that frequent a residential area not far from Mission Bay. My research suggested these are quieter than most parakeets, but I crossed my fingers they’d announce their presence. I showed up just before 11am, and found a dirt path through a narrow, lush canyon. Cool spot. On the walk in, I heard and then saw some Red-masked Parrots. On the way back toward the car, a different squack rang out, a bit more subdued. Then I spotted a light green bird with a long tail, and I figured I had my target. I eventually got decent views, and was headed home with 3 new lifers.

Blue-crowned Parakeet

My 12th species of parakeet/parrot seen in California

Overall, it was a great weekend, despite the scratched pelagic. Hopefully we’ll get to come back down to San Diego and get out in the ocean and I can add some seabirds to my life list.