Category: Trip Reports (Page 1 of 15)

Magnificent Frigatebird in Los Angeles

Tropical Storm Kay blew frigatebirds north to L.A., blowing birders’ minds

Magnificent Frigatebird in Los Angeles

There’s been an historic outbreak of Magnificent Frigatebird sightings in Los Angeles in the past week. The birds live in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and along the Pacific coast of Mexico, including Baja California well south of San Diego. Rarely, often coinciding with storms, they wander north across the border into California waters. The recent outbreak started on Sunday, September 4th, when word went out that two frigatebirds had been spotted together along the coast in Torrance, California. I happened to be lounging on a sailboat in Santa Monica Bay at the time I saw the alert. It was too far, and too long into our ride, to give chase. The birds didn’t fly our way. A few lucky folks gave chase and saw them before they disappeared and weren’t seen again.

If these were normal times, that would’ve been it. Before that day, the last eBird sightings of Magnificent Frigatebirds in L.A. County were 1979, 2012, and 2018. Each of those were one-day wonders. When they’re here, Magnificent Frigatebirds are moving through, not lounging around. Yet, just a few days later, Tropical Storm Kay was set to move up the coast from Baja California. The storm was promising high winds. And high winds blowing from the south promised to push birds that normally live in Baja north of the border. In a land where we have little exciting weather, and hardly ever any storms, this was exciting. Depending on the wind direction, stray birds can end up off and along the coast or on lakes far inland. It was like January 1st in the middle of September as birders plotted their tropical storm strategy for the weekend. 

The view was fleeting, but magnificent

The outer wind bands arrived Friday afternoon. I had in-laws coming to visit, and was feeling a little sick, so I wasn’t going out Friday night. The winds weren’t that high, and they were mainly blowing offshore, so expectations started to dwindle. Still, Magnificent Frigatebirds were spotted in San Diego and Orange County Friday evening, but nothing in Los Angeles. Saturday morning, I decided to bird the beach in my 5MR and hope something rare was lounging at the beach or flying off shore. The beach trip turned out to be mostly a bust. Winds were calm, the bay looked empty. I did spot a Pigeon Guillemot that’s been off Dockweiler Beach for a couple of weeks for a 5MR lifer.

Later Saturday afternoon, frigatebirds were spotted again. And again, it was a pocket cove in Palos Verdes near Torrance where they were seen. I considered a drive down there, but these simply aren’t chaseable birds, and I figured they’d be on their way south by the time I arrived. But I checked the reports, and two frigatebirds were seen as late as 7:00pm. Optimistic that they had roosted in the area for the night, I decided to head down there early Sunday morning to see if I could spy one. I figured a bunch of other birders would be doing the same.

But when I arrived at the spot where they’d been seen the day before, no one was around. I stayed for half an hour, and decided to move to Point Vicente to combine frigatebird watching with better views out to see, hoping for some storm-petrels. When I arrived at Point Vicente, a birding friend was there with a scope. We scanned the ocean for 45 minutes. Besides the thousands (and may tens of thousands) of Black-vented Shearwaters streaming south well off shore, there wasn’t much to see. And all the frigatebird sightings had been in the afternoon, so maybe we were in the wrong spot at the wrong time. 

This was the last frigatebird seen in L.A. from land during the outbreak

My friend decided it was time to move on. As we turned around to walk away from the ocean and back to the parking lot, I saw in the space between some trees a big black bird that looked like it had been stretched out both lengthwise and wingspan wise flying over a hill directly in front of us. “Frigatebird!” My friend  dropped his scope and ran to get a clear view. I zoomed in with my camera and fired off some shots. After almost an hour of staring out to sea, we finally saw our target just as we turned around to leave. And it could easily have snuck by us had it not, by chance, been visible between a couple of trees as I happened to look ahead. We sent out word of the sighting, and noted the direction the bird was flying. But no one saw a frigatebird again that day from land (a couple were spotted way off shore near San Clemente Island). 

I’d seen Magnificent Frigatebirds in Mexico before, but this was a United States, California, and LA County lifer. Even better, the crazy experience was shared with another birder who appreciated the absurdity and serendipity as much as I.





Aug ’22 San Diego County Pelagic Recap

Black-footed Albatross possibly seeking buttered popcorn in another county

San Diego County Pelagic Delivers Great Birds

I wouldn’t say that I don’t like boat trips. I’ve had a bunch of experiences on various kinds of watercraft that I’d describe as enjoyable. But I like to have a quick exit available should I decide that I’m not enjoying whatever it is I’m doing. This is significantly frustrated by the bounded nature of boats. For short rides, this usually isn’t a concern. Once the trip gets longer than a couple of hours, the possibility of not being able to flee increases enough that I usually bow out. As a result, I haven’t been on too many pelagic (open ocean) birding trips. The couple I’ve gone on in Los Angeles and Maine have lasted 3-4 hours. None was as ambitious as the boat ride I went on recently out of San Diego. This was an 11-hour trip that would go more than 30 miles off shore to a productive spot of Pacific Ocean along the US/Mexico maritime border known as The Corner.  That’s a lot of time to decide you don’t want to be on the boat. And it’s an incredibly long time if you happen to get seasick.

The allure of such boat trips for a birder is the chance to see birds that you can’t seen from land. It’s not unlike traveling to a new country. In place of finches and sparrows and warblers, you’re spotting auklets, murres, murrelets, shearwaters, boobies, razorbills, fulmars, gannets, terns, petrels, storm-petrels, jaegers, albatross, puffins, kittiwakes, tropicbirds, and skua. Every pelagic boat ride I’ve been on has produced multiple lifers. 

The seas in San Diego weren’t loaded with flocks of seabirds, but the trip was an astounding success for variety. After a bumpy exit out of Mission Bay, we headed to the Nine Mile Bank. On the way, I got my first three lifers of the eight I’d get on this trip: Long-tailed Jaeger, Craveri’s Murrelet, and Black Storm-Petrel. Long-tailed Jaegers are the most likely of our three jaegers to require being far off-shore to see. It breeds in the Arctic, and is found off California especially in August and September. True to form, we saw several jaegers during the day in dogfights with terns who had caught a fish. Craveri’s Murrelet is a small little bird that breeds in Mexico and then disperses into California waters during late summer and fall as long as the waters are warm. Their size and behavior (they mainly swim on the surface) make them easy to spot in calm seas. Due to the slightly choppy conditions we had, we didn’t see a lot of Craveri’s Murrelets. And when we did, they were usually flying away from the boat before we got close.

A classic pelagic photograph, supposedly of two Craveri’s Murrelets

At the Nine Mile Bank I added another lifer: Ashy Storm-Petrel. In the trough between the 9 and 30 Mile Banks I saw lifer #5: a Townsend’s Storm-Petrel. We saw 4 (or maybe 5) kinds of storm-petrels on the trip. Storm-Petrels are dark aerobatic delicate wisps, and they’re a tough ID because the visual distinctions amongst them can be quite subtle. I could only put them into three buckets. Bucket #1 = Black Storm-Petrel and Ashy Storm-Petrel. Black is much more common, whereas Ashy are a bit more gray. Bucket #2 = Least Storm-Petrel. These look like miniature Black Storm-Petrels. They’re apparently the size of sparrows, but with much a larger wingspan. As long as they’re amongst other storm-petrels, they were easy to pick out. Bucket #3 = Leach’s or Townsend’s Storm-Petrel. These birds are a similar size, but with supposedly different flight styles. Having no experience with storm-petrels, recognizing different flight styles was beyond me. The ID of Townsend’s/Leach’s is made more difficult by the fact that each species can have a rump that is all-white, or white divided by a dark line, or smudgy dark with white on the edges, or all dark. The trip leaders only certainly ID’d Townsend’s. Some folks have added Leach’s Storm-Petrels to the eBird reports, but without any pictures. 

We reached The Corner at 11am – so named because it’s the point where the US/Mexico border takes a turn south. Once there, we dumped a bunch of popcorn and chumsicles and cod liver oil into the water to attract birds. Contrary to John James Audubon and popular myth, birds (especially ocean birds) have a great sense of smell. Some albatross can detect scents from 10-12 miles away. But it takes time for the smells to spread and lure in the birds. Delightfully for us, our first rarity came in not 5 minutes after we laid out the slick: a Cook’s Petrel. A New Zealand breeder, until just a few years ago they were mainly birds of legend for one-day excursions in California waters. But more recently, they’ve been regular fall visitors in this area. The flyby was quick, and my focus was poor, but I got a couple of shots of the black and gray color pattern on the back, and the white underparts edged in black along the wings.

It took an hour and a half, by contrast, to lure in an albatross (maybe it was miles away when we put out the stink).  A birder next to me asked “what’s that coming in low?” I looked through my binoculars and shouted “albatross!” A juvenile Black-footed Albatross then flew past the back of the boat. We saw at least two separate individuals – one with a white rump and another without a dark rump. 

Despite being surrounded by water, pelagic trips are a lot like birding the desert. Sometimes, for miles and miles, there isn’t a bird in sight. But then, off in the distance, there’s a flock of birds resting on the water or feeding on a school of fish. At other times, out of nowhere, a single bird will fly past the boat and disappear toward the horizon.  Much more than land birding, you’ve got to be ready to get your binoculars or camera on a bird in seconds, or it might be gone. That your platform is bobbing and leaning, sometimes so much that you simply cannot look through the binoculars or camera without falling over, only adds to the challenge.

Unless the seas are flat, expect a lot of out-of-focus pictures from a pelagic trip. More often than not, the camera will focus on the ocean behind the bird I’m trying to photograph, leaving the rare bird we spotted discernable but fuzzy. In addition, expect a bunch of photos of distant birds flying away from the boat.

We made it back to the dock around 6:15pm, just over 11 hours after we’d left. It’s a bit draining to spend so long on a boat, struggling for stability to stand and peering through binoculars while the sun beats down. But wen the results were amazing. There’s still some lifers out there for me to get, so I’ll probably sign up for another long pelagic next year in this area, are look to take one that explores the Channel Islands and beyond.




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