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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.

 

 

 

The Manx Shearwater Conundrum

Manx Shearwater (courtesy of eBird and Jeremiah Trimble)

What does it mean to see something?

On January 22, 2006, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a basketball game against the Toronto Raptors. It was a home game for the Lakers, and the attendance was a near-capacity 18,997 people. But if you talked to people in L.A. in the years afterwards, approximately 341,676 of them claimed to have been at the game and watched the historic performance live. A similar but distinct phenomenon plagues the criminal justice system. Case after case after case involves the testimony of eyewitnesses who say they saw the defendant commit the crime charged. But research demonstrates the profound unreliability of eyewitness testimony and identifications. Some 20% of the exonerations of individuals sitting on death row involved mistaken witness identifications. A staggering 69% of individuals convicted for a crime but later exonerated by DNA evidence were incorrectly identified by witnesses as the perpetrator (check out this video about the case of Ronald Cotton). 

One of these situations involved an event that actually happened (Kobe Bryant really did score 81 points in a game in 2006) while the other involved events that didn’t occur (specific accused individuals did not commit a crime).  But in each, people said they saw something that they did not see.

Claiming to have seen things you didn’t see lurks in the birding world. Some of it is like the eyewitnesses in trials – cases of mistaken identification. This can be an innocent or optimistic error (think the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers sightings from 2004) or a deliberate falsehood. Other times, the false reports are not incorrect IDs of a bird seen in the field, but intentional inventions (see Swallowgate or this tale of a false big year).

These instances of claiming to see things that you didn’t see came to my mind after I went on a pelagic (open ocean) birding tour recently in San Diego county waters. It was a long, but productive, trip that I’ll recap soon. We saw Short-tailed Albatross and Cook’s Petrel and endangered Townsend’s Storm-Petrel and Long-tailed Jaeger and Craveri’s Murrelet and Arctic Tern and all kinds of other goodies. At no time during the trip, however, despite much and careful effort scanning flocks of Black-vented Shearwater, did anyone see a Manx Shearwater. As far as I know, no one even saw a bird that they thought might be a Manx Shearwater and snapped a photo to study later. Rather, after every pause at a flock of Black-vented Shearwaters, or awesome leader Paul Lehman would announce “looks like all Black-venteds.”

Where’s the Manx Shearwater?

A day after the trip, however, Paul Lehman sent out an email announcing that someone had looked through their pictures and discovered a Manx Shearwater amidst a flock of Black-vented Shearwaters. Like some kind of avian Waldo, the Manx had apparently been there when we were looking. But nobody spotted it. The interesting question to me becomes: should I (or anyone, for that matter) include the Manx Shearwater in an eBird report for that portion of the trip?

The main reason to report the Manx Shearwater is that it was, in fact, there. Since eBird is a data source tool of bird distribution, someone should indicate that a Manx Shearwater was present on this day at the particular location. But eBird is also a personal tool for maintaining a record of the birds I have seen in the world. And I didn’t *see* this bird. Even though it was there, and I almost certainly scanned the flock of shearwaters it was sitting in, I find it hard to justify including the Manx on my eBird report. I mean, it would be silly for me to visually scan a page of a Where’s Waldo book and declare that I saw Waldo if I never actually *saw* Waldo. That fact that he’s there, somewhere, and that I could find him at some later time if I looked more carefully at the picture, strikes me as quite different from me saying that I saw Waldo.

But perhaps it depends on the nature of an eBird report. When birders do a Big Day, for example, they often go out in groups of 3-4 birders, and any bird seen by one member of the group is a bird that goes on the day’s list. The eBird report is not, therefore, a list of the birds a single person saw, but I list of birds that the group saw. In this sense, all of us on that boat were a group of people looking at birds. And a bird seen by one is a bird seen by all. That’s true as far as it goes, but I’m not sure how far it goes. There’s still the little snag that nobody actually saw, much less identified, this bird during the trip. Or did they? For all I know, I saw the bird, but I didn’t see the key field marks that identified it as a Manx (it’s the white rump). I have certainly reported sightings of birds I could not identify in the field, but later discerned from pictures while sitting on my living room couch.

The shared eBird list that went out from the trip organizers did not include the Manx Shearwater. So far, a half dozen people (out of 68 on board) have added the Manx Shearwater to their eBird reports. Most of them–but not all–have uploaded a photo they took showing the bird. I’m not one of the people who added Manx Shearwater to the eBird report. I don’t think that makes me a more ethical person. It just reflects my conception of eBird reports as tallies of the birds I saw, with “saw” meaning a bird I consciously looked at in the field and either identified or puzzled over.

 

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