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.
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.