Wandering the Pacific Ocean in search of fish and birds
If you think birders get up early in the morning, you haven’t met my sportfishing friend James. He chartered a boat for a handful of us to fish the waters off San Diego a couple of weeks back. We combine it with a night at a Mission Bay hotel where we grill up a delicious dinner and some doughnuts for a nice Dad getaway. But don’t stay up late at the hotel, because James wants to be 30 miles out in the ocean when the sun rises. That means setting our alarms for 3:30am so we could leave the dock at the ridiculous hour of 4:15am. It was dark, and nothing about this time of day deserves the modifier “in the morning.” Nautical twilight (first light) wasn’t until 5:45. The sun wouldn’t make its appearance above the horizon for almost two and a half hours.
The dark boat ride out allowed us to see the bioluminescent algae in our wake, which was cool. It took until 20 minutes after sunrise for me to spot our first seabird – some Black-vented Shearwaters. But this wasn’t a birding trip. We had a destination, and we weren’t slowing for any birds. Around 7:15, the captain cut the engine. To me, it looked exactly like every other spot in every single direction for as far as you could see. But fishermen see things differently. We were near something called the 302 spot, an area about 25 miles or so off Point Loma where the seafloor rises quickly on the southwest edge of the San Diego trough. Within minutes, we were casting our live sardine bait into the water. And, in decided contrast to all the fishing I’ve ever previously done, we were catching fish. Indeed, it was comically easy. It didn’t take longer than 10 seconds from the bait hitting the water to have a 15-20 pound blue, green, yellow, and silver dorado on the hook. They are beautiful fish who put up a respectable fight. The school stayed with the boat, so our killing spree lasted about 45 minutes. The wind was kicking up, and the waves were just on the edge of tolerable. Satisfied with our haul, we decided to head back in.
After killing fish, I turned my attention to birds
After the fishing excitement, I concentrated on birdwatching. I’d already seen a few nice birds. A couple of Black Storm-Petrels hung around the boat while we were fishing, a tiny Least Storm-Petrel made a brief appearance, a Pomarine Jaeger cruised by, and a couple of Sabine’s Gulls wandered past. As we motored back to San Diego harbor, the ride became all about the boobies. First, an unidentified juvenile booby flew by almost a hundred yards away from the boat. I had no chance to ID it in the field, but I got some crappy photos that showed a white collar and brown head. That narrows it down to either a Masked or Nazca Booby. I’d never seen a Nazca Booby before. Relying on that sighting for a lifer wasn’t a happy thought, though. Thankfully, I’d get amazing looks at a pair of Nazcas about an hour later.
Before we made it all the way in, we stopped at the Nine-mile Bank to fillet our dorado. Tossing the carcasses into the water instantly attracted a bunch of Western Gulls. As I scanned the gulls, a bigger, darker bird flew in. It had a classic booby shape – long pointy wings, a pointy long bill in front, and a pointy tail in back. It had dark brown wings, a dark head and chest clearly demarcated from a white belly. It was a Brown Booby. Brown Boobies live in tropical regions around the globe, and seems to be expanding northwards. Before this year, I’d only seen them in Hawaii, but we saw several on the San Diego pelagic trip I took in August, and ended up seeing 4 individuals on this boat ride. Calmer seas closer to shore allowed for some decent shots of the curious bird.
Then, the money birds arrived. A pair of striking white-backed boobies appeared, with a wide, dark slash along the trailing edge of the wing. They were either Masked or Nazca Boobies. A few years ago, each would have been a pretty mega sighting in California waters. But with each passing year, more are being spotted off California. Still, both are pretty rare. The difference between the two is bill color. For Masked, it is all yellow. On Nazca, the bill turns orange-ish pink at the base. Before 2002, Nazcas, which mainly breed on the. Galapagos Islands, were considered a subspecies of Masked Booby. The pair I saw swooped around the gulls, and then one came over to the boat to explore. My photos were good enough to show the bill color, which was an orange-ish, pinkish color at the base, indicating Nazca Booby. This pair of adults, and a couple of juveniles, has apparently been hanging around these waters and the Coronado Islands off Tijuana all summer. I kept my fingers crossed for a Red-billed Tropicbird, but didn’t get so lucky.
At the end of the day, fishing just isn’t my jam. Getting up at 3:30am has days of after-effects. The six+ hours of wavy travel was a lot. The three-hour ride from the fishing spot to the dock was fine on the way back when I could look for birds in the daylight, but the early ride in darkness was pretty tedious. That said, you can’t see the seabirds if you aren’t out to sea. So I appreciate that my friend arranged for us to be out on deep water. That we ended the day with a boatload of mahi mahi, which has proven delicious in the many forms we’ve eaten it in the last week, was an unusual bonus.