Tag: Pelagic (Page 1 of 2)

Kill Fish, See a Nazca Booby

Brown Booby checking out our haul of dorado

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.

Predawn bioluminescent algae off Point Loma

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.

A lifer Nazca Booby giving great looks

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.





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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