I went on another fabulous pelagic trip out of Moneterey on Sunday with Petersen. When Roger was doing his 5-minute introduction of how to use the boat as a directional clock, and where to find life jackets he also introduced the various leaders for the day. Dan Singer, Tim Amaral, Roger Wolfe... Then myself and Bob Power were promoted (unexpectedly) to the position of guides for the day. GULP! So for the next 8 hours we both got some pretty tough (and very detailed) questions directed toward us about Tern and Jaeger identification as well as which seabird has the longest migration, and how do you ID Storm Petrels when they just look like tiny spots... But both of us got to yell out some great birds for the outing as they appeared behind our boat, including Sabine's Gull, Black-footed Albatross and Buller's Shearwater. It was a blast, especially when we had close to a dozen Jaegers (not all the same species either) visible behind the boat at one time. When the South Polar Skua finally rolled in, you could almost hear the thunder of doom. I was loving every minute of this!
Anyway, the two previous days of intense heat and fog along the coast made for a spooky gray beginning to the day. As feared, soon after exiting the harbor, our boat faced the wind and was tossed and turned on significant waves. No worries though. I'd slept well, had a good breakfast and taken my dramamine.
Things were slow at first because of the poor visibility, and it took some time, but we eventually came across large (and I mean large) numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and an occasional Pink-footed Shearwater. Very few Buller's Shearwaters were seen during the day, but a few. A dozen or so Black-footed Albatross and Northern Fulmar were found following the boat, and with all the other activity, and a cloud of Gulls too, we soon collected all three Jaegers and a couple of South Polar Skuas. The highlight for me was additional experience differentiating flight style of the Tubenoses we saw, a skill especially useful in foggy viewing conditions, and picking out isolated Black Storm Petrels among the more numerous Ashys. Birding at sea really relies on GISS, much more than land birding, I think.
I also managed to find a Wilson's Storm Petrel which made me very happy. We had one Common Tern fly across our bow, completing my 5-Tern challenge for the summer. FINALLY! We found quite a few Elegants close to shore, but surprisingly few Arctics. Sabine's Gull numbers were way down from the previous two trips.
As far as Alcids, they were well represented too. Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot were all seen close to shore, Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets somewhat farther out to sea. Many Red-necked Phalaropes and 2-3 Red Phalaropes were also seen at the frothy margin between deep cold water and warmer shallow water.
Now, all of that said, if you're interested in learning about or SEEING some of these pelagic species, there are still a few seats on our boat, which sails on Sunday, September 27. A month from now, we can expect the seabird land-scape (ironic word usage) to change significantly--mostly by a matter of degree. Many of the species mentioned above will only increase in numbers between now and our boat trip. So sign up if you want to be a part of this chartered boat trip.
That's the end of my pitch... at least for today. Call SCVAS at 408-252-3747 to reserve your place on the boat.
Sonny Mencher, Cricket and I made our way down to Watsonville Slough to search for the recently reported Hudsonian Godwit, Buff-breasted Sandpiper or Semipalmated Sandpiper. No luck with any of those, in fact very few Shorebirds at all. The area seemed to have dried out considerably from two weeks earlier, so we moved on quickly.
Struve Slough was much more productive with many Shorebirds along the lowering banks of the waterway. Both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers were there and occasionally calling for ID-sake. Semipalmated Plovers were numerous, especially on the upstream side of the bridge where the ground was drier. Two Lesser Yellowlegs were resting in the shade of the bridge and both Least and Western Sandpipers were present. This area looks like it will only become better as the water evaporates and more mud is exposed. Look for more reports from here in the weeks to come. I thought the habitat looked very good for Ruff or something else nice.
Brian Christman and I decided to pass on Alviso, since the word on relocating the recently reported Willow Flycatcher was not promising. So up to Coyote Point we went. We scanned the mudflats beginning an hour after the lowest tide. There were two Elegant Terns mixed in with the numerous Forster's Terns. Shorebirds included several hundred Western Sandipers, nearly as many Least, more than 20 Black-bellied Plovers in various plumages, 3 Semipalmated Plovers, no less than 8 Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit AND a Long-billed Curlew. On the concrete slabs there were 4 Brown Pelicans, one Double-crested and two Pelagic Cormorants. One Red-necked Phalarope was swimming just off the sand bar. The freshwater marsh water level was high, and there were no Shorebirds to speak of, but plenty of Canada Geese and Snowy Egrets. Savannah Sparrows were found repeatedly along the trail.
At Radio Road in Redwood Shores we scanned the Terns again. Many Forster's Terns, and two adult Black Skimmers were on the islands but nothing unexpected. Both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchrs (including some lovely juvenile birds) were present along with many Willets any where they could find solid ground. Two Lesser Yellowlegs were working the edge of the levy running between the two pond, conveniently positioned next to a Greater Yellowlegs for easy comparison.
Today I took another trip on Monterey Bay in an effort to prepare for the upcoming seabird class. There were no hoped-for rarities, but I did get extremely good, and numerous views of Sooty, Pink-footed and Buller's Shearwaters. Today their individual flight styles were even more evident than ten days earlier. Also seen were Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets, Common Murre and Pigeon Guillemot, all three Jaegers and South Polar Skua. Sabine's Gulls were abundant, but many fewer Arctic Terns were encountered. Once again, I dipped on the Common Tern...
Brian Christman and I made a trip to Alviso today and investigated salt pond A16 near the EEC. There was nothing unusual to be seen, but we were very happy to find two adult Black Skimmers on the first island, as well as a hatch year bird that flew in to join them. Later we found another two adult Black Skimmers on the third island. We scanned the ponds in the New Chicago Marsh, finding many Least and Western Sandpipers, as well as dozens of Red-necked Phalaropes. Also present were several Wilson's Phalaropes. Before breaking for lunch we found two Snowy Plovers in the salt pan near the railroad junction.
After reading the recent drool-worthy reports of Cook's Petrels seen on pelagic trips out of Monterey Bay, I finally managed to get on one of those lucky boats. Long overdue, I know, but my first Pterodroma was indeed one of the best! Our boat found a small flock of Cook's Petrels at the Point Sur deepwater section southwest of Monterey today. We first passed through the shalllow sections of near-shore waters finding abundant Sooty Shearwaters, an occasional Pink-footed Shearwater and a handfull of Northern Fulmars. Pigeon Guillemot and Common Murre were seen both on the water and flying, many of the Murre were adult males with a single young in tow. The Fulmars varried from very slaty gray to nearly white. Late in the day we saw our only Buller's Shearwater in the afternoon, but it is early in the season for them apparently. Numerous Black-footed Albatross were seen and of course both Arctic and Elegant Tern. Some members on the boat were also able to pick out Common Tern, but I was not one of them. We made a clean sweep on the Jaegers, as well as a South Polar Skua. Things are really hopping out ther now, and it bodes will for our group trip next month.
After a 6:00 am departer from the harbor, it was another five hours before we saw our target species, the famed Cook's Petrel many miles from shore. The combination of cold deep water, near a ridge of warmer water that provide the ideal conditions for the species. Indeed, that is exactly where Debi Shearwater and her captain guided us. Once at the 1,000 fathom depth we began a very focussed search. Finally, a distant bird was located on the horizon. I was immediately impressed with how its flight style differed from the familiar Shearwaters. More high-arching, and often peaking in a full hanging cross position, the Petrels seemed more streamlined and fast flying than the surface hugging Shearwaters. Shearwaters, although found in deeper areas, prefer the slighly shallower in-bay areas. Perhaps the Petrels' sharp-winged, angled-back flight posture is optimized for the high-wind conditions of deep water areas, which explains why some birders can spot a Petrel at enormous distances. That being said, none of my books really captured the difference as dramatically as when I finally saw when the birds flying at close range. It reminded me of the stunt-flying kites I often see a the beach, moving up and down in a forceful rythmic fashion. This bird breeds in New Zealand, and it perhaps because of the El Niño conditions this year, seems to be appearing in record numbers off of our coast.
A morning walk at Coyote Point failed to produce the Pacific Golden Plover, however the Pacific Loon was foraging very close to shore, 15 or so Black Turnstones, one Black Oystercatcher, two Caspian Terns on the sandbar, and a Spotted Sandpiper at the harbor mouth were nice consolations. Western and Least Sandpipers were gathered on the bar along with a few Forster's Terns and a dozen Black-bellied Plovers.