California pt. 2: The Pelagic

The Albatross has long been considered an ill omen among sailors. Ironically, it is in the pursuit of these very same creatures that I come up against my own metaphorical “Albatross.” Despite multiple attempts, a pelagic trip (an oceanic birding tour) has eluded me throughout the years. Blocked by fog in Tofino, closure in Victoria, and lack of transportation on the east coast, I have somehow managed to reach my ninth year of birding without experiencing one of these trips. This, however, would all change on July 14, when we would sail out of Half-Moon Bay, California.

Up at five-thirty to drive out to the pier, where we met Alvaro Jarmarillo and the rest of the group at 6:30 AM. Filing aboard the New Captain Pete, we were met by the pleasant news that the boat was stocked with fresh coffee, biscuits and some excellent fresh strawberries. Departing the harbour in a cloud of fog, we identified the usual mix of Brown Pelicans, Heerman’s and Western Gulls. Two Marbled Murrelets – only the second time we had seen these unusual birds – floated half a mile offshore.  Murrelets oddly nest in deep forest groves, miles from the ocean, where they return to spend the majority of their lives.

HEER

Heerman’s Gull

The first life bird of the day came surprisingly early, and would be a common sight over the course  of the trip – Northern Fulmar! These funny little tubenoses  were never boring, coming close to the boat for photos in their array of colours, from mottled grey to chocolate brown to a pure, glistening white.

Alvaro's Adventures - NOFU

A stark white Northern Fulmar rides the ocean current

As we neared our primary destination, a pod of whales surrounded the boat – Hump-backs, Fin Whales and a small unidentified whale swam further out, but close to ten Great Blue Whales breached nearest our vessel, granting many close views of their broad backs and explosion of mist that was their breath. Having the two largest mammals in the world (Fin Whale being the other) surrounding us was an amazing experience, if a little nerve-wracking.

GBW

Great Blue Whale

Approaching the islands, we were treated to our first ever views of Cassin’s Auklet. Impossible to photograph, the tiny alcids would bounce from wave to wave in increasing speed as the boat came near, before finally gaining the momentum to lift off. Eventually, however, one accepted our presence long enough for us to catch a few shots before vanishing beneath the waves.

Alvaro's Adventures - CAAU

Cassin’s Auklet

Sooty Shearwaters skimmed the sea, and, though relatively common, rarely approached the ship.

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A Sooty Shearwater springs from the water

Our day was spotted with Puffin observations, each of which was punctuated by a scream of “Puffin!” which resounded from end to end of the boat, alerting all the passengers of the nearby alcid. Once, we were lucky enough to have one fly only a few feet above the boat, and another time a pair rested contentedly as we floated within 100 metres of them. All in all, we were very fortunate with the Puffins.

Alvaro's Adventures - HOPU

Horned Puffins!

My highlight came as we coasted along the continental shelf, in a heavy patch of fog.
I gazed into the distance, not expecting much, when a massive shape loomed out of the fog. It drifted towards us on silent wings, bigger than any bird I had seen before, and there was no doubting what it was. An Albatross.

The bird passed, shrouded in mist, but we would see another. Nine more, in fact. Black-footed Albatrosses were the undeniable high point of the day, and while we saw no Laysans, I was more than content with the obliging birds.

Alvaro's Adventures - BFAB

Albatross!

And I’d include another photo of the goliaths had it not been for another lifer, the Pink-footed Shearwater. A duo of the avians paused next to a young Albatross, presumably for a patch of food, though we observed none. As we neared their location, a Shearwater flew up, and banked past us offering excellent views of its white underwings and wide wingspan.

Alvaro's Adventures - PFSH

Pink-footed Shearwater

Returning to shore, we saw few birds other than the murres, which had shown up in their tens of thousands that day. Eventually, a pair of dark birds were spotted on the horizon, which we could only assume were gulls signifying the proximity of land. Fortunately, we were wrong. Two immature Long-tailed Jaegers zoomed away over the sea, leaving us with an adult Sabine’s Gull as the only gull we saw at any distance from shore.

On reentry unto the harbour, we identified Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, in addition to an extremely distant pair of Elegant Terns as our fourteenth, and last lifers of the pelagic trip.

Alvaro's Adventures - BRPE

Brown Pelican

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the final post of the trip!

California pt. 1: The Family Trip

Once the annual slog of final exams was past at last, I was looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet birding before really getting into any ‘summer activities.’ I could not have been more wrong. My first two sightings of summer should have warned me that I was in for a exiting time; a rare Cape May Warbler and a lifer Connecticut Warbler on Policeman’s Creek marked two of my best Banff sightings since the Dunlin in March, and it was shortly after these observations that I was to be whisked off to California on a three week birding adventure.

Naturally, the entire trip could not be about birds; my siblings have yet to fall under the spell of ornithology (there’s always hope!), and there are many wonderful things down the West Coast which do not involve avian highlights. For two weeks, we drove down the coast to San Fransisco, frantically trying to combine birding and vacation with watching the World Cup games.

Rest stop birding sufficed for a few days, as our primary goal was to cover as many miles as possible before slowing down. This, however, turned up such highlights as a Rock Wren and Bullock’s Oriole young.

US-CA Trip - ROWR

Rock Wren

Our first life bird came in the shape of a California Scrub-Jay, a bird we would become gradually familiar with over the course of our expedition. These birds’ brilliant blue plumage spotted the Oregon and California sea line in much the same way as that of the Blue Jay fills our more eastern world.

US-CA Trip - CSJA

California Scrub-Jay, the first lifer of the journey.

From that point on,  a steady trickle of life and year birds streamed past our eager eyes. Commencing in Astoria, Oregon (I highly recommend the visitor centre there; their efforts to find a place showing the World Cup semi-final was commendable) with Brown Pelicans, we continued to Leadbitter Point in search of Snowy Plovers. While we bombed on the Snowies, we had a great time there, as the entire beach was covered with thousands of Western Sandpipers, with healthy numbers of Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher mixed in.

US-CA Trip - WESA

Small groups of 30 – 50 Western Sandpipers whistled along the beach, mere inches above the sand.

US-CA Trip - WESA

Western Sandpiper

On the Oregon coast, there is a place called Haystack Rock which is known, in particular, for its breeding Tufted Puffins. When we reached this notable stone outcrop, we were greeted by dozens of Common Murres, Pelagic Cormorants, and Western Gulls circling the air. It did not take long to find the object of our desire. Half a dozen of the angular black forms hurtled through the sky with all the grace of a fish hurled from an airplane window. These chunky birds carried their massive bills with a Roman dignity, and seldom approached shore save from high above the beach as they circled the rock.

US-CA Trip - TUPU

Tufted Puffin

The final campsite of the first part of the trip was the best by far – we stayed there for three days, and found over thirty species including 3 lifers. The first lifer observed was the daring Black Phoebe, a bird which perched, fearless, on campfire grates, picnic tables and unoccupied tents around the campsite.

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Black Phoebe

The next day brought with it a family of Nuttal’s Woodpeckers, California Towhees, and a Green Heron!

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A young Nuttal’s Woodpecker

The Green Heron was flighty, but allowed some photos if you crept up behind some bushes.

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Green Heron

The next day, we moved into a hotel in Half-Moon Bay to rest up for the biggest day of the trip – a pelagic tour! The adventures of the long awaited pelagic deserve their own post, however, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out what happened.

Hotspot Review – Flowing Waters Trail

I’m starting a new series, rating hotspots in Southern Alberta for anyone looking to find a new birding location. This will not be a regular series, but I’ll come out with at least a few every couple of months. First up, one of my nearby favourites; Flowing Waters!

Location:

Flowing Waters is located between Highway 1 and the TransCanada Highway in Bow Valley Provincial Park. It’s accessible through the nearby campsite, or by a game trail from Seebe Dam.

Flowing Waters Map

Flowing Waters Map

Difficulty:

Easy. The trail is a gentle loop, with mild inclines at one or two points. Occasionally, part of the path is flooded, but that is unusual. In winter, snow blows off the highway and onto the trail, sometimes blocking it in piles up to eight feet tall, but these are generally solid enough to walk across. A good walk is often around 2 hours.

Bird Life:

One of the top hotspots in the area, over 140 species have been found here, and a good morning can result in a checklist of between 40 and 50 taxa. Specialities include Western Tanagers, 5 species of swallows and many warblers,  such as American Redstarts and Northern Waterthrush. Many unusual birds turn up here, and I have found Ovenbird, Blue-headed Vireo and Northern-Pygmy Owl at this location. Check out the eBird hotspot here.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Conclusion:

A very good hotspot, but not quite as good as places like Carburn Park, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Confederation Park. If you are in the Bow Valley in the spring, summer or fall, it’s one of the best places to bird without having to travel much. More birders trying it out could turn up many more species, but I think it will remain a relatively mid-level location. Definitely worth giving some time on a spare morning, but not a place which should be chosen over some more prosperous areas when you are looking for lots of species in a short time.

The Strangest Birdathon Yet

The Great Canadian Birdathon is complete, and what a birdathon it was! With a final species count of over 115 birds, we beat last year’s total in a shorter time. Somewhat encumbered by my persistent illness, we set off in Water Valley at 5:30am and completed the count at Lac Des Arcs by 9:30pm.

One of our first birds of the day was the Least Flycatcher, a species which, along with the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Sparrow, turned up at almost every location we visited.

LEFL

Least Flycatcher

We headed out to a bridge whch we knew was quite good, and picked up over 30 species there, including a singing Blackburnian Warbler and my FOY Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

A few kilometers NW, at a marsh where we hoped to pick up Swamp Sparrow, Ovenbird and an early Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, we were greeted by a very obliging pair of Sandhill Cranes, which flew overhead, echoing their guttural calls for all to hear.

SACR

Sandhill Crane

Unfortunately, we dipped on the Ovenbird and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but we did find Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltrimore Oriole and a few Northern Waterthrushes to bring the day’s count up to 45.

Two days previous, Miles Tindal and I had located a breeding Cape May Warbler on the Horse Creek Road, so we pulled over there on the way to Horse Creek Road Marshes and not only found the male warbler, but heard a Cassin’s Vireo to boot!

At the marshes, we found very little, but did manage to identify a single Le Conte’s Sparrow amid the Savannahs.

LCSP

Le Conte’s Sparrow

Since we were still lacking the Swamp Sparrow, we made a little detour to Winchell Lake where we successfully relocated one of these pretty little birds. Now came the strange part of the day. Having little hope of a great birdathon in terms of numbers (we were planning to end early, remember), we headed out on a wild goose chase to find a Green Heron which had been seen at an undisclosed location, and we were guessing where it could have been, thanks to the wealth of knowledge belonging to Dan Arndt of Calgary, who knew an area which resembled the photos of the bird.

Needless to say, we missed the heron, but the journey out to the spot was quite fruitful, turning up Baird’s, Pectoral and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and other shorebirds including many Wilson’s Phalaropes.

WIPH

Wilson’s Phalarope

Proceeding now towards Frank Lake, we chanced upon a Least Sandpiper, some Black Terns and best of all, a Long-billed Curlew!

Frank Lake was excellent as usual, though not at its brilliant best (there was a Little Blue Heron seen there today!). Barn Swallows offered good photography options, while White-faced Ibises and Forster’s Terns patrolled the skies. Eared Grebe and Ruddy Ducks ruled the water, and mixed in we found Red-necked Phalaropes, Western Grebes and a Marsh Wren in – surprisingly enough – the marsh.

BARS

Barn Swallow

A stop in High River yielded European Collared-Dove and Pine Siskin, and we were almost at Bragg Creek when the text came in. A bird has been seen at Langdon, a bird which almost never makes it as far North as Calgary. A Snowy Egret.

SNEG

Snowy Egret

After originally hesitating due to the distance it was, we had no r-egrets  about making the move to find it.

SNEG

Snowy Egret, Langdon

As we observed this special bird, an anxious Willet circled above, screaming out a distinctive”Will-et! Will-et!”

WILL

Willet

We concluded the day with a desperate stop at Lac Des Arcs to find, oddly enough, our first Common Goldeneye of the day. That rounded off our 2018 Great Canadian Birdathon – with no owls, eagles or falcons, and only three of a possible 7 thrushes, a strange one indeed. For any who want to see the full list of 117 species, click here.

Please consider donating to this important cause! The birdathon is not only a great birding experience for participants, but it is also a crucial part of the fundraising efforts to protect our avian life, both in their breeding grounds in North America, and in their wintering territories farther south. To support our valiant volunteers in their vital work, make a donation to my fundraising page here.