Category Archives: Pelagic Trips

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.

Alvaro's Adventures - SOSH

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!

The West Coast Trip (Week Two)

First of all, a correction – I had, in the last post, made an error in my identification of photo number six – it is a Savannah Sparrow, not a Golden-crowned.

I’m sorry this comes out late; despite being one of the best things ever to happen to me, homeschooling rhythms have yet to fully settle in.

We started the second week with high hopes – it all revolved around the pelagic tour that we hoped to do in Tofino. Long Beach and Englishman River Estuary also looked promising.

Monday we visited Long Beach, where both of my siblings had a lot of fun jumping over waves.
I, on the other hand, scoped the ocean hoping for murrlets and Pacific Loons.
After about ten minutes of searching, something other than a Pigeon Guillemot or Surf Scoter brought excitement.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

Through the fog, I could see something that could possibly be a Pacific Loon!
Nope, false alarm. It was a Red-necked Grebe. Though still interesting, it was not what I had hoped for. A few minutes more, and this time I had found a loon. In fact, there were about 6 of them, but unfortunately too far away for photos.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

The only bird other than a gull to turn up actually on the beach, a Least Sandpiper.

That afternoon, we headed into Tofino, and found three Bald Eagles circling behind a sea-side restaurant, which was throwing out it’s fish guts.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Tuesday was the day planned for the pelagic trip. Sooty Shearwaters, Cassin’s Auklets and many others awaited. We walked in to the tour office, and the co-owner radioed a captain who was out near where we would go. Apparently,  there was still fog out near the island, and the waters were getting “tricky.” In short, we could not go. That hit us hard. The entire trip had hinged on this outing!

We drove back across the island (meaning Vancouver Island) and once on the other side, met up with some friends who had recently moved there. At least, the others did. My Dad and I went to Englishman River Estuary for a couple hours.

Killdeer were the first  things we saw, and we went on to count 35 of them along with the Western and Least Sandpipers, and a few Sanderlings. A bunch of Common Mergansers and a late Western Gull added to a total of 21 species.

Killdeer

Killdeer

The next day, we had a long stop at Rathtrevor Beach, where there were oystercatchers, sandpipers and gulls galore. There was also a quickly approaching tide, so some wet feet were involved.

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

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In Victoria, we did a short whaling trip during which I did as much birding as possible, drawing out Surfbirds from a photo of an island. At the time, I was unsure of their ID, but now there is no doubt, though the photos are bad. An aqua-phobic just can’t take photos from a boat.

Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher

Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher – 2 of each, but the turnstone

Can you find all the birds?

Rhinocerous Auklet

My Dad’s shot – Rhinocerous Auklet

That evening, we headed out to Clover Point, where we (eventually) found the much-hoped-for Heerman’s Gull.

Heerman's Gull

Heerman’s Gull

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Back on the mainland, a quick stop-over at the fabled Reifle Bird Sanctuary turned up 35 Herons, 10 Sandhill Cranes and a Virginia Rail among others. This Leucistic Mallard is banded, but unfortunately I was unable to get the band information.

Leucistic Mallard

Leucistic Mallard

And that’s it from my West Cost Trip #2! Thank you everyone for reading, and stick around to hear about the Canmore Christmas Bird Count.