When August arrives, birders across the continent have one thing on their obsessive brains: shorebirds. This Global Birder Ranking System #7 U.S. birder? Two things...shorebirds, and seabirds. Oh, and another thing, pointing and screaming bird names as loud as possible with a captive audience.
Of course, there are always seabirds Out There, but the end of July heralds the beginning of pelagic season. Away from Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay, there is no where else on the west coast where boats depart on the regular to troll for tubenoses, for alcids, for boobies, for jaegers...you get the picture. I am lucky enough to be able to get on a lot of these trips (mostly out of Half Moon), and spend time with this impressive and difficult group of birds...the birds of The Deep. In anticipation of my first west coast seabirding trip of the year (and yet another shot at Hawaiian Petrel, a bird I need), I thought I would cobble together some photos from past July and August trips. As always, if you are thinking about doing your first west coast pelagic trip, or your first ever pelagic trip, what are you waiting for? Get on a boat!
But these anxious feelings are nothing different from any other year. What is different about this year is El Nino...not a speculated one, not a possible one, but a real one. The nonbirder associates El Nino (sorry for the lack of tilde) with rain, the west coast seabirder associates it with rare birds. Weird seabirds have already put in appearances in California this year...a Red-footed Booby, a Nazca Booby, a Kelp Gull, a Bridled Tern...and none of those birds were even seen out to sea! So who knows what will be out there? Frigatebirds have already been showing up in SoCal, another encouraging sign. Fingers crossed for Cook's Petrels, an El Nino special, but I will be happy with a Hawaiian (no fucked up ocean currents required), which is very much a bird of August.
Late summer is a good time for albatross, and Black-footed Albatross are almost always out there this time of year. Unlike many other seabirds we see, if you see a Black-footed Albatross, you are going to get great looks. It's also a good time for Laysan Albatross (top photo) as well, but a word of warning: 75% of Laysan Albatross called out on boat trips end up being Western Gulls. Don't become part of that gruesome statistic...caution is warranted.
Shearwater diversity does not tend to be very high at the beginning of pelagic season, but Sooty and Pink-footed are never missed, assuming the boat gets out of the harbor. An early Buller's or Flesh-footed is never out of the question, and of course there are a great many other possibilities.
Small numbers of Northern Fulmars are often found on these summer trips, and the birds usually look something like this. They are ragged. They are haggard...and lets face it, they are godawful. Hideous. It's amazing they can even fly, they are molting so hard. Fulmars later in fall are very respectable in appearance and flight capabilities, not so much our summer lingerers. Luckily, if you've never seen a fulmar before, they are not at all afraid of the boat, so you can wonder at their horrible glory from close range.
August is a great month for jaegers, especially Long-tailed, who often will still be retaining their brilliant extendo-tail. The bulk of southbound Long-taileds seem to pass through from August to mid-September, so now is a good time to get them. The always-popular Skua Slam is always within reach this time of year as well.
Black (above) and Ashy Storm-Petrels are the expected storm-petrels early in the season, though Wilson's are not unusual. With El Nino brewing, this could be a good year to find Least Storm-Petrel this far north, though probably not this early. That said, the birding legend they call Papa Echo Lima recently saw some from shore down La Jolla way, which portends great things for those who want to see them up here.
Fact: 75% of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels claimed on trips are actually phalaropes...but if you are one who warrants caution, then that 75% is not for you. These are Red Phalaropes, the less common, chubbier, more desirable phalarope.
Speaking of chubby, Cassin's Auklets are expected on trips throughout the summer and fall, though their numbers vary. Unlike albatross and fulmars, Cassin's Auklets hate boats, so getting good looks at them can be stressful.
I know this isn't a compelling photo, but I think it sums up what looking at murrelets can be like over the deep. Scripps's Murrelets (above) are the expected species, though last summer Craveri's were seen on a number of boats in July and early August. I'm hoping they come back for an encore this year.
Oh yeah, crippling rarities can show up any time...it just takes a shitload of luck, and maximizing your time on the water. This Salvin's Albatross was the star Vague Runt (albeit one not so runty) of the pelagic season last year, and things have never been the same.
All photos were taken offshore from Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay.