Showing posts with label Humpback Whale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Humpback Whale. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pelagics Are Coming (And So Is El Niño?)

Long-tailed Jaeger. Late summer and early fall boat trips generally encounter the highest number of this fan-favorite as they migrate south. Photographed off Bodega Bay, CA.

There are a few ways of looking at birding this time of year in the Lower 48. Those of us who live in shorebird-inhabited areas know that the first southbound migrants of the year are already starting to trickle in, and it will be a very short matter of time before the first Siberian pops up somewhere (and we do love Siberians). However, those bird addicts who don't live in shorebird-inhabited areas are languishing in a deep, mid-summer depression...chicks are fledging, but birdsong is dying down and nothing is really oscar mike yet. But then there are those who can go to the beach, look west at the horizon, and shamelessly drool about the birds that can be found offshore.

Right...there are more than plovers and sandpipers to look forward to, for July is also the beginning of pelagic season. And this year, something different is in the water.

A widely and wildly-celebrated rarity in most states, Sabine's Gulls are expected on California pelagic trips. Southbound migrants begin moving through in July and are consistently found through October. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

It's not unusual to find sizeable flocks of them. However usual this may be, it never gets old. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

What is new for 2014 you ask? There are many signs that El Niño is taking hold, and seabird behavior in multiple countries indicates it is well on its way. Now, if you are not from California (the U.S. state that is typically most directly impacted by this phenomenon), you may not know what this means at all. Basically (very basically), ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific lie within a certain temperature range, regulated by consistent wind patterns that cause upwelling of cold water. In El Niño years, there is a marked decrease in the amount of wind, and so there is less upwelling, and the eastern Pacific heats up.

The average California nonbirder knows that the warmer ocean temperatures El Niño brings increased precipitation, which is fantastic for us land-dwelling creatures that have been enduring a multiple-year drought. So that is good news. However, warm ocean water is not as productive as cooler waters, and this can (and does) cause the collapse of marine food chains. This means entire seabird colonies can fail to breed, and adults may not be able to fine enough food for themselves. Basically, it's a disaster.

A Flesh-footed Shearwater (left) and a Northern Fulmar crest a swell. Out of all the tubenoses that grace California, fulmars seem to be the most prone to wrecking on shore when oceanic conditions do not suit them...hopefully we don't see any significant die-offs this year. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

2013 was a very good year for Flesh-footed Shearwater (same bird as above) off central and northern California. This popular target bird for out-of-state birders typically do not become regular on trips until early September.

Disaster aside, certain seabird species prefer certain water temperatures and are well-suited to them. El Niño brings the high possibility of bringing southern, warm water loving birds northward into U.S. waters, and some birders (myself included) are trembling with the anticipation of what may come. While NOAA has not officially proclaimed El Niño to have settled in, they are giving it a high probability. Only time will tell for sure.

Recent previous El Niño events occurred in 2009-2010, 2006-2007, 2002-2003, and 1997-1998, with the 1997-1998 event being the strongest El Niño ever recorded. This year, Craveri's Murrelets have already been recorded twice in California waters (this is exceptionally early in the year for them, and many years they are not recorded at all). A putative Nazca Booby was recently photographed a few miles off of the Los Angeles County coast. 2009-2010 saw large numbers of Cook's Petrel recorded off California, with impressive numbers being recorded offshore with some regularity. It's impossible to predict what pelagic rarities will be found this year, but there are many disgusting possibilities. I hope to see you on a boat this year; I will again be a leader for Shearwater Journeys, and it's always nice to have some familiar faces on board.

If you want to find Short-tailed Shearwaters right now, you may want to be on a boat somewhere off the coast of Alaska. However, by late fall they make their way down to California where they are a good possibility on late-season boats. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

Same bird as above. Short-taileds have a habit (luckily for birders) of enthusiastically following boats that are chumming for birds, which is how Brian Patteson picked this one out last year. Sooties are not shy about making close passes by the boat, but they are not usually enthusiastic about getting in the chumline.

Many birders see their first albatross (of any kind) off central/northern California, and it's usually a Black-footed. Most boats from Monterey north to Humboldt encounter this loveable goony in summer and fall. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

Albatross employ all sorts of bizarre molt strategies. It's pretty easy to see what's new and what's old on this heavily-worn bird. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

You never know when a Laysan Albatross is going to show up! I suspect this is a juvenile bird, fledged only a few months previous. Note how there is no gray in the face, just a black eyepatch. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

Here is an adult, or at least a bird that is not a juvenile (Laysans generally do not begin breeding until they are 8 years old). There is a lot more gray in the face, which lends it a softer and far sexier look than the albajuveniles. As far as I know, there is no way in the field to tell apart a Laysan that is 2 years old and a Laysan that is 20. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

I guess I should show you a better look at an albaface. See? It is a lovely face. Older birds also have that 1/4 of a white eye-ring. #economyofstyle Photographed at Midway Atoll.

Brown Boobies always have multiple tails and wings, which give them a distinct "turboprop" look in flight. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

Well, maybe not always.

We had pleasant numbers of Scripps's Murrelets off of Half Moon Bay last year, where this pair was photographed. They are annual in small numbers in this part of the state, where they drift north after breeding is wrapped up off the coast of SoCal and Mexico. This is definitely a species more prone to occurring in warmer water.

I highly recommend studying Craveri's vs. Scripps's Murrelets before you get on a California boat this fall, or you may find yourself too slow on the draw. This is another Scripps's, photographed off Half Moon Bay.

Unlike the other pelagics pictured today, Marbled Murrelets stay quite close to shore (not to mention nesting in trees). While El Niño may help bring birders good birds from afar, many local breeders like this one don't stand to gain much if their food source goes north in search of cooler waters. By the way, if you are hoping to snag Marbled Murrelet on a pelagic, Half Moon Bay is consistently the best place to do it. Photographed in Half Moon Bay.

Yes! There are whales. Last year there was no shortage of Humpbacks (above) and Blues offshore. Photographed off Bodega Bay.

Could this be the year I pick up Red-tailed Tropicbird in my home state? I highly doubt it, but I really hope just never know what is lurking offshore until you get there. Photographed at Midway Atoll.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Brown Wonders...Blue Intimacy...Red Feces

No longer do birders scream "SKUUUAAAAA!!! SKUUUAAAAAAAAA!!!" off the California coast like madmen. With increasingly gnarly seas and so many of our seabirds leaving our waters for their breeding grounds in far off lands, pelagic trips have ceased running for the year. But the birds are still nice to think about, even if they conduct their business in lands and waters beyond our reach.

Few brown birds receive as much love and respect from birders as the skua. Ah, the South Polar Skua, aka "The Brown Wonder". Seeing that they spend half the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I have a feeling that the more politically correct name would be "Bipolar Skua." Right?

There are exceptions, of course. There are many birders who have never seen Flesh-footed Shearwater. We leaders of west coast pelagics get a lot of requests for these birds. Behold its fantastic brownness!

Of course, the bright pink bill lends some character, and adds to the creepy first-cycle Heermann's Gull effect.

On the last Half Moon Bay boat I was on, we ran into a massive mixed pod of Humpback and Blue Whales. They were very close to the boat and made no attempt to keep any kind of distance from us. For a long time we idled in the water while whales slowly frolicked around us.

This pair of blues spent a lot of time very close to us. It was not quite exhilarating but something very, very close to that.

Blue Whale nostrils are large. Especially up close. The explosive exhalation of a Blue Whale is really something to hear, especially when the seas are so calm the only things you can hear are squabbling gulls and other distant whale blows. What a fucking awesome experience.

Blue Whale flukes! There's a couple other surfacing whales in the background.

Humpbacks were plentiful as well. They have (proportionally) larger flukes than Blues and often have big white patches on the ventral side. The undertail pattern is how Humpback researchers can often tell individuals apart.

For your viewing pleasure...whale shit! Wish I could ID it to species. No, that's not bloody stool, that's digested krill remains.

Of course, seeing whale shit is one thing, but any real biologist will want to take it to the next level. We took some poop aboard and Liz #1 did some science on it with her tongue. Marmot assists.

Despite the abundance of Pink-footed Shearwaters offshore, they only breed on three islands off the Chilean coast. Hella vulnerable. A strange thing to consider when they are often the most abundant tubenose to be found offshore.

One of the thousands of things I like about tubenoses is how sleek their lines are when they tuck their feet in and are in cruising mode. They look completely built for flight, much like how I am completely built for birding.

A California Gull is no match for a Pomarine Jaeger on the hunt, even if the gull is the same size as the jaeger. You can actually make out the fish being disgorged in the photo. If only I could have all my food first swallowed by someone else...a boy can dream, right?

Mola Molas can often be spotted near the surface with a handful of attending gulls, hopeful to pick some parasites off the large fish. This is a first year Western Gull.


This is a zombie mola. Note the unseeing eye and facial scars of the undead.

Buller's Shearwaters were particularly common this year, with large numbers foraging relatively close to shore. For a few weeks it was even a bird you could see from land, which is not at all typical. The ocean is a fickle thing, and so too are it's birds.

Most Buller's crushes feature the m-pattern on the top side of the bird, but I reckon the stark white underwing is ajust as engaging.

As fall slips into winter, the hordes of Elegant Terns that pillage nearshore baitfish populations retreat south to Mexico. There they will stay until it is time to make sweet sweet tern love again.

All photos taken today are from September and October Half Moon Bay trips with Shearwater Journeys.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

MEGAGREAT SHEARWATER and Other Half Moon Highlights

Just brutal. BB&B is getting really bogged down and backed up...too many pelagic trips! So much chimping remains to be done. I like that I haven't posted a photo of a passerine in weeks, other than the controversial Nutmeg Mannikin (which has been added to the ABA Checklist, as I prophesied).

So after a fairly slow outing out of Monterey, I led 2 more Shearwater Journeys trips out of Half Moon Bay early in the month. On September 8, we pulled off the incredible feat of relocating the Great Shearwater that Alvaro Jamarillo's trip had found the day before. This is a MEGA in California, with currently only 8 accepted records by the Bird Police. Of course, since it is such a good bird, my photos of it were atrocious, but at least I got much better ones less than a month before in North Carolina.

The bird made a single pass up the port side of the boat and then was not part of any feeding flock or raft of birds, so I think it was plain old amazing luck that we were able to find it again, less than a mile from where the bird was seen the previous day.

One of my best California birds this year, without a doubt. We did another trip out there the day after seeing this bird, but could not relocate it. It's a big ocean out there. It still astounds me that the bird paid us a visit...chasing pelagic vagrants successfully is not something to be taken lightly.

It was a good weekend for Scripps's Murrelets. A big body of warm water was reachable on those days, which the murrelets love. Sadly, no Craveri's or Guadalupe Murrelets accompanied them.

Interestingly, at least half the time I've seen these birds on northern California trips, they are spotted off the bow flying directly away from the boats, unnervingly not revealing any field marks except their back color and flight style. They look a lot like Cassin's Auklets when they do this (which is surely their intended way to thwart birders), and I bet many SCMU get missed this way.

Buller's Shearwater are beloved. It is the bird on a pelagic trip that leaders will call out again and again and again, no matter how many have been seen already. I had no idea they had two-tone pink and gray feet until I looked closely at this's a nice touch.

Although the big dark "M" across the upperwing is the default ID mark for these birds, I find their gleaming white underwing and underparts to be even more useful to spot these birds at a glance.

Here is the iconic back pattern.

Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets are similar at first glance, particularly when you see a distant bird on the water and have no way to gauge its size. The comparatively small bill of a Cassin's isn't always obvious, but it's a great field mark besides the overall diminutive size. The differences in head shape (rounded on Cassin's, flat and blocky on Rhino) are also reliable.

Young Rhino Auklets (right) lack the white brows and whiskers of adults, giving them the chance to be confused with both Cassin's Auklets and juvenile Tufted Puffins.

Pacific White-sided Dolphins are frequently found on boats out of Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Bodega Bay. We had an enormous pod this day, with lots of shearwaters fishing with them. Even the most cold-hearted, diehard lister should be happy to run into dolphins on pelagic trips, because they usually have a lot of birds with them.

Of course, Pacific White-throated Dolphin or Pacific Gray-sided Dolphin would be a better names, but I don't think mammalogists are as prone to tinkering with names as bird folk are. Very cool and distinctive animals, regardless of humanity's poor descriptions. They are more than happy to come visit boats, and occasionally have Northern Right Whale Dolphins tagging along with them.

It's been a good fall for Humpback Whales. We've seen hella. Brilliant creatures. Much more pelagic coverage to come soon.