Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Desperate Birders Have Been Known To Render Desperate Deeds or: How I Learned to Stop Vomiting and Love the Seabirds

Black-footed Albatross is the reigning lord of California waters, at least until Short-tailed Albatross make a dramatic comeback. Working with Black-foots on Midway Atoll enamored me with them; this is a bird I never tire of seeing. I love the fact that I can go on a pelagic trip off of California and have a real possibility of seeing a bird that I saw on Midway 4 years ago. It's over 3,000 miles from Midway to Half Moon Bay; not only do Black-foots cross this expanse before and after breeding begins, they do it just to forage for their chicks! The mileage these long-lived birds put on their wings must be staggering.

With fall shorebird migration raging up, down, and across the continent, shorebirders are happy. But before warblers, vireos, flycatchers and their ilk sweep south, late summer is when seabird season really gets going. Under cover of darkness, hordes of ravenous birders pile on to boats up and down the California coast, to try their luck when the day breaks with the birds of the wide open ocean.

It is a novel idea. Many nonbirders struggle to come to grips with it. You go way offshore to watch birds? There are birds out there? Isn't that kind of hard? How much does that cost?

I cannot say enough good things about Buller's Shearwaters, the bird rumored to use human bones as nest material. Maybe this fall I will finally give them the crushing they deserve.

For many of the birders getting on boats in the coming months, it is their first time at sea. Pelagic birding comes as a shock; being jammed into a crowd of similarly-garbed birders, the motion of the boat, the fast-moving birds disappearing behind troughs...then there is the extreme difficulty of identifying any and all seabirds, for the colors of seabirds exist on a limited spectrum of white, gray, brown, black...the legendary Economy of Style. And then there is the puking; The Sickness. While one birder may describe a pelagic trip as a glimpse of Heaven itself, another birder on the same trip would describe the experience as a hellish ordeal that left them broken and empty inside (literally).

Once again, the frantic cries of "SKUUUUAAAAA!!!!!" will pierce the salty air, as a hefty brown bird makes a quick pass by the boat. A species that never ceases to cause birders to froth at the mouth, I'm hoping to get South Polar Skua off both coasts this year.

For others birders, they have spent many days at sea in pursuit of seabirds...their own white whales, their own sea monsters, so to speak. It keeps them going, it sustains them. For some, their monster may be a Hawaiian Petrel, or Streaked Shearwater. My monsters go by many names and forms...I must rise and do battle with them all. I cannot rest until they are all defeated...and so again and again, I must go to sea. It will never end. We are not deterred by the long days, the sleep deprivation, the horrendous vomiting, the possibility for complete and catastrophic failure on the rarity As long as the birds come, the birders will rise to meet them.

Sabine's Gull is a severely underrated bird. Aside from being our easiest gull to identify (that wing pattern is so distinct it might as well just read "Sabine's Gull"), they have a bold fashion sense and are true pelagic birds for most of the year. Our Pacific birds breed in the Arctic and winter off of western South America; the Atlantic population repopulates in the Canadian Arctic and winters off southwest Africa.

I am no different. In my continuing lust for seabird observation, I am scheduled to go on pelagic trip after pelagic trip this fall...a pair out of North Carolina and a bunch out of California, as a leader for Shearwater Journeys. Desperate birders have been known to render desperate deeds, and I think the boat time I will be racking up in the coming months is a sign, at the very least, of a severe and incurable addiction.

All photos today are from various pelagic trips the last couple years, out of San Diego, Monterey, and Half Moon Bay, CA.

Arctic and Common Terns (above) are encountered on the regular in fall. All too often they make a single pass, leaving birders with eyes glazed over and mouths agape in confusion. It is times like this when chimping can make or break an ID.

I think this is a good example of some of the challenges pelagic birders face; to put it as eloquently as I can...looking at birds is hard. This is a basic-plumage Tufted Puffin head. TUPU is a somewhat rare but regular bird on these fall northern California trips.

Parasitic (above) and Pomarine Jaegers are staples of any California pelagic trip. It is in late summer and early fall when that precious jaeger, the Long-tailed, migrates through the area. Of course, finding jaegers is one thing, identifying them can be quite another.

This is a second summer bird, although at first glance it looks more like an adult that had already dropped its fancy tail feathers. The breast band is actually made up of dingy barring, a remnant of the bird's youth, not the dark wash one would expect in adult Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers. With the potentially confusing breast band out of the way, one quickly notices the bird has completely dark underwings, which renders this bird a Long-tailed Jaeger.

Storm-Petrels are the Empidonax of the sea; small, innocuous, and brutally difficult to tell apart from one another...except they don't ever vocalize away from their breeding islands, so really they make Empidonax seem easy in comparison. Black Storm-Petrels are one of several regularly seen species seen on pelagic trips off northern California.

Of course, there are other things to see besides birds on these trips, which brings great distress to some birders. Just behave, and hope the knife doesn't come out!


  1. I'm bringing my little birder group out for a Shearwater Journeys trip in September. Hope it's one of yours! It would be an honor to be on the same boat as the nation's number 7 birder.

    1. Totally possible. Say hi if you see a tall, sleepy half-asian man who drools whenever a flock of birds goes by.

  2. I've had a very small handful of incredible days offshore. It seems like every time I go out I'm chasing those days again. You never know.

    Looking forward to hosting you out in NC for a few days.

    1. Yeah I can think of 3-4 trips that really were game-changers for me (not counting sailing the Aleutian chain). I'm ready for that number to change.

      There's nothing like looking forward to a birding trip with guaranteed lifers. Should be rad!

  3. I got my confirmation yesterday- I will be puking all over you in September! Get pumped.