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.


  1. Very exciting stuff. Can you recommend (or write...) a pelagic primer for those of us who've never been on one, and are bewildered and terrified by the prospect of new experiences? How can I learn the finer points of seabird ID? What should I wear? Will I throw up? What can I do to not throw up? How should I behave when I throw up? Etc.

    1. There's a few primers out there...I think Debi (Shearwater) has one on her site? Basically, try to get a lot of sleep the night before, take a seasick pill, don't eat anything gnarly, wear layers, puke as close to the stern as possible, and study like a bastard before the trip.

  2. Time to dig out my flashcards. Mailed my check yesterday.

    1. I forgot about the flashcards. Make one for mola. See you soon!