Monday, August 10, 2015

Raft Rage Out of Half Moon Bay

Pelagic season has started off with a bang...not with any proper rarities, but with the next best thing...huge rafts of storm-petrels!  I've seen bigger flocks, but these birds were relatively approachable and were very diverse. I was one of the leaders on the August 2 Shearwater Journeys trip out of Half Moon Bay, which featured warm temperatures, calm seas, and a solid variety of seabirds.  But before the petrels came to pass, there were a lot of other highlights. Right out of the harbor I got my county sea otter, which is a rarity this far north.

Marine mammals were plentiful offshore, with numerous humpback whales, including a few who were engaging in some facemelting breaches, which this obviously is not a picture of.

Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters. There were some big shearwater flocks in relatively shallow water, feeding in big groups alongside assorted marine mammals.

This shearwater flock was diving into the water amongst a big pod of short-beaked common dolphins. It was a vulgar display of marine life.

Common dolphins are more of a SoCal species, so they are always a nice surprise this far north. They also really like bowriding, so they almost always come in close to the boat.

Can't complain about looks like this.  We also had Dall's and harbor porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins during the day.  Other nonbirds of note included fur seals, Steller's sea lion, and two blue sharks.

Sabine's Gulls in alternate plumage are one of the best things to see offshore, not so much for rarity or majesty, but for overall aesthetics.

Aesthetically pleasing is an understatement.

As I've mentioned in one of the recent Maine posts, Arctic Terns are missed on many boat trips and are often tough to get a respectable look at.  This bird was loafing on some driftwood and was much more cooperative than the average offshore tern.

Nice wing pattern on this young bird.

Unlike the Arctic Terns and Sabine's Gulls, this Scripps's Murrelet was butt ugly. It's undergoing some serious molt, and has a bill deformity to boot. I generally do not talk ill of murrelets of any kind, but this one was astonishingly trashy. I'm sure it'll look much better in a few weeks.

No matter how often I see Black-footed Albatross, and no matter how many photos I take of them, I can't seem to stop, and they invariably make it into pelagic trip posts no matter what. So here is a gratuitous albatross photo, I hope ya'll have the same tireless enthusiasm for them that I do. Apparently the captain of another boat saw a couple Laysan Albatross in the same area the day before, but we had to be happy with BFAL.

I said storm-petrels made this trip, so lets get into some storm-petrels.  This is an Ashy Storm-Petrel, and amazingly enough you can actually make out its ashy color tones.  Compare the relative paleness of this bird with the Black Storm-Petrel a few photos below.

We had over 100 Wilson's Storm-Petrels on the day, which is a new record in California.  It was weird to see so many...this was California, not North Carolina. They aren't as wary of boats as the other storm-petrel species here can be, so we typically get pretty good looks at them when they are found.

Although the number of Wilson's present were surprising, I couldn't get over how many Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels were out there.  There were hundreds of them, and I didn't see a single one on trips last fact I'm not sure if anyone did!  Talk about an unpredictable bird...

To round out the storm-petrels for the day, here is a Black Storm-Petrel.

This is a part of one of the rafts of petrels we came across.  Some of us on the boat were getting weak at the knees at the sight of so many clustered together...these flocks are fertile grounds for holding some kind of rarity, and it does not help that both Wedge-rumped and Tristram's Storm-Petrels were found a few miles away on the Farallones earlier this year.  All four species shown above are visible in this photo.

I like how this little group of Fork-taileds has composed themselves.  That's an Ashy on the bottom right, note the dark gray (not black) color compared to the silvery Fork-taileds, which are seemingly manufactured to be the color of a fog bank.

Bear witness to another storm-petrel raft, with all four species.  Hopefully the storm-petrels will be holding it down for a while longer, it would be great to track these flocks down again.  Big storm-petrel flocks are a luxury, not a reliable thing at all, and seeing so many at the very beginning of August totally took me by surprise.

I worked with Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels in Alaska, so I have a soft spot for them.  Here's one of the closer shots I got.

On the way back in we came across this juvenile Tufted Puffin, doing its best Rhinoceros Auklet impression, which they are prone to do.  That's a Common Murre on the left.

So, all in all a hella good trip, though I still have not met a Hawaiian Petrel...I'll try again this weekend.


  1. And here I thought almost 700 Wilson's Storm-Petrels were counted from the boat that day. I thought that number strange at the time - must have drunk too many old-fashioneds from my thermos. Duh...

    1. Haha, there were still hella...just less hella.