Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Of Fruit and Glory: Lifering Again In Ventura County

Brown Boobies have made their presence known in 2015 up and down the California Coast all the way north to British Columbia. You show me warm water, and I will show you boobies. All photos today are from Ventura and Santa Barbara County waters.

In October of this year, I returned to an autumnal birding battleground where I had not waged avian war since 1999: Ventura County. It was like MacArthur returning to the goddamn Phillipines. Pretty much the same thing. The place can, and has been, littered with Vague Runts in the fall, so it was great to be back at the proper time of year. I had racked up massive numbers of life and state birds in the 90's in Ventura, when I was but a young nerd, so it was refreshing to be back during the month when anything can happen. This time, I had a specific target bird in mind...not a standard rarity per se, but a tubenose that can be found offshore in the right month and the right luck of the right year. And so with comrades old and new, we lurked offshore on a big Island Packers catamaran.

The most abundant bird of the day was Black-vented Shearwater; we had obscene numbers of them in the channel near Santa Cruz Island. It was really, really gross. 

Jaegers were in abundance, which is always good news for a birder, but it also means that a birder is going to get seriously humbled. Jaeger identification is not for the faint of heart.

I reckon this is a juvenile Long-tailed. It's real dark. Look at that cute little stubby bill.

Here is another juvenile Long-tailed. It's not real dark, unlike the previous bird. It's doing a passable juvenile Western Gull impression here, which is odd.

This was an interesting bird...there was debate over dark Pomarine Jaeger vs. South Polar Skua as this bird made a single pass by the boat; despite the heavy bill, I don't think this has wings broad enough for a skua, and I would also expect to see more white visible (or any at all) on those fresh primaries growing in. It's also a deep, almost featureless dark brown on the upperparts, all of which point toward Pomarine Jaeger in my book.

Out between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands we ran into some migrant Pigeon Guillemots. These birds migrate north for the winter, which is not a trendy style of migration at all.

We had a mellow pair of young Sabine's Gull near the boat for a bit. It was a soothing experience.

Here is the second bird. Twice mellowed. By this point in the day the birding had gotten a bit slow, but finally a few Black Storm-Petrels appeared. A few minutes later, we came up on what exactly I was hoping for: rafts.

Rafts of storm-petrels, of course. Storm-petrels are not for dilettantes. These are not birds meant for casual enjoyment. They certainly don't belong anywhere near stringers, because the devoted stringer can transform a storm-petrel into any number of species with little effort. Storm-petrels, by their very frustrating and subtle nature, can make you want to bash your head into a wall...or they can yield sweet, nectary storm-petrel fruit.

Ah, there is nothing so refreshing as a big raft of storm-petrels. There were lots of Blacks, the expected species, but it was quickly apparent there were much smaller birds in with them. Were the rafts bearing fruit???  See top rightish above.

And there they were...Least Storm-Petrels (front right and back). Finally. This was a life bird. The wait was finally over. The fruit had been bore.

This was the bird that had lured me was time we became acquainted, and it was indeed a pleasure. Leasts are very small, very dark (note lack of any noticeable upperwing markings on the bird above), and have tiny, wedge-shaped tails. They really do resemble little bats in shape, if not in flight style. Majestic? No. Glorious? Yes.

After getting past the Least and Black Storm-Petrels (and getting some bonus Ashy Storm-Petrels), we came upon a pair of murrelets. Luckily, they were Craveri's Murrelets, which I'd only seen once before. These were good birds, damn good birds, especially on top of a long-awaited lifer. Aren't Mexican birds great?

You can see their distinctive dark underwings, which Guadalupe and Scripps's lack.

Finally, it was time to visit the famed booby roost at Santa Barbara Island. Brown Boobies began to appear more and more frequently, and everyone was hoping an additional Sulid would be lurking at the roost.

Eager birders frothed at the mouth and smacked their lips lustily. They wanted boobies something fierce.

Good lord, there were a lot of boobies on that rock...85! Here is a chunk of the boob roost.

At the end of the day, it was a great trip, and a nice change of pace from the waters I typically lurk in. Thanks to Dave Pereksta for organizing it and Joel Barrett for encouraging me to come down. A couple days later, with one Gareth Jones and Officer Searcy (the notorious Bird Policeman), I found my nemesis Ventura County bird trodding upon the sod...a Red-throated Pipit. They have been a dime a dozen a recent years, but for whatever reason that was not the case in the 90's, when it was my turn to flog the sod. Despite the lack of photos, I assure you that it was a succulent (and Siberian) county bird.

Between the nostalgia and quality birds, my time down there was Great Success. Luckily, I did not have to wait much longer to catch the next Siberian know what I'm saying?


  1. Dang man, you got some nice birds! Who doesn't like seeing boobies?! Jaegers are nice too.

    Sincerely #6

  2. I long for boobies. What am I even doing with my life that I haven't managed to add one to my life list?!

    1. You apparently aren't doing things on boats. Boats lead to boobies.

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