Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Vanquishing a Nemesis, Cetacean Backs, Sweet Succulent Seabirds

There are some birds I have special feelings about. Some of them I've never come close to seeing (Spoon-billed Sandpiper), some of them I've been painfully close to seeing (Ivory Gull), some of them I've seen but not well enough to count (Red-breasted Chat), some languish on my heard-only list (Black Rail), and some I've seen...just not in a particular place. As many of you know, since I have been bitching about it for years, Northern Gannet falls into the latter category. I've seen them on the east coast, but there has been one in the bay area for years now, successfully eluding my attempts to see it in three (3) different counties. What the fuck? Finally, persistence paid off...on my first pelagic trip of 2016, I saw a glowing white speck way off in the distance on the side of a cliff. It wasn't really identifiable as a bird, but I knew that I had finally met my destiny. We motored closer, and it was indeed The Bird. State birds are good birds, especially when you have been pining for them for years and dipped on them over and over again.

Of course, the only reason I was on a boat looking at a gannet in California was because I was on my first pelagic trip of the year, out of Half Moon Bay. There have been a very large number of whales off of Half Moon Bay this fall. We've had no trouble getting great looks at Humpbacks.

The lumps along the lower back are an easy way to ID a Humpback. This one has a more pronounced dorsal fin than many.

Along with all the Blue and Humpback Whales, there have also been Fin Whales! Fin Whales are relatively rare in the area (I've never seen one here before this year). They are similar to Blue Whales in size and shape, but are solid gray and have a more pronounced dorsal fin. They also move extremely fast.

When there are lots of krill-eating whales offshore, they are typically accompanied by Cassin's Auklets. There were hundreds of these diminutive alcids on this day, more than I'd seen in a few years. In classic embarrassing form, a good number were too full to fly away from the boat.

We had a pair of Craveri's Murrelets next to the boat, but frustratingly I was looking at a jaeger overhead at the time and totally missed them. Even more frustratingly, I saw what was probably another one but got unsatisfactory looks. I've seen them a couple times before, but you know what? That is not enough. Need more murrelets. At least this Scripps's Murrelet was cooperative...they seem to be doing well where they breed down in the Channel Islands, so hopefully this species will be increasingly easy to see on pelagic trips.

While reviewing photos for this blog post, I came across this shearwater that at the time I just passed off as a Sooty. I only took photos of it because it was close to the boat. Funny...it doesn't look like a Sooty now...

The bird has a very small bill, whitish throat, round head, and underwing pattern that does not match Sooty. A couple knowledgeable Bird Policemen and I came to the consensus of Short-tailed Shearwater, which is an excellent bird for August; they typically do not arrive until the beginning of October, and are generally hard to find even then. I'm not the biggest proponent of birders becoming photographers (not that there is anything wrong with that, obviously) - I recommend getting a scope before a camera - but having a decent crusher can pay huge dividends on pelagic trips.

Whales were not the only marine mammals in abundance. It is always a pleasure to meet up with a pod of Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

This sea lion looking thing is actually a Northern Right Whale-Dolphin. Most people have never heard of such a thing, so if you were one of those people a few seconds ago, now you are not. NRWDs are uncommon and typically travel with large pods of other dolphins. They are mostly black and have no dorsal fin at all...they are very easy to identify but adept at not allowing themselves to be photographed well, even though they will bowride.

When you hear the phrase "birding is hard", one of the very first things that comes to mind should be jaegers. Take these birds for example. When we saw this pursuit, another leader and I agreed that the bird with a fish was a Parasitic and the other bird was a Long-tailed. What we didn't realize (which I do now, checking photos) was that the bird with the fish had just flown over the boat a minute before, and at that point we called it a Long-tailed. Balls! Looking at my photos, I am not completely satisfied with either ID...the confusing bird does not look particularly large in comparison, but the bill does not look particularly small and the back seems quite dark...but there is still some contrast in the secondaries...maybe it would have a lighter upperwing if it was older...ugh.

This bird, the pursuer in the above photo, was not hard to ID. This immature Long-tailed Jaeger has the completely dark underwings of an adult, which Pomarine and Parasitic would never show. It's a particularly shitty photo, I know, but it gets the field mark across.

The other bird still retained the underwing of a more youthful bird. Here it is being whimsical.

No obvious white flash on the upperwing of this bird. Only three primary shafts were white, which is typically a very helpful mark for Long-tailed Jaeger, though they can occasionally have more. If I have to choose and call this bird something it would be Long-tailed, though I do not do it with great conviction or courage.

You know, when someone in a guide or leader position misidentifies a bird in the field, it often causes raised eyebrows, or if it happens repeatedly, feverish gossip. This is not so with jaegers...if someone misses a call, we all move on. No biggie. They are the great equalizer, and a group of birds that I would really like to know better.

While the experience of watching jaegers at sea lies somewhere in between maddening and great fun, watching Black-footed Albatross is always warm and comforting. Watching folks absolutely light up when they see them for the first time doesn't get old.

Brown Booby was a solid bonus rarity. Unlike last year, when they seemed to be everywhere, they have been few and far between in 2016. This boob must have been stoked to find such an excellent drum to perch on.

Mmmmm...Sabine's Gulls. Almost everyone who has not yet seen an Ivory or Ross's Gull will usually pick this bird as their favorite (also, favourite) gull, and I am not in any position to throw shade on this pick. I feel very fortunate to see them every fall.

Sabine's Gulls are heartening...nay, delightful to see in and of themselves, but generally speaking the more Sabine's you see the more terns, phalaropes and jaegers are around. If you are seeing a lot Sabine's on a particular day, chances are there will be a lot of other good seabirds around.

There is generally not a big audio component to pelagic trips other than leaders screaming about birds we are spotting. The one major exception to this rule is Common Murre; we hear lots of murre dads bellowing to their chicks, and lots of murre chicks pitifully peeping at their dads. This is a typical murre dad letting loose with a loving bellow.

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