Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fall Pelagics: Blue Whales, Whalebows, Murre[let]s, The Burden

And just like that, the pelagic season has come and gone. I already covered my first two trips of the year, so I figure I can go ahead and wrap up the September and October trips I did out of Half Moon Bay.

The September trip was full of marine life...there was a lot going on offshore. Humpback Whales were present in large numbers, frequently giving great looks near the boat.

Lots and lots of Humpbacks. The sea was boiling with whales. The sea wasn't boiling whales though, climate change isn't that bad yet.

We had nice looks at Blue Whales as well. This is always a major bonus of any trip. I don't think a lot of participants know that this is something they can realistically see on trips here, so there is always an atmosphere of bewildered excitement when one of these surfaces near the boat.

It's always a great honor to get good looks at the largest animal to have ever existed. That's some heavy shit...literally.

The day was bright and sunny, and ultimately bad for photography; I have no crushes to offer you. More importantly, we had good numbers of skuas and jaegers, and hundreds of Sabine's Gulls, the most I had ever seen. The western U.S. has been plagued with them this fall, both offshore, along the coast and on interior lakes; there must have been a bumper crop of them this year.

The real drama came when a Hawaiian Petrel was called out...I was quite convinced (ok, totally convinced) I saw it at one point, but when I chimped my photos, all I could find was a goddamn Pink-footed Shearwater. Great confusion ensued...people were calling it out repeatedly...eventually (after the trip), we all realized that no one had gotten a photo of it and only a couple of the leaders really saw it in the first place. That said, when I was going through pictures for this post, the very first photo of the "petrel" I took shows a bird that...well, it looks like a Hawaiian Petrel, not a Pink-footed Shearwater, but it's so bloody poor that I don't think anything can be conclusively made of it. Did I actually see a Hawaiian Petrel, but it pulled the ol' fucking switcharoo with a shearwater? I do not, and cannot know. This is all very typical, as it would be a life bird and is one of the motivating factors for me to keep getting on boats. So fucking close.

Unlike Hawaiian Petrels, which hate me, the local Northern Gannet loves me now and lets me look at it all the time. Here it is majestically surfing Mavericks.

On the first weekend of October, I led my last pelagic of the year. We were pleasantly surprised early on by the numbers of Black-vented Shearwaters (year bird!) we ran into. Black-vented Shearwaters are very unpredictable north of Monterey Bay, so we're always happy to get them on Half Moon Bay trips.

These little homely shearwaters mostly prefer to spend their lives in inshore waters, though some will venture out over the shelf edge.

Rhinoceros Auklets occasionally allow close approach by the boat, a refreshing change from how they normally react.

It's hard to take interesting scenery photos with no land in sight, but I think this uncropped photo has it all. The excitement of cruising up on a giant feeding frenzy of whales (complete with whalebows), sea lions and seabirds does not ever wane.

One of these murres is not like the other. In fact, one of these murres is not a murre.

2016 is, for me, the year that murres and murrelets come together. I have seen a great many murres and a lot of murrelets, but before this year I've never seen a murrelet of any kind seek the company of a murre. Earlier this fall I found a Marbled Murrelet hiding in the middle of a murre flock next to Sail Rock (famed gannet perch), and then there was this Scripps's Murrelet doing a good impression of a baby murre...what in the fuck is the world coming to?

It's not that unusual I suppose, but novel nonetheless. A pair of Scripps's Murrelets were the most unusual species on this day; they are a difficult bird to come by in October. This was actually the one and only "slow" day I've had offshore this fall...we had no storm-petrels, and for my third trip ever, no Black-footed Albatross. We were in weird, gross brownish water almost the whole time, so I suspect the bulk of the local seabird population were elsewhere.

Lots of Red Phalaropes offshore this fall, outnumbering Red-necked on some days. Most mellow.

Dall's Porpoise...such a good mammal, one of my favorites. This is another one of those species that is neither rare or expected on boat trips here, you just have to hope the boat will blunder into a pod. They do bowride, so you can get great looks, but they are agonizing to try and photograph because they are so fast. Most dolphins are slow and slothful in comparison. You would think that a mammal as big as a person would not be so difficult to crush 15 feet away, but such is life.

The Economy of Style has been absolutely rampant in this post, have you noticed? Black, gray, white, brown, plus a dash of color on the head of the gannet and the bill of the auklet...all part of pelagic birding. Well, no bird off our coast pulls off a limited palette better than a Buller's Shearwater...unfortunately this was another down year for them (locally, anyway) so we only saw a handful, and yet again I will go another year without Flesh-footed Shearwater...unexpected this is. And, unfortunate.

Unfortunate that I know the truth?

No! Unfortunate that you rushed to face him. That incomplete was your training. Not ready for the burden were you...

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. Sometimes dipping on Flesh-footed Shearwater feels like learning Darth Vader is your father.

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