Saturday, June 22, 2013

At Sea, Heading West, May 27

I slept like a log despite the pitching boat and relatively rough conditions.  I take Bonine for seasickness which usually works well for me as long as I am careful what I eat before getting on the boat.  When I got up and started moving around, I had a short period with seasickness which quickly went away when I ate breakfast and adjusted my sea bands which apply pressure to an accu-puncture point on the wrist to control seasickness.  I decided to try these for the first time and they seem to work.    After an excellent breakfast by Nicole, (Every single day was excellent!  Great job, Nicole!)  I went above to the back of the boat to be in the fresh air.  Fresh air and looking at the horizon helps me control any potential seasickness.  Seemed like a good way to start for me, given how the day started with a brief touch of seasickness.  There were large flocks of Northern Fulmars everywhere—on the water and in the air.  Most of these Northern Fulmars were dark phase of several types with the darkest being almost chocolate brown.  See photo.  There were only a few light phase Northern Fulmars present, and    
Northern Fulmar
these differ slightly from the east coast Northern Fulmars by having white at the base of the tail with a dark band at the end of the tail.  Then medium sized all dark alcids flew by, which were Crested Auklets.  Later in the day and during the trip we would see Crested Auklets on the water during which time we could see their orange-red bills and the crest on the front of their heads.  With Thor Manson from BC, who has responded to this blog in the past, in the back of the boat, we saw a Whiskered Auklet pop up after diving as the boat passed.  It was about 50 feet away and we got an excellent look at the face and saw the white whiskers, the light colored eye and the crest on the forehead.  What a great look!  See great photo provided by Jess Findlay.  Impressive work, Jess!  Thanks.

Whiskered Auklet, Jess's photo
Then Laysan Albatrosses started showing up, and we carefully looked at all of these to see the pink or flesh colored bill base and darker tip to be sure they were not Black-browed Albatrosses which have yellow bills without a dark tip.  See photos.  Doug Gill, Retired Emeritus Biology Professor at U of   Maryland, instructed us, in a professorial way to look for this, as he did throughout this trip on many points.  Soon, Black-footed Albatross showed up and put on a good show.  Black-footed
Albatross is not as common in the Aleutians as Laysan Albatross.  See photos.  Two albatrosses down and one more (a lifer) to go!  We started seeing Least Auklets, which are smaller than the Whiskered Auklets with very rapid wing beats, but show more white below, have white eyes, white on the throat and sometimes some white on the back, but not always.  Least Auklets are the most abundant auklet that we saw on this trip.  There were flocks on the water in front of the boat and popping up at the back
Laysan Albatross, 2 photos
of the boat.  I was in the back of the boat with Olaf Danielson and his son Tykko (hope spelling is correct).  Olaf is doing a Big Year naked.  In order to count a bird he has to be naked when he identifies it.  I was one of the people on the tour who did not know about this before I joined the tour group and was a little surprised.  I may have said “It’s a little cold up here to do that, isn’t it?”  As Olaf, Tykko and I were watching the albatrosses, I saw a different bird fly into the wake from the right.  It had white under-parts, black on the crown and back of the neck, a pinkish bill, white panels on dark gray to black inner part of the upper wing surface, a white rump and upper tail, with the rest of the tail black and with a white mottled and gray back.  I said get on this bird-- it looks unusual, and then identified it tentatively as a Short-tailed Albatross.  However, at that time, I was not sure about the plumage of immature Laysan Albatross.  Olaf thought the
bill was orange, but I thought pink.  When things slowed down, I went down below in the eating and living area to check a field guide.  Immature Laysan Albatross is similar to the adults.  It was not an immature Laysan Albatross.  It certainly appeared to be a sub-adult Short-tailed Albatross.  With the uncertainty and some differences in opinion between Olaf and me about the bill color, I was reluctant to claim that it was a Short-tailed Albatross at that point, because it was a new Life Bird for me. A Mottled Petrel was called out by John Puschock flying down the port side of the boat.  Thor and I got to see it ever so briefly, but could see the narrow wings and rapid flight style of a gad-fly petrel.  A better view was desired (BVD).  Fork-tailed Petrels and Short-tailed Shearwaters were being called mostly from the front of the boat.  I found a Short-tailed Shearwater coming up the wake to

Black-footed Albatross, both photos above
the oil drip that John Puschock had started.  I got some identifiable photos showing the slender bill and the rounded forehead in comparison to Sooty Shearwater, which we did not see on this trip.  I had gained my sea legs, and went up to the front of the boat to the pilot house where most people were to avoid spray and cold wind.  When I took a turn in the seat up by the wind shield, a Mottled Petrel flew in close in front of the boat, a gray angular bird with narrow wings and slim body, a  dark “M” on the upper wings and very rapid flight.  When it turned and flew rapidly ahead of the boat, I saw the dark dray on the under-parts giving its name, Mottled Petrel--Life Bird number 799.  Now to confirm the Short-tailed Albatross!   I also got good looks at the Fork-tailed Storm Petrels while I was in the front of the boat.  Later in the afternoon, John Puschock called out a Short-tailed Albatross that flew to the back of the boat on the starboard side and then curled around the stern.  It was a dark immature bird with pink bill.  I got point blank binocular views as it started to fly up the port side from the side window in the front of the boat.  Life bird number 800!  I added three Life Birds and reached 800 in about 24 hours on this trip!!  WOW!!  Thick-billed Murres were flying by the boat.  I noticed a kittiwake flying with the boat just above us and visible from the pilot house in the front of the boat.  We noticed the darker upper wing surface the different pattern of black on the wing-tips and the gray wing lining color—a Red-legged kittiwake.  Some people got to see the bird drop its legs briefly and show the red legs.  Red-legged kittiwakes nest on Buldir Island in the western Aleutians. 

Later in the afternoon, we stopped at Sirius Point on Kiska to see the masses of alcids flying to and from the cliffs where they nest.  The flocks were very large.  It was a great opportunity to study the identification of these small alcids.  Least Auklet is only about 6.25 inches long while Crested Auklet is about 10 inches long and more bulky.  Crested Auklets are all dark gray with orange colored bill.  Crested Auklets smell like tangerines during breeding season, which we smelled.  Both Least and Crested Auklets were very vocal.  See photos. 

Crested Auklet flocks with a few Least Auklets, Sirius Point
It is more impressive late in the day when the millions of alcids are returning to the cliffs from feeding all day at sea.  We will try to stop on the way back.  The rough conditions started to calm down as we went west.

Least Auklet, calling during take-off

In the evening as we were gathering waiting for dinner, Olaf went through his photos and found that he had photographed the Short-tailed Albatross that I had tentatively identified.  See photos, which Olaf shared with me.  This verification occurred after I had identified the immature Short-tailed Albatross in the

afternoon as my number 800 for the ABA area.  I identified the sub-adult earlier but was not 100% sure of the identification.  Perhaps it is a matter of semantics.  If I count the sub-adult bird as my Life Bird then the Mottled Petrel is number 800.  Not too shabby to have either a Short-tailed Albatross or a Mottled Petrel as number 800 for the ABA area and to have that choice!  Also, what a great day of birding this was with two different Short-tailed Albatrosses on the same day!   

Northern Fulmar, Laysan Albatross, Black-footed Albatross, Crested Auklet, Mottled Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, Fork-tailed Petrel, Short-tailed Shearwater, Least Auklet, Thick-billed Murre, and Red-legged Kittiwake make the total 471 for the year.  My ABA Life List is now 800 with the addition of Whiskered Auklet, Mottled Petrel and Short-tailed Albatross.  I corrected an error made in hast on the list when I arrived in Anchorage on June 9.  The Short-tailed Albatross was seen on 05/27/13 not the next day, 05/25/13. 
Crested Auklet, both photos
Short-tailed Albatross, Olaf's photos

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