Thursday, August 1, 2013

Shearwater Jouneys Pelagic Trips, July 27 and 28, Out of Half Moon Bay

Correction:  Chris Hitt (Slow Birding) sent me an e-mail telling me that I did not include Black-chinned Hummingbird in my summary of new birds seen in my blog for Big Bend NP for Thursday, July 25.  I neglected to also add it to my master list as well.  When the correction is made, my list will be 564 before the addition of birds from these pelagic trips.  Thanks, Chris.  Very helpful.   

On Saturday morning, July 27, at 4:00 am, my cell phone alarm woke me abruptly interrupting dream world.  Four hours was not really enough sleep, but I needed to unpack from my flight and repack my stuff in my backpack needed on-board for the pelagic trip.  I was due at Johnson Pier, Half Moon Bay before 7:00 am.  From the gas station quick stop next door, I picked up some peanut butter cracker packs, some cheese cracker packs, healthy breakfast and snack bars to eat on the boat and two bottles of Sprite to drink.  That would have to sustain me for the first day.  I had my usual breakfast at McDonalds of fruit and oatmeal as well as a burrito breakfast meal.  I had my usual orange juice, a small coffee and only one burrito.  The potato crisp and second burrito would have to wait until after the boat trip, because that is not my usual food that I eat before a boat trip.  I was on the way to Johnson Pier on Half Moon Bay, by 5:50 am for the 45 minute drive predicted by Google Maps.  I made it with time to spare and met Debi at the boat before 7:00 am.  It was a not quite but nearly full trip on Saturday. 

Saturday's trip was highly successful, for my first Lower 48 west coast pelagic trip and my first visit to California this year.  Not surprising, because in my experience with Debi Shearwater, pelagic trips  have always been successful.  I added 14 new birds for the year at the dock and on the first pelagic trip.  The weather was typical of the west coast on the Pacific Ocean and in the north, foggy cloudy and cool.  Later in the day, the water surface was almost glassy smooth which helped us find and see birds very well on the water surface.  At the dock, I found Western Gull and on the jetty before the boat left the dock, I found Heerman's Gulls, both new for the year.  See photo below.  Along the jetty, we found Surfbirds, as many as four during the two days, and Wandering Tattler, three as the high count, both new for the year.  On and along the jetty, there were close Pigeon Guillemots and Black Oystercatchers, not new for the year.   See photos of Black Oystercatcher below.  Before leaving the harbor and along the jetties, we found Elegant Terns, new for the year.  See photos below.  Before heading out to sea we were successful in finding two Marbled Murrelets close to shore, locally endangered but not new for the year for me, and I got a better picture than I was able to obtain in Alaska.  See photo below.  We also found a Cassin's Auklet on the water, one of several that we saw over the two days.  They are small and fat like footballs and mostly gray except for the lower belly toward the under-tail with very little white around the eyes.  See photos below.  This was a better view than I obtained on the Attu trip.  Closer to shore we encountered flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes, not new for the year, and seen in Alaska.  Soon we saw the first Sooty Shearwater, new for the year, of which we would see many over the two days.  See photos below.  It is a good comparison to see Sooty Shearwater after seeing Short-tailed Shearwater in the Aleutians in May and early June.  Sooty Shearwater has white in the wing linings that is brighter than the gray patches on the wing linings of Short-tailed Shearwater.  I studied the difference in head shape and bill size on these Sooty Shearwaters.  Sooty Shearwater has a flatter forehead and heavier bill than Short-tailed Shearwater.  However, these differences are subtle and are not necessarily always obvious to the observer.  Then we found Rhinoceros Auklet, one of several that we saw over the two day trip.   This first one was an adult with white plumes still intact.  See photos below.  We also saw immature birds without the plumes during the two days.  Rhino is the one alcid missing from my trip list for Attu, because they are uncommon in the western Aleutian Islands out to Attu.  It's good to add Rhino for the year!  A California Gull, first for the year, joined the Western Gulls following the boat, chum and oil slick.  As we got further out, we started seeing Red Phalaropes, new for the year, which are bigger with heavier bills, grayer wings and back than the Red-necked Phalaropes.  See photos below.  I missed the only brief sighting of a flock of breeding plumage Red Phalaropes on the Attu trip because it was early in the morning and in the front of the boat while I was in the back.  These Red and Red-necked Phalaropes on today's pelagic trip are adults that have left the breeding grounds, probably females, who leave first, letting the males take care of the young before the males also leave the breeding grounds, leaving the young to fend for themselves.  The Red Phalaropes are molting and have residual blotches of light red on them.  Then we started seeing our first Pink-footed Shearwaters, new for the year.  See photos below.  Finally, the first of about two or three Buller's Shearwaters showed up, my first for the year.  Ashy Storm-Petrels, were being seen, but I waited to count them until I good a good, identifiable look.  See photos below.  They are grayish brown, with a long forked tail, grayish wing linings and fly with a shallow wing beat unlike the night-hawk-like flight of the larger Black Storm-Petrel with deeper and slower wing beats.  A South Polar Skua, new for the year, was called from the front of the boat, and I got to see it well enough for an identification as it continued on its way away from the boat.   One Black Storm-Petrel was called from the front of the boat, but I missed it.  It is too early in the year and too far north for this species to be present in large numbers out of Half Moon Bay.  I expect to see them more readily when I take some southern California pelagic trips later this month and in the fall.  I believe that at least one Fork-tailed Storm Petrel was seen on the Saturday trip and one on the Sunday trip.  That's not a new bird for the year for me, having seen quite a few very well on the boat to and from Attu.  Wilson's Storm-Petrels were seen in the large flocks of petrels on the water on Saturday.  Wilson's Storm-Petrel is a cool bird for the west coast, and a new bird for my California list, but I was sort of "ho-hum" about Wilson's Storm-Petrel, having seen hundreds out of Hatteras, NC within the past week.  The final new bird for the pelagic trips is perhaps the best bird.  Two Scripps's Murrelets were found on Saturday.  Finding them was facilitated by the glassy smooth water surface.  They are very small, black and white acids, with relatively short bills, white and no black below the bill in comparison to Craveri's Murrelet and not much white around the eye relative to the Guadalupe Murrelet, formerly the hypoleucus form of Xantus's Murrelet.  Scripps's and Guadalupe Murrelets recently were split from Xantus's Murrelet.  Scripps's lack the pointed partial dark collar and the black below the bill of the much rarer Craveri's Murrelet, typically found, but still rare, in southern California waters.  Scripps's Murrelets have white wing linings, differentiating them from Craveri's Murrelets, which have dusky gray wing linings.  My photos show the white wing linings and were the only photos on-board that were used to verify the identification with wing lining color.   See photos below.  We had large numbers of Sabine's Gulls on Saturday and additional birds on Sunday with at least one flock of about 30 on Saturday, not a new bird for the year.  See photos, included, because they are so colorful and distinctive.  On Sunday, a nice Pomarine Jaeger came in to the chum and oil slick and close to the boat.  See photo included because not previously photographed but seen out of Hatteras, NC.  On Sunday, I spent more time taking photographs, because there were no new birds for me.  We also had Black-footed Albatross both days and Laysan Albatross on Sunday.  The Laysan Albatross seen on this trip is from a southern nesting location off Mexico, while the birds seen on the boat trip to Attu are from Midway Island.  No photos included, because photographed and posted in Attu report.  

Sandy Komito, current record holder for The Big Year at 748, was on the boat on Saturday, and returned Sunday.  I first met Sandy on Attu in 1988 and 1989 and then on west coast pelagic trips with Debi Shearwater after that.  He (re-) introduced himself to me at Fort Jefferson this spring.  I always enjoy talking to Sandy.  He has interesting stories to tell and a unique perspective about birding and life.  Some people are put off by his North Jersey perspective, but I am not, having lived near the east coast, Delaware, not far from Jersey and in New York State.  Sandy is now photographing all of the ABA birds on the list for the ABA Area, but not necessarily photographing them in the ABA Area.  He had camera problems on Saturday; therefore, returned for the Sunday trip.

While I was on the boat on Saturday, I talked to local leaders and participants about what California birds I still needed.  I got a few helpful hints.  After the boat arrived at the dock, I drove Route 1 north a short distance on Cabrillo Highway, Rt. 1, to the vicinity of McNee Ranch State Park, where I found hillside scrub and at least 5 Wrentits, a new bird for the year.  I found this spot and these birds on my own without any local help.  There were also Spotted Towhee and White-crowned Sparrows in the same area along the trail up into the hills.  After that I drove back to Half Moon Bay and continued toward Hayward, where I was staying for the night.  A pelagic participant from Illinois told me that they heard a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Wrentit and Chestnut-backed Chickadee at a preserve along Skyline Boulevard off of Rt. 92.  I found the location, which is Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, but arrived too late and too close to sunset and closing time.

I had hoped to see Black Storm-Petrel on Sunday's trip, but it was not to be.  We mostly saw the same birds on both days, except for seeing Laysan Albatross on Sunday but not on Saturday.   Laysan Albatross is not a new bird for me for the year, having seen them well on the boat trip to and from Attu.  On Sunday, I finally met Neil Hayward, who has nearly 700 species on his Accidental Big Year list.  I wondered when we would finally meet.  It was interesting talking to Neil and sharing perspective about doing a Big Year, particularly how difficult it is.  I discovered that we have something in common.  We are both scientists.  Neil worked in Biotech but is a consultant now, part-time due to his Big Year effort.  Below is a photo of me, Sandy Komito and Neil Hayward on the boat on Sunday.  Also, included is a photo of Debi Shearwater and Sandy Komito clowning.  Sandy is choking Debi while Debi holds a large knife.

After the boat trip on Sunday, I went directly to Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve.  In the parking lot near the trail head and outhouse, I heard the small "tseek" calls of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee as a Common Raven flew into the parking lot area.  There was a group of hikers hanging around the immediate area where I heard the chickadee calls, and they weren't moving on.  I decided to hike down the trail about a mile to an intersection with another trail where the birders from Illinois told me that they had heard Pacific-Slope Flycatcher.  I was unsuccessful in finding more chickadees or the Pacific-Coast Flycatcher.   When I returned to the trail head the hikers were gone, and I heard the song/call, a hoarse, rapid "tseek-a-dee-dee" of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee.  I searched for but could not find the bird, but am confident that I identified the call correctly.  I compared it with the Chestnut-backed Chickadee song/call on iBird Pro.  Chestnut-backed Chickadee is the only chickadee found on the California coast in this area, as I was told by California birders on the boat.  This is, at least, in my opinion, true during the breeding season.  For those who are concerned about heard birds rather than seen birds, I will see Chestnut-backed Chickadee later this year on the west coast, as I have done over the years when I have taken pelagic trips out of Fort Bragg.  How can I be confident in identifying heard birds by sound, you ask?  I started this skill at 4-5 years of age, when I first got interested in birds, by drawing pictures by looking at old field guides available back then, encouraged by my mother.  I did not have binoculars at first and stalked birds by following bird songs and calls that I did not know until I could get close enough to actually see them.  I have continued learning and relearning bird songs and calls continuously since then, particularly in different areas of North American when I chased after new life birds.  Despite my advancing age, I am lucky that I can still hear some of the harder to hear bird calls and songs, such as Cedar Waxwings and Black-poll Warblers, both of which have high pitched and thin calls and songs.

I was disappointed that I did not find any Brandt's Cormorants, which I expected to see in numbers as did some of the leaders and spotters on the boat.  Not to worry.  They are common many places on the California coast

Black-chinned hummingbird raises the previous total to 564.  Western Gull, Heerman's Gull, Surfbird, Wandering Tattler, Elegant Tern, Sooty Shearwater, Rhinoceros Auklet, California Gull, Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Red Phalarope, Ashy Storm-Petrel, South Polar Skua, Scripps's Murrelet, Wrentit, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee raise the total to 580.

I am headed next to Arizona and southern CA where 40-50 species await, because this will be my first visit there for the year.    


Heerman's Gull, adult-front, immature-back
Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatchers, buddies


Elegant Terns, long slightly de-curved bill

Elegant Terns roosting on jetty

Marbled Murrelet
Cassin's Auklet, taking flight

Cassin's Auklet
Sooty Shearwater taking flight
Sooty Shearwaters in flight
Rhinoceros Auklet, adult-note plumes, not white throat but plume

Rhinoceros Auklet, adult note white plumes
Red Phalarope flying

Red Phalarope
 
Red Phalarope flying
Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Ashy Storm-Petrel, grayish brown, long forked tail


Ashy Storm-Petrel, pale mottling on under-wings
 
Scripps's Murrelet, no black below bill, no pointed dark collar, limited white around eye
Scripps's Murrelets, white wing linings, right wing each bird

Scripps's Murrelets, white wing lining, left bird, right wing
Sabine's Gull, showing wing pattern

Sabine's Gull, note yellow bill tip
Sabine's Gull flock, 11 of 30, two Red Phalaropes on right
Pomarine Jaeger

Sandy and Debi, old friends clowning

Jay, Sandy Komito (Big Year Record holder) and Neil Hayward (has a shot at the record)

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