Here in New York we are at quite the disadvantage when it comes to pelagic trips. To get out to the deep water we have to cruise for hours which necessitates leaving late in the evening, trying to sleep on an uncomfortable, moving boat, and waking up in the predawn hours to spend not-enough-time amid amazing birds before suffering through the long, boring ride through the “dead zone” back to shore. Eighteen-hour trips are the rule and only about four or five hours are spent in the prime area to see the species most birders are hoping to see. That said, I’ve had some pretty amazing trips over the years.
But what I have long wanted to do is get out on a boat in California, the fabled land of albatrosses, murrelets, and auklets. Where you can get out to deep water almost as soon as you leave the harbor. Where rare birds are common and some of the world’s top-ranked birders are locals. Where Hawaii, Japan, and Siberia are just an ocean away. Where the possibilities seem limited only by your imagination. California: if you can make it here well, that’s actually not that impressive because if you can’t make it as a birder in California you must really suck.
Now I had come close to doing pelagic trips out west before. I’ve been on a whale-watching trip in Orange County, twice gone out to Santa Cruz Island, and even visited Protection Island off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. But I’ve never been on a boat going out into the open ocean that had as its goal seeing birds of the ocean. So you can imagine my great pleasure when it worked out for me to stay in California for two extra days at the end of our family vacation out west. With Seagull Steve willing to let me crash at his house in Oakland and a Shearwater Journeys trip going out from Half Moon Bay on Saturday, 13 August, the whole plan came together wonderfully!
The whole plan was coming together wonderfully until the very end of our vacation. That is when, if you will excuse some oversharing, my perineum, also known as my taint, started hurting. A lot. To the point where sitting was agony and standing was something I didn’t want to do for more than thirty minutes or so. Lying down offered relief but lying down is not the ideal way to go on a boat trip if you want to see birds. Nonetheless, the pelagic was paid for, Steve was scheduled to be one of the leaders of the trip, and I was not going to miss my first real chance to see an albatross. So to the boat we went! (For those who are interested it turns out what was wrong with me was bacterial prostratitis which is essentially a UTI that is in your prostrate gland. Once I got back to New York I got it diagnosed, got antibiotics, and got better.)
Brown Pelicans cared not for my taint.
Anyway, back to the boat. Debi Love Shearwater, the legendary leader of west coast pelagic trips for more than forty years, runs a tight ship. We met at 7 AM for to board the New Captain Pete and to listen to the pre-trip briefing, which was simple and straightforward to those who have been on a pelagic trip before. In addition to Debi, the leaders for the trip were a list of west coast luminaries: Peter Pyle, Will Brooks, Jim Holmes, and, of course, “Seagull” Steve Tucker. But the leaders weren’t the only bright lights of the birding world on the boat. Van Remsen, who has a birding resume longer then a list of Donald Trump’s racist remarks, graced us with his presence. Olaf Danielson, one of two birders this year who has already broken the North American Big Year record, was aboard as was Christian Hagenlocher, who is also in the midst of a North American Big Year, albeit one that is a bit smaller than the two who have already broken the record. Also on the boat was a familiar face, Nathan Goldberg, a young hotshot birder from Illinois who went off to Cornell and has been birding New York State like a man possessed. I would have loved to be more social with such an enthralling bunch but I honestly did not have the energy to handle both being friendly and not crying from pain. Hopefully I’ll get out west for another pelagic trip sometime during which I will be more able to interact with people.
Pigeon Guillemots on a jetty
Despite my ailment the trip was amazing. I managed to stand as we slowly steamed out of the harbor, checking out all the birds on the jetties. Hordes of Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls, and Western Gulls made it clear we were on the west coast. Pigeon Guillemots, Surfbirds, and eighty Elegant Terns reinforced that fact.
Westerners really don’t know how lucky they are to have as awesome a gull as Heermann’s Gull.
Once we left the harbor we cruised Half Moon Bay for a bit looking for a singular bird, a special bird. That would be the Northern Gannet that has made the rocky coast near San Francisco its home for the last four years. Steve had managed to never see this bird, which is impressive for someone who had looked for it as much as he had. Seeing as it is the only Northern Gannet that had ever graced California this was a rather depressing repeated dip for Steve. So it was somewhat poetic that he was the one to spot it, sitting high on a guano-stained cliff. Much rejoicing was experienced on his behalf. Personally, I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that my first new California bird for the pelagic trip was also Steve’s first. Though for him it would be his only new bird for the state on the pelagic while I would be piling up the lifers!
Horrific and heavily cropped shot of Steve’s first Northern Gannet in California.
Once the gannet was spotted and everyone had seen it we turned and headed out to sea. Red-necked Phalaropes, hordes of Sooty Shearwaters, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Cassin’s Auklets, Ashy Storm-Petrels (lifer), lots of Common Murres, a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (lifer), and, yes!!!!!!!!!!! Black-footed Albatross (LIFER!!!!!!) were seen over the next couple of hours. I must admit, a couple of tears that had nothing to do with pain might have escaped my eyes upon finally seeing an albatross. I FINALLY SAW AN ALBATROSS!
This Black-footed Albatross made me so happy.
This one did too.
I’m sad to say that once the adrenaline rush of finally seeing a representative of my most-wanted bird family wore off the pain came back and it was pretty harsh. I spent most of the last seven or so hours of the trip lying down on a bench, getting up to see birds, dolphins, and whales when they were called out instead of spending my time scanning for additional birds. This explains why I did not see any Craveri’s Murrelets, a missed lifer, and didn’t get as good a look or as good a photo as I would have wanted of some other species. Despite that, I still managed to partake in the jaeger-slam, with Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed Jaegers all being spotted, as well as a South Polar Skua.
Parasitic Jaeger going over the boat
The sightings kept happening. Red Phalaropes, more Red-necked Phalaropes, and my life Sabine’s Gulls. Arctic Terns, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and I’ve forgotten to mention that we saw lots and lots of cetaceans! Pacific White-sided Dolphins, 120 or so Humpback Whales, Northern Right Whale Dolphins, Blue Whales, Fin Whales, and Harbor Porpoises were all spotted to say nothing of Stellar’s Sea Lions, California Sea Lions, and a Northern Elephant Seal.
Sabine’s Gulls are far too wonderful for this picture to represent them. Sadly, it was the best that I got. I want to see more of them!
Pacific White-sided Dolphin with a Fin Whale. (At least I think that’s a Fin Whale. I’m bad at whales.)
A couple of Cassin’s Auklets swimming along instead of taking off and disappearing over the horizon. I would like to have some Cassin’s Auklets living in my bathtub though I imagine that wouldn’t end well.
Perhaps our most amusing sighting was our second sulid of the day, a Brown Booby just hanging out on a floating barrel. I didn’t expect a single sulid for the day so getting two was quite the bonus.
Brown Booby on a barrel
Eventually we turned and headed back to harbor. At the end of the trip I had seen five life birds, three life cetaceans, and a life seal. I also didn’t get seasick, probably because I was too busy being regular sick. It was an outstanding trip and I can’t wait to get out west and do another pelagic trip. If you ever have the chance you should do the same!
Debi Shearwater and Seagull Steve Tucker. You can read Debi’s write-up of the trip here.