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October 8th, Pelagic Trip

The morning started off with a golden sunrise, daring you to wonder if you were still lying in bed warm and cozy, dreaming away, or standing blurry eyed facing east wondering what the day may bring to your life as a birder.

We made way out of the Ventura Harbor silently tallying birds along the jetties and breakwater as we listened to the trip details and norms of a pelagic trip from David Pereksta. Dave, as I know him, is a phenomenal birder and has made his mark in many ways here in Ventura County by holding the largest list of birds, working as an ebird editor, contributing to the local Audubon Chapters, and collaborating with me and others to make these pelagic trips a regular occurrence for Santa Barbara and Ventura County birders.

As we motored on Dave introduced our other leaders in no particular order:

Bernardo Alps, Hugh Ranson, Peter Gaede, Jon Feenstra, and Scott and Linda Terrill. This is not only a list of great birders, but great people to talk to even when birds are not part of the conversation!

Our first hour was spent crossing the Santa Barbara Channel and putting up some names on the board. We passed through some small groups of Black-vented Shearwaters, saw a couple Pomarine Jaegers, and some Cassin's Auklets. The weather was superb with almost no wind, zero fog, and small seas. With Fall migration underway it was not unexpected to see some loons flying high up in the sky on a southbound track.

Common Loons flying high

Don't feel bad if you see loons zipping by and you can't tell what they are. If they give you a close pass you usually can be confident of the ID but if they were up as high as these guys a camera that can stop motion can be very helpful. Birds often exhibit behavioral traits that can be useful when attempting to identify them to a species but are not always diagnostic. Common Loons are known to migrate higher up than other loon species. That white wedge on the neck, and large trailing feet are the two best physical features I can see in this photo, followed by the somewhat blocky head.

Loons are great but no one really signed up to see loons on the pelagic trip. They wanted to see pelagic stuff. What is pelagic stuff you ask? Well here are some examples.

Extreme Close Up: Pink-footed Shearwater

Strange mutant birds: (Leucistic) Black-vented Shearwater on the right, normal Black-vented Shearwater on the left

Shearwaters are sometimes seen from shore, but are best observed from a boat that can patrol with equal speed through their ranks when they are flying with the wind or slowly motor along when they are calmly sitting on the surface of the sea. When birds are satiated and feeling heavy they would often rather just float on the water and digest than spend all that energy trying to fly away in a relatively windless setting such as we experienced on this date. Large rafts of Shearwaters can be challenging to sift through but occasionally you can find a real nugget.

Most people go on a pelagic trip to tick off a new life, year, or county bird. Some people just love the ocean and all it holds. Some people enjoy the challenge of deciphering the recurring ephemeral views the birds offer up. Occasionally a bird will be encountered on a trip that defies all. It will sit on the water swirling about giving great views, occasionally lifting its wings, paddling near other birds for size and shape comparisons, and yet it will perplex not only novice birders but experts alike. These birds are the frontier of bird identification while on the ocean. On pelagic trips these can involve Sooty vs. Short-tailed Shearwater, Arctic vs. Common Tern, Pomarine vs. Parasitic vs. Long-tailed Jaeger, and Storm-Petrels! among the many, many others. I hope to dive into this subject with further detail at a later date but let it be known, pelagic birding is very difficult but can be a monumentally rewarding pursuit.

Take this Hammerhead Shark for example...

The tall brown fin of a Hammerhead Shark.

Look close and you can see the "hammer" head

We were all looking for birds this day, but for many the sighting of a large 8ft Hammerhead Shark attacking and eating what appeared to be a White Sea Bass just off the bow of our boat was the highlight of the trip. No birds were involved, just an amazing sight! Monumentally rewarding in my opinion.

How sharks go fishing

There are also times when you get to see status and distribution of particular species change right before your eyes. These Royal Terns (right) are often found out near the Channel Islands, but the Elegant Terns are slowly moving a large portion of their population and breeding efforts northward. This results in us seeing them far offshore on a kelp paddy. Not a normal sighting at this time of year.

Two Elegant Terns on the left of frame, two Royals on the right.

Brown Boobies dominated the seascape last year, often outnumbering even Brown Pelican Sightings if you can believe it. This year only one.

Brown Booby (female) on Sutil Island off shore of Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park

A Heermann's Gull followed the boat for a bit and let me take this picture of his or her tongue sticking out of the base of its lower mandible. This is a strange feature I will comment on in another post. Heermann's Gulls have had a terrible reproductive rate these past few years. They are a fine looking gull and I hope they can adapt to the changes they face. There have been requests from active birders in the community to report any 1st or 2nd year birds on your ebird lists. I feel it is important to keep detail bird lists going forward, and as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan would reason why... 'For the times they are a-changin’

Here is one of the problem birds. Short-tailed Shearwater or Sooty Shearwater. The crowd is split. Pictures can often help catch and hold a fleeting glimpse of a bird on the fly. Other times it can contradict what the eye sees and the brain interprets. This was called and still is assumed to be a Short-tailed Shearwater.

Short-tailed/Sooty Shearwater with Black-vented Shearwaters and a Western Gull in the back.

This is the same perplexing Short-tailed? Shearwater that is in the above two pictures. Field views seemed pretty good for Short-tailed, then when you review photos you get some lighting issues that mess with the mind, followed by feelings of consternation.

We also saw a far away tern on a kelp paddy and doubled back to get a closer view (Thanks Hugh). Looks like a Common/Arctic Tern or "Comic" Tern at first glance to everyone. So far so good.

Then it flies off, and is GONE... no chance to look at field marks again but hey I got photos of... some blurry wings. Dang! Common and Arctic Tern are notoriously tough to tell apart, but sometimes show obvious field marks when they sit on the extreme ends of the spectrum. Despite all that they can confound careful observation when you only see them for a few seconds, and those seconds are not steady, and... well birding is hard, that's why we like it right?

Common Tern as far as I can see, hind sight is 20/20

What about Jaegers? Lets just say we saw a total of 33 Jaegers. Most were Pomarine, a few were Long-tailed (excellent pelagic bird), a pair of Parasitic, and 11 unidentified.

Most of the unidentified were due to distance to be sure but Jaegers are some of THE hardest birds to identify to species on a pelagic trip due to their variability. There are light and dark morphs, different ages, different molt stages, and even names vary depending on where you are in the world. Where difficulty may be found, birders revel.

Pomarine Jaeger

The essence of a pelagic birding trip boils down to: how often can this be seen from shore?

Running on the water to get some air flow over the wings = Cassin's Auklet not a Murrelet.

More to come in the future on how to ID the tough birds on pelagic trips!

Trip total

5 Common Loon

519 Black-vented Shearwater

232 Brandt's Cormorant

24 Brown Pelican

16 Pomarine Jaeger

30 Cassin's Auklet

10 Heermann's Gull

681 Western Gull

47 California Gull

41 Pink-footed Shearwater

3 Sooty Shearwater

1 Short-tailed Shearwater

5 Pelagic Cormorant

6 Royal Tern

7 Elegant Tern

4 Long-tailed Jaeger

11 Jaeger sp.

2 Sabines Gull

1 Common Tern

2 Double-crested Cormorant

1 Red-necked Phalarope

2 Parasitic Jaeger

1 Brown Booby

1 Eared Grebe

1 Western Grebe

Thanks to everyone who participated, these trips are for you!

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