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Spring Blows... through

Black-legged Kittiwake

A somewhat rare but regular species for the Santa Barbara Channel, a Black-legged Kittwake seen on March 25th, 2017

Winter has been sent off and spring has blown by with summer hanging over our heads. The Santa Barbara Channel has been full of activity (and wind!) during this time and I thought I would recap some of the most interesting events and sightings.

On the sightings board we ticked off some great birds for our stretch of water. As mentioned in previous posts there were Brown Boobies, Ancient Murrelets, and a Manx Shearwater sighted through the winter. Adding to the great run of birds was the Black-legged Kittiwake pictured above. It was seen during a whale watch and made a quick pass by the stern of the boat. This species is usually only sighted a handful of times a year in our area. Since I really got serious about birding back in 2013 I have only recorded this species on five separate occasions clustered in Feb-March and then again in November.

Another rare sighting was a Franklin's Gull on April 26th. This gull is not recorded every year, but when it is it seems that late April-May is a good time to keep an eye out for them. On the same day as the Franklin's Gull I saw a single Sabine's Gull, I was unable to photograph either bird due to extenuating circumstances (I was busy driving the boat in 30 knot winds).

Along with the excitingly scarce birds, plenty of migrants and returning summer visitors have been flowing into the SB Channel. Sooty Shearwaters first showed up around March 24th and grew to 10's of thousands in late May. Pink-footed Shearwaters came up in the later half of March, as well as Red-necked Phalaropes.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Red-necked Phalaropes

Closer to shore the Least Terns came on the scene by late April, and Elegant Terns were flocking in masses by early May. The final noteworthy sightings offshore were a single Black Storm-Petrel on May 17th and two separate Ashy Storm-petrels that same day.

It is hard to say where exactly we are post El Nino of 2015-16. There have been By-the-Wind Sailors and Pelagic Red Crabs still drifting about, along with sea jellies and Ocean Sunfish this winter.

Some of the biggest news that set off alarm bells up and down the coast was the massive die off of Loons, Cormorants, and California Sea Lions. The main suspected cause of the multitude of species washing ashore is domoic acid.

Ocean Sunfish eating a By-the-Wind Sailor

Mola mola, or Giant Ocean Sunfish snacking on a Velella velella, a.k.a. By-the-Wind Sailor

Purple-striped Jelly

Western Gull with Pelagic Red Crab

Western Gull with a tasty tidbit o' Pelagic Red Crab

Domoic acid is produced by the plankton genus Pseudo-nitzschia which can be found blooming in southern California in spring and early summer. There are many species of this type of diatom that appear to not always produce the toxin under natural circumstances, and it's production may be the result of certain environmental conditions or only from specific species. What those conditions are is not fully understood, but Pseudo-nitzschia typically reproduces in the southern part of the state during the spring and early summer. This is when steady high winds lead to nutrient upwelling which fuels the growth and reproduction of a variety of plankton. As the summer progresses into the fall the blooms tend to shift toward Monterey Bay and points north.


Many people think of Red Tide and domoic acid outbreaks as synonymous, but in reality Pseudo-nitzschia is a diatom, and diatoms do not change the color of the water they reside in. Other species may bloom in conjunction with Pseudo-nitzschia in what is referred to as a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB). There are a variety of toxins associated with these blooms but if you didn't know it already, the ocean is still quite a mystery and the science behind the how and whys of these events is not yet fully understood.

Some people have postulated that with such a heavy rain year this has flushed extra micro-nutrients off of the mainland and out into the ocean. It appears that in a few isolated cases there has been a correlation between human run off from agriculture but on the whole these blooms have been occurring long before we started adding fertilizer to our land, and raising animals in mass for their meat. Long story short, no one really understands the full process but they have some ideas and hopefully science will move forward and eventually fill this gap in human understanding.

While what is happening on the microscopic level is unclear, we can see the macro impacts quite clearly. If you walked on any of our local beaches you would have seen the carnage. Loons, cormorants, pelicans, Sea Lions, and possibly even dolphins and whales have been running aground, dying, and just acting out of sorts. This is not the first incident like this. In fact there is some evidence that the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds" was based on a real event that took place near Santa Cruz, Ca back in August of 1961. At the time the disoriented Sooty Shearwaters arriving on land, smashing into buildings and neighborhoods in the middle of the night, was attributed to fog and lights on the mainland. The timing of the event and some follow up research suggest that domoic acid poisoning may have also contributed to the disorientation of "The Birds".

This year locally, I have seen many dead loons floating out in the SB Channel, a few live ones swinging their heads around and swimming in aimless circles. Sea Lions will go ashore in odd areas foaming at the mouth with bugged out eyes, all the while swirling their heads around and around. We even had a wayward Brown Pelican land on our boat in the midst of passengers acting as casual as can be. Brant's Cormorants and Pacific Loons were wandering in the harbor parking lot as if they were Western Gulls loafing about. Just the other day I had my one year old daughter down on the beach and a first year Brown Pelican that was flying low over the sand nearly crashed into her, missing by mere inches.

These sightings are typical of domoic acid poisoning in animals and similar symptoms arise in humans called amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). Domoic acid is a neurotoxin that binds to glutamate receptors on nerve cells resulting in an excitatory response. This allows calcium to influx into the cells in greater than normal quantities causing cellular degradation. What this means specifically is that it causes brain damage, tending to target the spacial navigation and memory center of the brain, the hippocampus. This all leads to major disorientation in animals who end up landing on boats, cruising parking lots, and swimming in circles until they starve to death or drown. It is a rather sad sight to see, and I'm sure it takes a toll on the sea bird and marine mammal populations, but it may be natures way of weeding out the weak and old, making sure only the fittest animals pass their genes on that year. Also the Turkey Vultures enjoy the bounty.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture sniffing out the scene

Strange enough (speculation on my part) this outbreak may be why a Humpback Whale swam into the Ventura Harbor on May 20th. It was agitated and was running into boats, dock, and rocks. Witnesses say it was hemmed in by the boats that were there to keep people away, and that as darkness scattered the crowds, the whale just swam out on its own sometime after midnight. I like to think my idea to play Humpback feeding calls near the harbor entrance had something to do with its safe departure. I remembered that was the technique they used up in the Sacramento River when some Humpbacks where found there. Luckily the National Park Service used a scuba diver recall speaker, some hardware from one of our Island Packer boats, and a recording in the local dialect from a marine biologist on a smart phone to make it work. Pretty Macgyver if you ask me.

Drone footage from a local fishing boat Pacific Eagle

The good news is that it seems like the worst of the domoic acid outbreak is behind us. There are only a few loons still making their way up the coast, and the Cormorants are busy raising their young out on the rocky cliffs and slopes of the islands. Brown Pelicans have pretty much all fledged and have been streaming along the coast.

Common Loon, and Pacific Loon... Looking sharp and flying above the fray

Brown Pelican with a mouthful, and a Pelagic Cormorant on its nest

This is the first year I have noticed that Black-vented Shearwaters simply have not left our waters. They first showed up in June 2016 and have persisted through out with a decrease in numbers these last two months but now they are being seen by the hundreds again. I have heard that the population of these birds is growing so perhaps this will be a new year round species in this area. Common Murre are being recorded by the dozen still and this may be do to all sorts of things. Earlier this year there was a huge southbound movement of this species, and they have returned to nesting on Prince Island just off of San Miguel Island.

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater, they never really left this year

Summer is just right around the corner, and soon our first Pelagic trip will be running on July 16th. I hope we can all get out there and bird together, find some rare stuff, and share it here!

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