July 15th 2018 Pelagic Trip and Monthly Report
July has been one for the record books. This may be the most densely packed monthly report the SaltyBird will ever produce! Actually I hope not! but dang this will be a very hard month to beat.
So where do we start? at the beginning of course! I thought about breaking this months sightings into two posts, but why break with tradition even if it is only a few months old. So here we go.
In the June post I confidently left off with these words of self-aggrandizing wisdom. "things are about to turn around (literally)."
The first week of July was good but has been overshadowed by the unusual abundance of discovery, first sightings, and joy that the rest of the month held. There were "tons" of Blue Whales, Fin Whales and a few Minke Whales.
The second week of July started strong with strange whale anatomy...
Here is a Fin Whale's fin. I guess if you don't have "ears" this is the next logical place for a piercing
More whale body art, this time on a Blue Whale with Remoras attached along the dorsal fin (the bit on the tip is probably a stalked barnacle)
The powerhouse of the Blue Whale
Santa Cruz Island bathing in fog
A wonderful amount of whales fed their way through the Santa Barbara Channel in the late parts of June and early part of July. Many whale watching passengers where treated to possibly the best whale watching available on Earth (ocean) during this time. After a full day of enjoying the majesty of these great animals I was enthusiastic about going back out the next day to see them again. We did just that and spent over two hours surrounded by Blue and Fin Whales with some amazing encounters through ephemeral fog banks and beautiful island views. After dozens of spouts, and multiple tail raises, close passes by the boat and just a general high level of awe among all on board I decided to take the boat where we rarely go on whale watches. South of the Channel Islands! This area is really quite literally wide open, as compared to the confinement of the channel. Out there, south of the islands, are a few underwater contours of interest that many a savvy seamen has passed on to me. I decided to follow up on a long tradition of exploration at sea and took my willing crew and happy passengers to waters less traveled in the hopes of adventure and bliss since the seas were dead calm and the weather was mighty fine. Along the way we encountered blissful Bottlenose dolphin and then, a passenger casually leaned in the wheelhouse and stated "hey there was a whale blow over that way, about 11 o'clock" he seemed aggreably confident in what he saw. I personally figured he just had a crash course on whale spout ID after seeing probably close to 50 blows in the previous two hours. So I trusted his judgment and thought that a whale south of Anacapa Island would be interesting. I wondered what species it would be. We don't get back here that often so I was curious.
I redirected the boat toward the last spout seen, and proceeded to run a little less than a mile or so toward the animal. It felt like it took us a while to get to it. As we approached the whale we were confused?, I was looking at it through my binoculars and noticed it had an unusually humped back. I thought it was a Humpback at first but it seemed to have a very deformed spine if so. It also looked like it had draped some brown kelp across its back, which Humpbacks are known to do from time to time. Some other passengers thought it might be two whales next to each other. Very soon after all this, both my first mate Laurie, and I simultaneously freaked out when we saw the spout shoot out from the whales head at an angle rather than straight up! SPERM WHALE! we shouted!!!!
The Sperm Whale humps along the back we saw from a distance.
Sperm Whale tail as it dove to the depths (about 1500-2000 ft deep in this spot)
This was the first Sperm Whale I have EVER seen in the 14 years that I have worked at Island Packers. It was very exciting to say the least. Laurie, and I were high fiveing each other and screaming with joy in the wheelhouse. I am still not sure if most of the passengers understand how cool this sighting was but I sure did my best to convey that message through the volume of my voice as I described what everyone had just seen take place in front of the boat. Wow!
Along the way, while watching the whales a few interesting birds always fly (or float) by...
Sabine's Gull (July 9th)
And a few of these...
Magnificent Frigatebird (July 10th)
These are not great quality pictures (taken nearly in the dark at 8:20 pm), but they were snapped just outside of my yard after the sun had gone down. I live about 1.5 miles as the Frigatebird flies from the ocean. Initially I spotted this rarity flying overhead from my yard (epic yard bird for California #5mileradius) and then chased it down the street to get these documentation photos. Over the next few days this same species, or perhaps same bird was seen near Anacapa Island on the 12th and San Nicolas Island the day before on the 11th.
Tufted Puffin (July 10th Photo by Dave Newman)
Another really great bird this month was this Tufted Puffin. It was seen by fellow crew Dave Newman who took this photo, and Jimmy McWaters. They spotted this out of place species during a whale watch near Santa Cruz Island. Summer sighting of this species this far south are rare. Tufted Puffins have historically nested on the Channel Islands but as thing change over time, they have abandoned this area for more favorable locations to the north. Hopefully they decided to come back because they are really spiffy looking birds.
JULY 15th 2018 a day for the California Pelagic HISTORY BOOKS:
It felt terrible to have to turn away folks from this trip due to a full boat but we were packed to capacity with eager birders ready to make a rare trip to infrequently visited deep waters south of the Channel Islands. Everyone aboard set out from Ventura Harbor at 7 am on July 15th, 2018 aboard the Island Adventure with high hopes of scoring a lifer, or maybe a new county bird. Hopes were dashed and rebuilt with grander accomplishments.
Nazca Booby, Anacapa Island
A lifer for many and therefore a county bird for most everyone on the boat. This unexpected find (by leader Adam Searcy) was standing on Arch Rock off the east end of Anacapa Island. A similar bird was spotted here May 20-21st, 2015 but was only seen for two days by just a few birders. This gem was seen well by the whole boat and then some, as word spread quickly a few lucky boating birders nearby were able to find it later this same day. MEGA!
Similar to a Masked Booby, but showing a more orange and sometimes pinkish bill. Very rare in California until this year with chaseable birds down in San Diego and one just popping up on a local beach near the Ventura/Los Angeles county line. Most likely the origin would be the Galapagos Islands, with only a few nesting on the Revillagigedo islands off of mexico which is closer but less populated. Either way a very rare sighting and a great way to get the trip started.
Our next major sighting was this Pacific coast frazari American Oystercatcher on the south shore of Anacapa Island. A ton of debate has gone into the legitimacy of these California birds as "American Oystercatchers". The Jehl scale has been used as the defacto way to rate the purity of these birds. This one passes well above the known hybrids that frequent the Ventura mainland coast. We purposely scoured the shoreline for this bird and it payed off. (thanks to Peter Gaede one of the sharp eyed leaders)
American Oystercatcher in a foam bath
From the south shore of Anacapa we moved into deeper water. We chose to navigate the western edge of the Santa Cruz Basin. The Santa Cruz basin is a deep water zone south of Santa Cruz Island. The area is roughly 20 miles wide and 40 miles long. In the center it is over 6000 ft deep but the sea floor rises up to about 500 ft deep along this western side. The result is a great birding.
We were only about 16 miles south of Santa Cruz Island when the first calls of Cook's Petrel caught everyone's attention and we slowed the boat to search for them. Unfortunately they were too far out of sight so we continued on. Then again, COOK'S PETREL! and again, and again, and again! We had around 100 sightings by the end of the trip. It was amazing, with some spectacular looks as one bird flew directly AT the boat, and even small groups sitting on the water.
The next big show was the storm petrel flock. I have seen a fair number of Storm-Petrels, and they are still a major a pain to ID "on the fly". Sometimes it is easy, when you know what to expect. Black and Ashy Storm-Petrels are what we expect in these waters. Leach's are also on the radar, as could be Townsend's, the new split off of Leach's. BUT we were just overwhelmed I think. Many times on pelagics a rare bird will present itself and there will be very few other birds around so it is easy to direct everyone's attention to the "interesting bird'. What happened over this next stretch of water was that there were so many birds of the Storm-Petrel variety that everyone of the 75 passengers attention was split between the 360 degrees of viewing options. We hit a raft of Storm-Petrels that contained almost everything you could hope for. Ashy and Black Storm-Petrels were there in great numbers. Mixed in where a few Leach's, perhaps a Townsend's, then between the leaders checking photos and talking over the walkies, Fork-tailed?! yes, David Pereksta had it on his camera screen, I heard Todd McGrath and others saying they may have had a Wedge-rumped?! Oh my god, this was crazy but there were birds moving all around and it was pretty much impossible to see them all. Good thing we had 75 people on the boat looking in all directions and many with cameras snapping away. At one point a pair of birds flew by and seemed to have caught the attention of a few people and photos were taken, stored digitally away and attention moved onto the rest of the action ahead. With photo review, all of the briefly seen birds and expected species were confirmed with photos. Wedge-rumped (mega!), Fork-tailed, Townsend's, Ashy, Black, and a variety of different Leach's Storm Petrels. One bird did stick out though. David Pereksta noticed it as soon as he had time to review his photos after the trips. Along with the photos others had of the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, he circulated photos of something he thought was unprecedented in our waters. It takes a lot of understanding and experience to know when you have something good. Dave knew he had something good and rang the bell. He circulated his photos to the leading experts and consensus was that yes, you have a Tristram's Storm-Petrel in those photos.
A what Storm-Petrel? So yah, not in your books, unless you have the Steve Howell authored book, Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A photographic guide. From what I understand a bird of this species was mist netted on the Farallon Islands but there has never been an accepted free flying occurrence in California or anywhere along the U.S.A. continental area. There was a previous record but it was not accepted by the CRBC (California Bird Record Committee) purportedly mainly due to lack of photographic evidence for such a difficult ID. Hopefully this trip can set the record straight.
Here is a link to the ebird checklist from this leg that contains some photos and descriptions.
Tristram's Storm-Petrel (left) and what appears to be a dark Leach's just behind it
When I was shooting this series of photos, I thought to myself that it was a Black Storm-Petrel with an Ashy trailing behind it. A nice size comparison. On review, I could not see any white underwing lining as would be expected on an Ashy, and it doesn't have the right proportions for a Black, so this apparent Leach's, is basically on the same line as the Tristram's giving a great size comparison. They were flying for a brief moment tail to beak so they are equal distance from my camera when this photo was taken, or as close as one could hope for. There will be a formal submission to the CRBC with multiple photos and a description and we will eagerly await the decision and thoughts of this group on the sighting.
Many more Storm-Petrels were sighted and Cook's Petrels where intermixed. As we traveled closer to San Nicolas Island we spotted a South Polar Skua. This is always a favorite on pelagic trips, I think people just love yelling SKUA! and they are a pretty impressively thick bird. We also saw a few Scripps's Murrelets, and a Sabine's Gull.
Scripps's Murrelet family
Scripps's Murrelet (chick)
South Polar Skua
Along this line just north of San Nicolas Island we also encountered a few Whales, Blues and Fins.
We then curved back up to the north and headed toward Santa Barbara Island. As we approached the small rocky island, a few miles out we had our first Booby fly by the boat. Actually it flew over the boat, like right over the upper deck. It was seemingly so close it felt like it was possible to pet the dang thing. Cameras spewed out shutter clicks faster than a hummingbirds heartbeat. Another Nazca Booby!
This second Nazca Booby was so completely cool. It flew so low over the upper deck it felt like you could reach up and touch it. It was also a new county bird to pretty much everyone on the boat. The lifer took place at Anacapa in Ventura county, but now a Nazca in the Santa Barbara "donut hole". Amazing.
Shortly after this a Brown Booby was spotted, and we eventually arrived at Sutil "rock/island" off the southwest corner of Santa Barbara Island. We tallied up over 40 Brown Boobies, a couple pairs were showing courtship behavior and may have even had some nests established.
Brown Boobies setting up nest beds on Santa Barbara Island.
We had seen a few Long-tailed Jaegers earlier in the trip but the views were mostly distant. So these kids that few by were quite satisfactory.
It was a packed month for seabird sightings and a few life birds, county birds, and great big smiles. I'm sure I left a few things out but there were so many birds it is hard to cram it all into this one post. This particular pelagic trip will be hard to beat, although I said the same thing about last years July trip. We have a scheduled pelagic trip in October on the 6th so don't hesitate to sign up. Thanks to all the leaders who helped out, Island Packers for hosting the trip, and for everyone who signed up for the trip. These trips can't happen with out all of you!