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July 12th, 2020 Pelagic with Island Packers

What a year huh? Understatement of the decade? Well perhaps this blog post will be something to take your mind off of the wider world if only for a few minutes.

On July 12th, 2020 Island Packers ran a 12 hr dedicated Pelagic birding trip. I, Joel Barrett, was the captain of the motor vessel Island Explorer. We had six dedicated naturalist leaders: David Pereksta, Tom Benson, Bernardo Alps, Peter Gaede, Wes Fritz, and Ryan Terrill. Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic precautions we ran with fewer people than normal. We normally run with 65-75 passengers (boat can hold 150) but on this trip we had 46 birders aboard. Other safety precautions involved disinfecting the boat between passenger boardings and cleaning/disinfecting the bathrooms on a regular schedule throughout the trip. All passengers were required to wear masks the entire trip and we marked off 6ft intervals along the railing with red tape.

We departed at 0700 and pushed through some thick fog for the first hour or so. Despite the thick fog we tracked over a location I have been monitoring for a few years now. It is southwest of Platform Gina and has consistently produced Black Storm-Petrels and Northern Fulmars. I speculated that perhaps a dead whale sank to the bottom in this area a few years back and has been slowly decomposing and releasing oil from the bones along the sea floor. I have seen and smelled fishy oil slicks in this area in years past but it still seems to be a great spot to locate flocks of Black Storm-Petrels in the summer. So even in the dense fog we were still able to spot a few of these fun little birds as we made way toward Anacapa Island.

Black-vented Shearwaters had just been starting to show up through early July and were now fairly abundant. Sooty Shearwaters have been staying around in pretty decent numbers too. It seems for the past few years they didn't stay through the whole summer but this year has been a welcomed change. Even in the fog we manage to see some of each. At the Anacapa arch we looked for Boobies but didn't turn any up. A few days after our trip a Nazca Booby was spotted right in this area.

Here is kind of how thick the fog was...

Well maybe not that bad but it was not terribly exciting either. We didn't clear the fog until we cruised around the south side of Anacapa Island on our way to an underwater high point called The Footprint. Once clear of the cool moist air we began to see birds! Flocks of shearwaters here and there and our first Red-necked Phalaropes.

Red-necked Phalarope photo courtesy of David Pereksta

Pink-footed Shearwater photo courtesy of Ryan Terrill

Soon after clearing the fog we were in a consistent stream of birds for much of the next few hours. Our course took us to the southwest of Santa Cruz Island along the western edge of the deep waters of the Santa Cruz Basin. We swept through both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties during the voyage. By this point we picked up a few terns, most of which were Elegant but one was believed to be a Black Tern but looks were fleeting and distant although we suspect that is what it was. A Northern Fulmar also made an appearance on the water as our first representative of that particular species (It was a pretty scruffy specimen). We also crossed paths with a few more Black Storm-Petrels albeit not in the thick fog anymore so more people began to get eyes on them.

Our route in red, image courtesy of David Pereksta

After a bit Ryan Terrill spotted a bird in flight that caught his eye and he started the chain of birding froth (excitement) that eventually led us into a hot chase of our first and only trip sighting of a Buller's Shearwater. I have to say it was quite a chase, in the space between leg 6 and 7 above you can see all the squiggles in our otherwise smooth line of travel. That was the chase for the Buller's. I had nearly given up on it when Tom Benson pointed out the bird flying closer to us than I was anticipating. Flight was... suspicious then it turned and what do you know! David Pereksta yelled out BULLER'S SHEARWATER from outside the port door of the wheelhouse. The bird then flew down the starboard side of the boat giving great looks and satisfaction to all aboard. That is one of the reasons I love both driving the boat during these trips and also having the horsepower and speed of the Island Packers catamarans. We can literally chase after birds that on other trips just fly by and are never seen again. Pretty satisfying and it takes a team to get all the birders a look like we had, from the first spot and confidence to raise the flag of alarm, to the boats capabilities to motor after it, and all the other leaders keeping a sharp eye on the bird while we carefully maneuver closer over several minutes of high speed pursuit.

Buller's Shearwater photo courtesy of Ryan Terrill

Buller's Shearwater photo courtesy of David Pereksta

We locked eyes on our first but not last SOUTH POLAR SKUA! Always a highlight of any pelagic trip...

South Polar Skua photo courtesy of David Pereksta

As we eventually lost the Buller's Shearwater to the glories of the sea, we tried to get back on track for a bird filled line to the south towards San Nicolas Island. Unfortunately we seemed to have lost all the big bird flocks during our hurley squirly chase and had a fairly quite next hour or so. We had another brief South Polar Skua and Leach's Storm-Petrels began to make some cameo appearances. That is until I saw a small gray bird arc high above the horizon. I thought no way, maybe... I angled the boat toward it and kept an eye out. Then again up it went! Excitement rang around the wheelhouse as I yelled out "I think I just saw a Cook's Petrel!" Pretty much simultaneously I hear the radios the leaders use to communicate with each other exclaim "Cook's Petrel!" Ryan had seen it too. Then all of a sudden after a quick run down the bird turned towards us and had the audacity to land on the water out in front of the boat! It was a brief respite or food grab, and it was off again but we had spectacular views of it as we tagged along for a small portion of its journey through our local waters. We had a good showing of these guys two years ago but it can be a long stretch of years between sightings of this species in southern California.

Cook's Petrel photo courtesy of Ryan Terrill

Cook's Petrel photo courtesy of David Pereksta

After the buzz of the Cook's Petrel had made its rounds on the boat we took off again angling north of San Nicolas Island toward the Osborn Bank south of Santa Barbara Island. We had some more Storm Petrels along the way. Black and Leach's in low numbers but consistent intervals. As we neared Santa Barbara Island we also saw our first Brown Boobies. They are believed to have started nesting on the island in 2017-2018 as noted by the a National Park seabird biologist, David Mazurkiewicz, who was a participant on this July birding trip and as noted in this article from the National Park and here is what I posted on this website at the time.

We slowed down and pulled in tight to the islet off the southwest corner of Santa Barbara Island know as Sutil rock. Boobies had been making a few close passes by us on our approach, checking us out as much as we were watching them.

Brown Booby photo courtesy of Ryan Terrill

Brown Booby photo courtesy of David Pereksta

David Pereksta had been out to this area on a previous trip with the National Park Service and had seen a Blue-footed Booby on a nest with a Brown Booby. There was even a chick seen! We can't confirm it is a hybrid yet but it sure appears to be a possibility given the circumstances. Many are wondering what features this bird may exhibit if and when it is seen again. We were delighted to see that the chick was even larger and seemingly doing well. Both presumed parents were still present on the nest.

Blue-footed Booby with Brown Booby and presumed hybrid offspring. Photo courtesy of David Pereksta

Blue-footed Booby with Brown Booby and presumed hybrid offspring. Photo courtesy of David Pereksta

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the Boobies and moved on toward the north and eventually the Ventura Harbor. This stretch of water is by no means a dead zone (no pun intended) but on this trip we didn't come across many new findings. We did see more Black Storm-Petrels and a dead Sea Lion attended by a couple Northern Fulmars.

Northern Fulmar, one of the only photos I took... too busy driving and having fun

Northern Fulmar photo courtesy of David Pereksta

We also saw plenty of dolphins and several Humpback Whales. It was another great trip and I am so thankful for all the passengers that chose to join us during the Pandemic and get some much needed fresh air and time at sea. Thanks to all of the leader/naturalists that volunteered their time to help out in all the ways that they do, these trips would not be the same without ALL of your efforts. Thanks everyone and see you in the Fall. We have another trip coming up on October 3rd. Space is limited (extra limited right now) so don't wait to sign up. Click the link below for details.

Common Dolphin photos courtesy of Ryan Terrill

Full list of species seen

Rock Pigeon

Anna's Hummingbird

Black Turnstone

Long-billed Dowitcher


Black Oystercatcher

Red-necked Phalarope

Pigeon Guillemot

Cassin's Auklet

Pomarine/Parasitic Jaeger

Heermann's Gull

Western Gull

California Gull

South Polar Skua

Forster's Tern

Elegant Tern

Royal Tern

Least Tern

Black Tern?

Black Storm-Petrel

Ashy Storm-Petrel

Leach's Storm-Petrel

Northern Fulmar

Sooty Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

Cook's Petrel

Brandt's Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Brown Pelican

Brown Booby

Blue-footed Booby

Great Blue Heron

American Crow

Barn Swallow

House Sparrow

Great-tailed grackle

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