July 14th, 2019 Pelagic Trip
July has come and gone and so has a lot of time since my last blog post! Sorry about that, I have been in full Daddy mode trying to work full time and raise my two daughters (1 and 3). My wife and I are like two single parents most of the time since we rarely have the same days off. Anyways, I will try to stay on schedule and get more of these monthly reports out.
On July 14th, 2019 Island Packers hosted what has now become our annual 12 hr deep water pelagic trip. I was captain of the vessel Island Explorer, with birding leaders: David Pereksta, Wes Fritz, Bernardo Alps, Peter Gaede, Scott Terrill, and Linda Terrill. We had a full boat with just under 75 birders (we limit numbers for comfort, the boat can hold 152 people)
Our route took us from Ventura Harbor around Anacapa Island and south through the deep waters of the Santa Cruz Basin. From there we reached the northeast side of San Nicolas and Santa Barbara Islands.
The weather was terrific, calm waters and light winds. We had a touch of fog in the early morning and evening but great visibility for the majority of the day.
I overheard some birders on board had tallied up eight or more lifers, that is always fun to hear. We took in nice views of the usual pelagic suspects for a southern California trip and had some nice highlights along the way.
Some of the more sought after birds:
South Polar Skua
We also had quite a few marine mammals too:
California Sea Lion
Long-beaked Common Dolphin
Cuvier's Beaked Whale (my first encounter with this species!)
And a few other things:
California Flying Fish
Great White Shark
Potentially a VERY good bird was seen at one point. We had one Storm-Petrel that we chased for nearly 15 minutes. Many photos were taken and even some video footage. The bird in question was a large, overall dark bird reminiscent of a Black Storm-Petrel but was flying with stiffer wingbeats that were not as deep and bounding. It also glided a fair amount and gave the impression of a larger bird than a Black Storm-Petrel. Alas it was too fast and kept a respectable distance from us most of the time but we chased it down at speeds of nearly 20 knots for about 15 minutes until it turned to the west and led us directly into the path of a military live fire exercise out in the Pacific Missile Test Range so we had to abandon our pursuit. Subsequent views of the bird from experts not on the trip range from interesting but hard to say what it might be for sure, to it was just a Black Storm-Petrel. Those of us on the boat saw the flight and size and it just looked weird!
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S58429652 (ebird checklist with the mystery Storm-Petrel)
The Santa Barbara Channel and waters just south of the Channel Islands National Park yielded some nice looks at flocks of Sooty Shearwaters and a few Black-vented Shearwaters. One small group surprised us as we approached when a small black and white shearwater sprang into flight with a group of Sooties south of the islands. It was distant but some photos were snapped and it was a Manx Shearwater, a rare bird in the Pacific, and is much more common in the Atlantic. A checklist with photos of the Manx is below.
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S58429689 (Manx Shearwater)
After we moved into some deep water Storm-Petrels began to materialize out of seemingly nowhere as they tend to do. We had a great spread of activity all day long and plenty of Storm-Petrels for quite a large chunk of the time we were in the deep water south of the Channel Islands. After this trip and a few whale watches I ran through the rest of July I am finally feeling pretty confident in my Storm-Petrel ID skill (Six years and dozens of pelagic trips). This group of birds is very tough to sort in the "field" and subtle plumage cues can be hard to see as they are weaving around behind waves and the boat is bounding along from swell to swell. With that said the Ashy's started to look a certain way and fly kind of flat and straight, the Blacks always with the slower up stroke, and quick deep downward pulse of the wings, the Leach's are a bit eratic and pinball around on fairly deep wingbeats. Townsend's well, I need a bit more time with them but they are just smaller and more contrasting with a very clean white rump patch.
To round things out we also had the chance to yell out SKUA! as a South Polar Skua flew by. We had a single Sabine's Gull do a quick look around the boat and ended up in our stern wake. Scripps's Murrelets were seemingly fairly abundant with multiple sightings throughout the day. Our stop by Sutil rock off Santa Barbara Island yielded about 31 Brown Boobies. For the past few years they have been establishing a roosting/nesting colony here which makes for some pleasant bird watching.
All and all it was a solid trip. For me the Storm-Petrel action was by far the best, as it gave ample time to study the different species and get near direct comparisons of size, color, and flight characteristics. Also the one Storm-Petrel that "got away" without being solidly identified will surely be the talked about bird on future trips to that area.
Island Packers will be hosting another 10 hr Pelagic trip October 5th. We will most likely return to these same waters so we hope to see you there!