Living on the shores of a Great Lake is somewhat of a seabird tease. For example, Sabine’s Gulls and jaegers occur here every year but, they’re usually way offshore, a distant spec over a dark horizon. You need to be out on the right day, at the right time of year to see one, maybe a few, if the winds are right. Seeing one of those birds is cause for much celebration and toasting and almost assuredly requires documentation to your state’s ornithological records committee. Obviously, a bird being rare in one place and common in another is not unusual but, for whatever reason, pelagic birds drive me mad with bird envy. Perhaps it’s because the experience of finding, say, a storm-petrel, requires the better part of a day on a boat, heading out to the deeper parts of the ocean. Lots of people walk on shores or in fields; birders just happened to have binoculars with them while they do it. Pelagic birding trips are just such a “birder” thing to do; it’s the height of a birding obsession.
Lucky for me, Aly really enjoys pelagic birding, as well. After the balance of the birds have been seen, she’s pretty good as carving out a small corner of the boat to enjoy a nap. If anything notable comes by, she knows I’ll wake her.
We arrived on the dock at 6:00 a.m. to board the Monte Carlo, operated by fine people at Westport Seabirds. Once everyone was loaded we head out of the harbor, surrounded by fishing boats and a rising sun.
Once we moved beyond the inshore waters, Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters started to appear. For the coastal birders, a Sooty is a bird quickly relegated to the trash bin of the day’s list. An inland birder like myself, made sure to appreciate the remarkable flying skill the shearwaters demonstrate while dodging among the waves.
After a few hours heading out, we reached the main focus of our day’s endeavor; the fishing boats. Trailing these vessels were hundreds of gulls, shearwaters, and albatrosses. As soon as one boat would begin to raise its nets, the birds would arrive and gorge on anything dropped or brought to the surface. After the initial frenzy subsided, birds would resume exploring the other boats, looking for the next human-assisted meal. Black-footed Albatross and the smartly-dressed Sabine’s Gulls rounded out the masses of California Gulls and Pink-footed Shearwaters.
After we trailed a few fishing boats, we head out closer to the continental shelf where the water conditions were more conducive to Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. After about 10 minutes of trailing some cooking oil mixed with fish oil, the scent-guided bird arrived. Like the swallows of the sea, the minute storm-petrel dotted around the boat, eventually being joined by a second.
As we turned towards the coast, we stopped by the fishing boats to see what else might be hanging around. Our species and bird counts being a touch light, we were sure to scan the flock for the less common seabirds like Tufted Puffin, Short-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters. Somewhat disappointingly, only the Short-tailed Shearwater (differentiated from Sooties by head shape and bill length) would make an appearance.
One last pelagic excursion was to see what other marine life we could locate. While we lacked that one “signature bird” to add some spark to the trip’s checklist, a group of 5 active Humpback Whales was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever witnessed. As the captain cut the engine, all on board fell silent and we were able to watch and listen to the 79,000 pound beasts breath through their blowhole and dive into the water. We talk about good looks of awesome birds as being “cripplers” as they freeze you in your tracks; I’m not sure a slang term exists for the condition of the 20 passengers on the boat that afternoon.
On our way in, we swung around the east end of the spit to look for pure Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls (in these parts, the overwhelming majority are hybrids of the two) as well as any shorebirds that might be hanging around the rocky shore. My lifer Glaucous-winged Gull would be the last addition made to my life or year lists on this pelagic trip. What I did get, however, was to see more Marbled Godwits in one place than I have ever seen. I am a huge sucker for numbers of shorebirds and at 700+ godwits, it was a satisfying end to an intense day of birding.
(As a footnote… I cannot recommend Westport Seabirds more highly. Their ship is quite comfortable and the crew is knowledgeable and accommodating. The ginger snap cookies were a welcome snack as we head out on our birding pursuits.)