This is the BVAS/Grande Pelagic Trip report for May 17, 2014.
We started off the morning in the typical overcast condition we San Diegans lovingly call "May Gray". This condition may look ominous to folks from other areas of the country, but is usually quite benign. I think it actually makes pelagic birding a bit easier - without the harsh glare off the water. We did have a little southeast wind early, and I confess that is not my favored direction. No danger - it just seems to make the conditions "off". Fisherman don't care for that wind direction either, so there must be something to that. Fortunately, the wind changed to south, then to a more westerly direction as the day went along.
We started off with a quick onboard orientation, introductions of leaders, and safety talk. Today we were onboard the substitute, roomy, 85 ft. Pacific Queen, owned and captained by Drew Card. Birding Leaders were Tom Blackman, Jon Feenstra, Peter Ginsburg, Guy McCaskie, Gary Nunn, Dave Povey, Bruce Rideout, and Matt Sadowski.
We headed out of the commercial basin into the main channel of San Diego Bay, collecting an assortment of birds as we went. Two Red-crowned Parrots seemed a bit unusual over water, but a couple of pairs nest in nearby palm trees. Although all parrots here are introduced species, Red-crowned parrots are established and "countable" for you listers.
We skipped the Bait Barges (docks), as they have been moved "up " the bay while the navy is doing demolition and reconstruction of some piers inside Ballast Point. That puts the bait docks off our track on our way out to sea. I had debated (no pun intended) a side trip there, as an immature Brown Booby had been seen there last weekend (the bait dock is easily viewed from the east end of Harbor Island). However, no new reports had come in after the 13th, despite multiple checks there.
Just as we approached open water in the middle of the channel, two Black Skimmers gave us a nice flyby. The chummed gull flock gave us looks at several sub-adult Heermann's Gulls and one white-headed adult with faint white wrist patches. That white wrist patch, though unusual, is seen occasionally, and when present on a young all dark bird, has caused more than one of us to call out jaeger. Most Heermann's gulls are on their breeding islands in the Sea of Cortez at this time of year.
We found an impressive (by San Diego standards) northbound movement of Sooty Shearwaters just offshore, starting inside the # 3 (Bell) Buoy and continuing out for another couple of miles. It’s always hard to estimate numbers, but maybe 5-10 per minute, with a burst here and there of 20 or so. We did see a very few scattered Sooties all day, but it wasn't until returning to this area in the late afternoon that we found those kind of numbers again.
We also picked up a few quick looks at Black-vented Shearwaters, with the one in the afternoon having the better lighting. This is another Mexican species now breeding on islands mid-way down the Pacific side of Baja California.
A Scripps's Murrelet on the water came as a semi-cooperative solo bird and allowed us a fairly close approach, though viewing conditions were tough with the light wind chop. Most all got a reasonable looks. This species is a recent split of the Xantus's complex, and a local Southern California specialty. Most field guides show Xantus's Murrelets as a complex of hypoleucus, the southern race, and scrippsi, the northern race. Now hypoleucus is Guadalupe Murrelet and scrippsi is Scripps’s Murrelet. The combined Xantus's complex population is thought to be rather small, perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 birds. I have not seen any estimates of how that breaks down with the Guadalupe/Scripps's split, but is certainly a small population for each.
The Nine Mile Bank was exceedingly slow, as was the first portion of the 12 mile-wide San Diego Trough. I had several people ask if that was normal. I tried to make things sound "not terrible", but the best I could say was it was pretty slow
Mid San Diego Trough we did get a bit of a surprise with a 2nd year Laughing Gull that came into the chummed gull flock. Though Laughing Gull is not a very sexy bird for most East and Gulf coast birders, it's actually fairly rare here, despite being commonly seen at the Salton Sea just a short distance to our east. Laughing Gulls on the ocean are even rarer. I have two in my notes, both off La Jolla: one Mar. 10, 1980, and one June 1, 1993 - both much closer to shore. This bird was 16-17 miles out - certainly making it the bird of the day, albeit not a very glamorous one.
Red-billed Tropicbird - Matthew Binns
Our first South Polar Skua arrived a short time later, slowly coming in from a distance, so everyone got to the left side of the boat for a nice view, at which time the Skua made a turn to cross over to the right side. Who says birds don't have a sense of humor. Lots of moving legs as everyone switched sides of the boat.
May seems to be a very good month for South Polar Skua here, with most of the north bound birds concentrated between mid May and early June. Fall south-bound Skuas seem spread over a longer time frame (Aug - Oct) and are less reliably seen.
As we approached the Thirty Mile Bank we stumbled on a small group of Storm-Petrels on the water. By the numbers of stormies milling around, it would seem a larger group was attempting to form. These were Black Storm-Petrels, but there was one smaller, browner, bird with a shallow wing beat, longer-tailed look, and a lighter brown rump. This was an Ashy Storm-Petrel. There was also a report from the bow of a dark or intermediate-rumped Leach's Storm-Petrel (also called Chapman’s Storm-Petrel). We could not confirm that bird, and are still hoping the photographers onboard might have some photos.
Once we left the storm-petrels and turned south we again endured a long dry spell, where even the gull flock left us. Lots of heads tipped back in the warm partial sun, catching a siesta. The only new bird was a fleeting view of a Northern Fulmar, and we got better looks at a few Red-necked and Red Phalaropes.
At the south end of the Thirty Mile Bank, the wheelhouse had a call from the stern saying a distant Black-footed Albatross was behind us, but could no longer be seen. We made the decision to go back, but we needn't have worried, as the bird was indeed following our scent trail and as soon as we got turned around it came shooting by, made a circle or two, then landed. Each time we moved up on the bird it would take off and spin around us again.
Needless to say this action got all hands up and moving. Siestas over. This bird gave us a fair number of passes as we moved east. About that time a report came in of a distant high arching bird off the port side of the boat, and with all glasses working, a few things were picked out, but no high arching bird was seen. We did see a very distant interesting white bird with a stiff wing beat that seemed to disappear. So the chase was on again. This one took a little longer to reach - maybe as much as two miles were covered - but sure enough, there was a white bird on the water. We held our collective breaths as we closed the distance. Clearly we had something, then not just something but a good something. Then a for-sure tropicbird, then a Red-billed Tropicbird. Again the wait seemed long as we approached with the sun at our backs, trying to get close without pushing the bird off the water. We got all hands on the right side and slowed to a stop at maybe 50 yards, with a wind drift pushing us towards the bird. Lots of photos. Everyone up and many smiles. This was the SEXY bird for the trip! Despite our attention being elsewhere, we did notice that we'd picked up a new Black-footed Albatross. Now everyone’s blood was up - we were ready to chase every sighting no matter how distant or tenuous. We were no longer napping, but fully alive. By the way, we never did figure out what the high arching bird was!
Near the Nine Mile Bank we had a little more life, with both a South Polar Skua and a Pomarine Jaeger called out. I assumed someone had made the common mistake of confusing a dark jaeger for a Skua, but I was wrong - we had both. Then a second Pomarine, and eventually a third. It took us all day to get a Jaeger, but these guys made up for it by showing off nicely. The Skua had no interest in us and continued north.
On the Nine Mile Bank we got the report of a distant Sabine's Gull - the only one of the day for this otherwise expected species. We even got a few Black Storm-Petrels to come in to the boat wake here.
The Sooty Shearwater movement was still strong along the coast, and had even increased slightly. We'd been at sea for 10 hours plus and I'm sure that if what we saw on the relatively short passages through that zone was an all day occurrence, many thousands of Sooties had been moving up the coast!
South Polar Skua - Tom Blackman
Black-footed Albatross - Matthew Binns
Black Storm-Petrel - Tom Blackman
Our slow start and long spells with few birds turned into a fairly impressive list for the day. Below I've listed all the birds seen.
Birds with an * were seen only in San Diego Bay.
Birds with ** were seen both offshore and in San Diego Bay.
Underlined birds are of interest.
Western Grebe *
Brandt's Cormorant **
Double-crested Cormorant **
Brown Pelican **
Great Blue Heron *
Snowy Egret *
Black-crowned Night Heron *
Black Skimmer *
South Polar Skua
Heermann's Gull **
Western Gull **
Least Tern **
Forster's Tern *
Elegant Tern **
Rock Pigeon *
Red-crowned Parrot *
Barn Swallow *
European Starling *
Black-footed Albatross - Tom Blackman
Pomarine Jaeger - Tom Blackman
Pink-footed Shearwater - Tom Blackman
Common Dolphin - Tom Blackman
Sooty Shearwater - Matthew Binns
This site is owned and operated by the Buena Vista Audubon Society 2202 South Coast Highway, Oceanside, CA 92054 (c) 2007-2015 Buena Vista Audubon Society, Oceanside, California. All rights reserved. All photos copyrighted.