We gathered at the Point Loma Sport Fishing Landing docks for check- in and were lead down to the Grande by Guy McCaskie. Paul Lehman ran us through an orientation to the boat and sea birding in general.
This morning was overcast, as is the norm for this time of year. Lovingly called the "June Gloom" by locals. Easier on the eyes than bright sun. Winds were light, but the last few days have had some rather strong winds out to the west. Grande has been in major yard and dockside maintenance and this is our first trip since January aboard her. She still has more work to be done and fishing season is now on.
The trip was sold out with all 48 spots filled, and we had 8 leaders onboard. Peter Ginsburg, Paul Lehman, Guy McCaskie, Gary Nunn, Dave Povey, Bruce Rideout, Matt Sadowski, and B J Stacey. The run down the bay was uneventful, though we did get a look at the Bait Docks as they are now back in their normal moorings, just inside Ballast Point. Lots of the usual pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, and gulls, plus a pile of California Sea Lions.
We did a quick cruise by Ballast Point, and were escorted to sea by a couple of Black Skimmers, dozens of the newly arrived Elegant Terns, and Heermann's Gulls. We got looks at a few Bottle-nosed Dolphin just at the harbor entrance, which seems a regular area for them when they are not actually up in the bay's inner channel.
Once at sea the life dropped off. The May 17th trip had hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters as close as two miles out. Today nothing one would consider pelagic. We did eventually find a fair number of Sooties along the inner edge of the Nine Mile Bank. There were also a number of Cassin's Auklets there. Both feed on krill, so that may indicate that the small shrimp-like creature is available there. We also had the day's only Black-vented Shearwater give us a decent look flying across the bow. That species is a local specialty, and can be very abundant in the late fall and winter months. In the spring they withdraw to their few breeding islands some 250 miles below the border. About 90% of Black-vented Shearwaters breed on just one island, Natividad.
Crossing the Nine Mile Bank we found things again on the quiet side. This bank can have amazing amounts of life, but for whatever reason this year's results here have been off. Perhaps it’s warmer than normal water, a change of food source, or any of a dozen other factors. Fortunately the San Diego Trough, which is best known for our attempt to get across it as quickly as possible, has had a fair amount of life this spring, and that was the case today - all our good sightings coming here.
First, a distant immature Brown Booby. That bird, although seen by all, was just not very satisfying. I thought our chummed gull flock had turned the bird, but in the end it flew off and away from us. Next good sighting was a flushed, and seen by only a few, murrelet species. Photos later suggested this was a Scripps's Murrelet. Now to have that happen with two of the hoped for species of the day was not what we leaders wanted! We may get a Brown Booby once every second or third trip, and Scripps's Murrelet, although common on late winter and early spring trips, is nearing its departure date for parts further north. Paul had already sighted two pairs off Humboldt County - that being much further north than one would expect! Well, we got redemption on both species. First a close in sitting on the water adult female Brown Booby, which then put on a plunge dive display for the whole right side of the boat. Later we eased alongside a pair of --Scripps's Murrelets -- which allowed a prolonged look, even though sea conditions were not ideal. Sometimes you do get a second chance. Turns out that our sure Scripps's Murrelets were not! Photos later showed that we had actually seen two Craveri's Murrelets. These birds were so much earlier than any of us expected for Craveri’s that they just slipped by us!! I know I'm thoroughly embarrassed as I'd seen more than 40 of them last summer and should have picked up on them. Scripps's normally depart about now, but we can have stragglers through the summer months. Guadalupe Murrelets are next with that species seen from July into the fall. Craveri's Murrelets have been recorded in July but I wouldn't expect them until August. Well these two Craveri's Murrelets didn't read the book. Thanks to digital photography, and sharp-eyed passengers, we got things corrected. My (our) sincere apologies for the missed call at the time. Lesson learned!
Craveri's Murrelet by BJ Stacey
Craveri's Murrelet by BJ Stacey
Forgive me a brief editorial. Something is clearly going on with Baja California seabirds. I think most folks are thinking El Niño, which is predicted, but has not yet actually occurred (as of June 5th. NOAA report, "El Nino watch"). The above early Craveri's Murrelets are only the latest in several events, starting with the Blue-footed Booby invasion along the west coast last fall. This year we have seen Red-billed Tropicbirds off San Diego in April and May. Cruise ship observers have had them north to Monterey, and Scripps's Murrelets have be seen off Humboldt Co. (Paul Lehman, et. al.). Those again well north of their expected post breeding range. Next, the recent explosion of Elegant Terns in San Diego Bay. These terns are believed to have abandoned their breeding sites in the Sea of Cortez and are now nesting here. The large and early influx of Heermann’s Gulls is likely due to them following the Elegant Terns north. The local Southern California waters have been warmer than normal (sea-surface temperature inside the Channel Islands). Reports from the fishing community in the Sea of Cortez say those waters are ahead of expected summer warming.
The Pacific Sardine population here has been in decline. Fishermen in the Sea of Cortez have described it as a complete collapse. The Northern Anchovy locally has replaced the sardines, and seems on the upswing, so forage fish here remain good. That is not the case in the Sea of Cortez. So the simple answer is…. I have no answer. Clearly we are seeing a dramatic change. The next months well gave us more clues. What birds will show up in the mean time??? That will be interesting to see!
Back to the trip report
The San Diego Trough also gave us our best looks at a number of storm-petrels. Black Storm-Petrels are the common and occasional abundant storm-petrel species off San Diego. We really had no great numbers today, but enough that all hands got decent looks at them. They are the largest storm-petrel here, very dark with a brownish carpal bar. They have a direct flight, with deep even wing strokes, and appear long winged.
We also had a fair number of Ashy Storm-Petrels, including six together in a group. Maybe 13 for the day. A very good number for San Diego waters. Ashies are a smaller browner storm-petrel, with a shorter winged look, shallower wing stroke, less direct flight, a longer tailed look, and can show paler brown rump and gray wing lining if seen in the right lighting and angle.
Last, we had a Leach's Storm-Petrel. Many of our local Leach's are the chapmani subspecies and may show a good bit of white, some white, very little white, or no white at all, on the rump. This bird actually showed a rump patch at the all white end of the spectrum. Leach's are best told by the small size, long winged look, bounding fight and crazy directional changes. This was one of the better San Diego birds of the day. Although common well offshore, they can be a difficult storm-petrel to find inshore. The San Diego Co. line lies half-way to San Clemente Is., and that cuts San Diego Co. waters off from most of Leach's Storm-Petrel's normal habitat.
We came up with two very worn looking Northern Fulmar for the day. That species is not expected this time of year, but a few seem to get "stranded" in the Southern California Bight each spring, and may survive into early summer. Also somewhat late was a rather pale alternate plumage or incomplete molt Red Phalarope. Perhaps a male, as they have the more subdued breeding plumage. The bird flew and settled nearby for several good views, and photos.
While we were maneuvering to stay out of the way of an operating navy ship and looking at various storm-petrels, we came on a Black-footed Albatross sitting on the water. This species is also regular well west of San Diego waters, and can be somewhat tough to get locally. May and June seem to be among the more reliable months here, but they can be missed on many trips inside the Thirty Mile Bank, so that was a good bird to get checked off.
The south end of the Thirty Mile Bank and the Mexican border has been a "go to spot" recently. Today that area let us down. Interestingly, we did see a Least Tern there. I am always amazed at how far these guys forage from shore. Elegant Terns also regularly forage at these distances but one could imagine much less energy expended on their part. Least Terns must find an abundance of food, less competition, or other factors to travel all that distance (20-30 n.m. from the beach).
Speaking of terns, we got an amazing show just two or three miles off the tip of Point Loma on the return. We found a large number of Elegants, and at least one each Royal and Forster's Terns diving among the pelicans, cormorants, and gulls. Loads of small bait fish there.
Last, we took a look at Zuniga Jetty on the way in with no real expectation of anything other than the usual pelicans, cormorants and gull. So we were pleasantly surprised by a Black Oystercatcher there.
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