This is the trip report for the May 21, 2016 Buena Vista Audubon sponsored pelagic. Thirty-four passengers and seven leaders boarded the 85 ft. Ocean Odyssey Captained by Rick Scott. Today's trip leaders were Tom Blackman, Greg Gillson, Peter Ginsburg, Gary Nunn, Dave Povey, Matt Sadowski, and Justyn Stahl. The Ocean Odyssey's regular duty, when not fishing, is taking school kids out on marine biology study classes. Today was her first try at pelagic birding, and she and her crew did a very nice job. The weather was partly cloudy and somewhat breezy. Seas were mixed direction 2-3 ft. swell, with a 2-3 ft. wind wave. Air tempatures were a mild 65-70 F. Sea Surface temp 63-66 F.
After a brief onshore orientation, and some quick looks at a couple of the local resident/escaped Lilac-crowned Parrots, we shoved off from the Fisherman's Landing Dock to head out into the main channel of San Diego Bay. The Commercial Basin to our stern was full of all three local species of large terns. Most were Caspian, with several Elegants, and at least one Royal Tern. It was fun to pick up the differing calls as they were all quite vocal. We made a beeline out to sea as last minute changes to docking locations had held up our departure. The only thing of note here was a good number of Elegant Terns feeding on, of all things, the pelagic Red Crabs that are stacked up just outside Ballast Point. I learned something new – that Elegant Terns, or any tern for that matter, ate these Red Crabs. No mistaking it, Elegant Tern after Elegant Tern went in to the water to come up with these "50 cent sized" bright red crabs. They then positioned them in their bills and down the hatch. I saw no other species of tern taking them here. I did see a Western Gull pick up one, and I have seen gulls of several species, such as California and Heermann's, feeding on them in the past. The Red Crabs are normally found in the warm water off the Mexican west coast but invade California in some warm water years. They seemed to be particularly abundant here the last two years. Elegant Terns are also primarily a Mexican species, most breeding on islands in the Sea of Cortez. So Elegant Terns feeding on Red Crabs perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. There is some talk of a breeding failure of Elegants and Heermann's Gull due to lack of sardines in the Sea of Cortez. We have not seen any numbers of Heermann's here yet, but there are 30,000 pairs of Elegant Terns in the salt works, where smaller numbers usually breed, and more arrive daily. We certainly saw the results of that today. My view from the wheelhouse was only about 180 degrees and any scan of the horizon had multiple Elegants all day long and at all distances offshore. We also had a number of spots of feeding Pacific Bonito, a small tuna, feeding on Northern Anchovy, just to the west edge of the 9 Mile Bank. The anchovies were balled up and pushed to the surface, so each of these spots had a cloud of Elegant Terns overhead. In fact, the three main bird species on these small anchovies were Sooty Shearwater, Brown Pelican, and Elegant Tern. The balled up anchovy were sufficiently dense that the Brown Pelicans simply would swim over and dip a pouch full. They would only back off only when the bonito feeding frenzy became too violent.
Not a lot of other bird species here – a lone Northern Fulmar, a few Pink-footed Shearwaters, a couple of pairs of Scripps's Murrelets (one pair gave us nice looks), some Western Gulls, and one Brown Booby sitting on the water among the pelicans looking unsure of what to do. I think Brown Boobies tend to feed on the larger sized baitfish, such a sardines, small mackerel, and the like. The upswing in small anchovies and the downturn of sardine populations here may not help them out. This spring's trips have had a general decline in sightings of Brown Boobies off San Diego, at least north of the border.
We had seen a very few Black-vented Shearwaters as we cleared the bay, and again on our return in the afternoon. Most of them are now on the breeding grounds off the central part of Baja California. Certainly they are just fine feeding on anchovy, but the population is elsewhere right now. There were some Common Dolphins on the 9 Mile Bank. I am not sure whether these were on the anchovy or after the small bonito
The Captain was impressed with the amount of baitfish he saw along the 9 Mile Bank and for the whole rest of the day, clear to the 30 Mile Bank. The 9 Mile Bank did produce a small storm-petrel raft. Perhaps four hundred Black Storm-Petrels gathered into a tight resting group on the surface. As we maneuvered to get a look at them Gary Nunn called out a possible Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. Unfortunately it did not seem to be with the raft, and disappeared before more than one or two others got on it. To add to the confusion, there was at least one Ashy Storm-Petrel photographed here, but not called, so some may have mistaken it for the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We stuck with the raft for a couple of turns and found only Black Storm-Petrels.
The San Diego Trough westbound was quiet, with another Northern Fulmar, a few Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, and traveling Elegant Terns. Closer to the 30 Mile Bank we picked up more Black Storm-Petrels and a few more of the species we'd seen in the trough. We drove up the inside of the 30 looking for the large storm-petrel raft(s) we have found in that area in the past. While searching, we saw a distant tall whale spout, so in need of something of interest we diverted off course. Turns out we worked our way up to a Blue Whale. This turned out to be a pretty cooperative animal, but as we closed the distance, a call went out that a Black-footed Albatross was coming in from the stern. That bird came right in and sat on the water less than a boat length away. Meanwhile, the whale that had been ignored decided to surface about three boat lengths away. It was fun to watch the wonderful dilemma of what to look at first: Blue Whale on the starboard or Black-footed Albatross on the port stern. We hope everyone got looks at each as we drifted along. Very nice.
We did proceed further north, but with little to show for it. We did get a little uptick in storm-petrel activity, and even had a couple of small clusters on the water. A Leach's Storm-Petrel was reported in this area, and two more Ashy Storm-Petrels were seen at a distance. We gave up then and headed east the back down the outer edge of the 9 Mile Bank. We did get more shearwaters, a small number of Red-necked Phalaropes, more Scripps's Murrelets, and the first numbers of Cassin's Auklets. We also saw good numbers of Elegant Terns headed west toward the area that we'd just come through. Who knows what that's about? Certainly there were plenty of baitfish on the meter out there. Perhaps that stuff comes up to the surface near dark. The ride down the 9 Mile Bank was likely our most comfortable of the day and the sun was warm….nap time right? The shout went up of a jaeger, then quickly changed to Skua. A South Polar Skua had snuck in and attacked the Western Gulls chummed to the popcorn. This was our second South Polar Skua for this spring – right in the normal arrival range here. The other South Polar Skua was seen on April 30th; early by a couple of weeks.
We searched the middle of the 9 Mile Bank for the storm-petrel raft we'd found in the morning, and though we saw scattered Black Storm-Petrels all the way back to within 5 miles of Point Loma, no rafting stormies were found. We did find a small pod of "offshore" Bottle-nosed Dolphin. These are larger and darker than the Bottle-nosed Dolphin often seen right along the beach, and may differ genetically. We returned to San Diego Bay to see an adult male Surf Scoter close to North Island, and with a little time remaining checked out the bait docks for the usual pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, gulls, and pile of California Sea Lions. We pulled into the landing tired, sunburned, and happy to be home.
P.S. News on the fishing front was that the first Albacore of the season was caught today. The last two summers Albacore were being caught off Oregon. This is a cooler water tuna often caught here in cooler ocean water cycles. A harbinger of things to come, or just a vagrant like some of the avian migrants?
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