This is the trip report for the April 30, 2016 pelagic aboard the 80 ft. Privateer out of Seaforth Landing in Mission Bay. The Privateer is captained by Cristin Kelly. The boat is a purpose built tour boat and plies her trade most days doing local whale watching.
Twenty-two intrepid birders and six leaders met on a drizzly, overcast, and windy morning that felt more like the northwest than San Diego. Though conditions weren't great, the forecast, and in fact the weather, were improving as dawn broke.
Paul Lehman gave an orientation and introduced the other leaders Peter Ginsburg, Guy McCaskie, Dave Povey, Bruce Rideout, and Matt Sadowski, under the cover of a hallway at Seaforth. We then headed down to board the Privateer and get settled in. On cue the light rain let up and we cast off for our ten-hour adventure offshore.
From Seaforth Landing to the open ocean is a much shorter ride than our trips out of San Diego Bay. In turn there are fewer interesting bottom features there to create the mixing of nutrients that attract birds and other life close to shore, so we had to travel farther once on the ocean to get into the birds. We did get looks at several migrating Pacific and Common Loons and Surf Scoters close to shore. This inshore area would normally be home to Black-vented Shearwaters, but they have withdrawn to their breeding islands some 240 nautical miles to our south, and no stragglers were seen here today.
The area 5 to 6 miles west of Mission Bay does have a change to the sea bottom known as the "270 spot" or "Six Mile Bank", consisting of an uplifted rocky area then a sharp drop off. This area had a scattering of Sooty Shearwaters and Black Storm-Petrels. Those two species would, as expected, be the most numerous for much of the rest of the day. No big concentration here, just a steady stream of two's and three's. We also started seeing a few Red-necked Phalaropes. Sooties and Red-necks are both north bound migrants at this time of year, while the Black Storm-Petrels are summer breeders on the nearby Coronado Islands (Mexico), so expected here.
We got our first distant Brown Booby here as well; a species now ho-hum for local birders. Twenty years ago that sighting would have required good documentation; today it was just the first of eight, and not particularly well seen. Brown Boobies later in the day flew right past the boat for much better looks. We did get great looks and a nice photo op on a Parasitic Jaeger chasing one of two Elegant Terns. As soon as the tern gave up its meal to the jaeger the tables were turned and the two upset Elegant Terns proceeded to chase the jaeger, which kept its pirated meal. Elegant Terns are our most abundant summer offshore tern, with many feeding at considerable distance from shore (+30 nm) and their breeding colonies.
We had a Sabine's Gull follow our chummed gull flock (now almost all Western Gulls, as California and Heermann's and others gulls have largely departed). Sabine's are one of the world's most beautiful gulls, particularly nice in spring. We always hope see them but can't always count on them here. Most of the Sabine's Gull population travels north well west of San Diego and perhaps earlier than we thought, per observations from the cruise ships off the west coast.
The only marine mammal we had out here other than the ubiquitous California Sea Lion was a brief not so good look at a Minke Whale, not a surprise as they call them "Slinky Minkes" for a reason. The next long stretch of water is over the San Diego Trough, a featureless are of deep water than can be notorious for its lack of life. Today the sea gods smiled on us with a great look at a rather locally uncommon Black-footed Albatross. We certain hope for albatross in the late winter and spring, but never take them for granted. After all, no bird I know of is more iconic of the open ocean. Black-footed Albatross actually has the smaller population of the two abundant North Pacific albatross species, Laysan and Black-footed. The Short-tailed Albatross has only a tiny population, perhaps a couple of thousand birds in an ocean that covers half the planet. Pre-historically and historically known off San Diego, none have been seen anywhere near here in many decades. If that population grows, who knows, but that's going to be a very slow process, and like all albatrosses, faces many challenges. Laysan Albatross has the largest population, perhaps 2.5 million birds, and seems to be expanding its breeding locations. They now breed on a couple of islands off the west coast of Mexico, yet it's a very tough bird to get off San Diego. Most of the Laysan Albatrosses disperse north from their breeding islands to the northwestern Pacific.
Black-footed Albatross, on the other hand, numbers some 850 thousand and breed primarily in the northern Hawaiian Island chain. The young birds seem to disperse to the west coast of Mexico and work their way north up the west coast. Most of these birds pass well west of San Diego and can be quite common out around the shelf edge to our west. A few come up inside the Channel Islands and those are the birds we see. Always a treat.
The next stretch of water is over the fickle Thirty Mile Bank. The inner edge is an escarpment wall rising some 600 fathoms (3600 feet) out of the deep trough. This is storm-petrel waters. We have had six species of stormies here over the years and if "Townsend's" Leach's Storm-Petrel is split out as expected, than would make a seventh. The Thirty Mile Bank is THE place to look for the storm-petrel rafts (sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands). Ashy Storm-Petrel seems to be somewhat regular here in spring, and we picked up a few today. This is the place to look for Least Storm-Petrel in fall. Last year we had a spring Wilson's Storm-Petrel here and a number of years back a Wedge-rumped was photographed here.
There are two problems with the Thirty Mile Bank. First, it's exactly half way between San Diego and San Clemente Island; making it difficult to figure out what county we are in. The Bank does not lay true north and south but angles northwest – southeast. The northern part of the bank is in Los Angeles County (closer to San Clemente Island), while the southern portion is in San Diego County (closer to San Diego's coast). These storm-petrel rafts lie right in the middle. Often right on the "line".
The other problem, and this one more important for birders here, is that if the rafts can't be found, or don't exist, birding here can be very tough. We found that the case today. With a messy sea surface, tough viewing conditions, and a little shorter than normal trip time, we drew a blank. The only consolation was a few tiny groups (mini-rafts) of storm-petrels that were seen well. We gave up pretty quickly and opted to travel southeast, with the wind and swell, for a softer ride. I'm not sure the large rafts occur every day, and may not form at all in rougher seas. So we decided to save time to look for more fertile waters.
The Bank did turn up some regulars, such as Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwater, a Pomarine Jaeger, and another Sabine's Gull. One nice surprise was two different small groups of Least Terns – tiny but every bit as capable of traveling well offshore to feed as the larger Elegant Tern. Both species often use floating debris or kelp as a rest stop.
We returned across the San Diego Trough towards the Nine Mile Bank. Seas had softened a bit, the sun was out, the ride direction more comfortable, and the wind had dropped a good bit. We had flushed a few Scripps's Murrelets during the outbound trip, but with conditions as they were, we had gotten rather poor looks. Now we could take our time and ''sneak" up on Scripps's Murrelets, for much improved looks. Those were a target bird for the day, and like the Black Storm-Petrel, a Southern California specialty. With that done, we proceeded east, with a turn to take a look at a pod of Risso's Dolphins along the way. Then we had a distant Fin Whale, a basking Broadbill Swordfish, which is common here in summer, and finally Common Dolphin in large numbers scattered and feeding for miles, with good numbers of birds in tow – mostly Sooty Shearwaters and Elegant Terns, but also some Northern Fulmars, Pink-footed Shearwaters, and Black Storm-Petrels, and a Pomarine Jaeger came close-in for better looks. We had three Common Terns sneak through as we watch all the life around us. Then we had our second really good bird of the day: a South Polar Skua, which flew in from the bow and down the right side of the boat. This is a somewhat regular but rare spring migrant, a long way from its nesting grounds in Antarctica. This bird was clearly at the early end of the arrival spectrum, and a little closer to shore than expected. South Polar Skuas seen in our waters are juvenile birds that seem to come through in a relatively compact period from mid May to Mid June on their North swing. They then return south over a much wider range of dates in fall, from August through October. South Polar Skuas are always impressive: dark, massive, unmistakable. Reminds me of a quote by seabirder extraordinaire Todd McGrath " You may mistake a dark Pomarine Jaeger for a Skua, but you will never mistake a South Polar Skua for a Pomarine Jaeger". That's says it all.
We didn’t have the best weather and seas, but both improved during the day. This trip produced pretty well for an early spring trip. Misses were few (it would have been nice to find the storm-petrel rafts), and in line with what we've been seeing offshore of late. Capt. Cristin did a great job getting us positioned to see the birds, and she and her crew got us out and home safely, and added some narrative to the marine mammals we saw.
The local ocean water remains slightly warmer than normal, lots of forage, lots of life, so this spring continues to hold promise. I hope you'll join us for one of our upcoming trips.
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