Saturday, August 13, 2011
Pelagic birding is a trip, literally and figuratively. It goes like this – get a boat, pile it up with birders, and head on out to sea. How far in the ocean you go depends on your location, but we’re talkin’ miles here. When you get a far enough out, you have opened a new door of birding. Basically, you are getting a chance to see birds that rarely come close to shore, nest in the southern hemisphere, or breed in remote regions of North America.
Yes, that’s right. I can see birds that nest in, for example, New Zealand, just a few miles off the shores of Washington. When they migrate at the end of the breeding season, they fly north (while “our birds” may fly south). At the same time, I can see birds that nest in the arctic regions of North America but migrate south along the oceans as opposed to heading south through the guts of the continent.
So, as odd as it sounds, you get on that boat and you look for southern birds heading north, northern birds heading south, and any vomit heading in any direction.
I should mention that part. The ocean, as I’m sure you know, might get rough. People are not always ready for the chop. You need to do what you need to do to hold off seasickness. Pills. Patches. Blunt force trauma. Do what must be done.
Unknown to me when I made the reservation, the waters off of coastal Washington might be a little bit more rough than other pelagics. In any case, I use the Scopalimine patch. It served me well in North Carolina on 2006 with 10 feet seas on a 3 foot boat (okay, the boat was much bigger, but the waves were quite big, too.). A 60% fatality rate (ie: blowing chunks off the stern at least once on the trip) and I was immune. Hah!
So, by 5:30am, birders were piling on the boat and we were shoving off by 6:00am for a 10 hour toooouuuuur……a 10-hour tooooouuuuuur…..
The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed. No. Not really. But we did have some waves. The Monte Carlo is over 50 feet long, so 8-10 foot swells makes for some interesting birding. Feet spread wide and one hand holding on the door frame, I managed.
It was suggested to “practice” on Sooty Shearwaters. Their shape, flight style and overall “feel” would become a benchmark. We saw thousands (honestly) so the practice came quick. Pretty soon, the Northern Fulmars were easy to separate. One shot within 50 feet of the boat putting on a quite a show. Life bird #649! Gray ones. White ones. Moderately gray ones. They were more or less abundant during the bulk of the trip. (Be sure to click on all of the bird photos. They look much better that way.)
My heart sunk when the first Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel doodled by. Only the size of a cardinal but with longer wings, it would have been my #650th bird had I seen it well. Some birders have standards that are tight. Others have standards that are kinda loose. Others just flat-out lie, I’m sure, and don’t see a damned thing. For me, I needed a better look and that first one did not cut it. It was my pseudo-650th species.
It didn’t matter a few seconds later. Another FORK-TAILED STORM PETREL fluttered past the boat at close range. Finally. Life bird #650. ABA Area #650. A HUGE North American Milestone. After tromping around Alaska’s tundra, sweating to death at Boot Springs in Big Bend National Park, asphyxiating at Rocky Mountain National Park, avoiding vomit tornadoes in Nova Scotia (buy my a beer and I’ll tell you that story), birding in 44 states, across my home state, out of state, down state, up state, and in various states of mind, I did it! (The photo below is "a" Fork-tailed Storm Petrel, but not "the" bird that was my official #650.)
It is absolutely worth noting that one does not get to 650 North American birds without help. Rare Bird Alerts, bird finding books, and the like are all cool but birding associates and buddies make it much more enjoyable. I can't even begin to name all the folks that helped me get here or those that I have enjoyed my days with, but they know who they are!
(Okay. I certainly will mention one. Don Sherwood. Thanks, man! You called me on a craptacular March morning in 1994 for a little stroll to see a Gyrfalcon. You discussed with me the legitimacy of whether or not my lifebird Horned Lark could be counted as it was being plucked by my lifebird Merlin (sure, dead birds don't count...but was truly, ultimately dead when I saw it?). A few years behind us. Many more ahead!)
The fun did not end there. After about an hour into the trip, the seas smoothed out to almost glass as far as I’m concerned. Birds were zipping in and out on the calmest seas in recent memory. Bill, one of the official spotters, was on his 98th trip. He said he had never seen the waters so smooth. Walking across the boat was as easy as walking across my kitchen. The captain said he would officially record it as “three foot swells”. Three foot swells. Zippity-do-dah. I had the patch. Better living through chemistry. Cloudy skies helped to minimize the glare, too.
#651 came by before too long. Buller’s Shearwater (photo below) nests on only a few islands off of New Zealand. Fascinating? Maybe. But that makes it very susceptible to trouble with such a limited breeding range. The picture below is one of eight seen that day. To this day, I can still hear Bill screaming over the diesel engines “Buller's Shearwater! Buller's Shearwater! Buller's Shearwater!” These were the first of the season. They become much more common later in the year. Total bonus bird by my standards.
Pink-footed Shearwater (#652) is found breeding in and near Chili. Like the Buller’s, it is at risk for trouble on the breeding grounds. In some cases, eggs from colonies are snitched by the locals and are considered a delicacy. It is easy to separate from the Buller’s. While both have a white belly, the Pink-footed is a uniform color on top while the Buller’s has an “M” pattern that is completely mesmerizing.
SOUTH POLAR SKUA (SCOO-uh) is a barrel-chested monster. While they look like they could eat small children, they eat mostly fish and such that they steal from other seabirds. I am not certain, but I believe this was the bird highlighted in the March of the Penguins as the evil nest robber. It was life bird #653. I saw two. Six total were seen.
As odd as it seems, the oceans are not uniform. Plant life, animal life, salinity, and temperature (to name just a few) are factors that change as you cover real estate. A standard pelagic plan is to find the larger fishing boats and see what is lurking nearby. They act like magnets and attract the birds, which in turn attract the birders. In this case, the larger, darker birds were a key bird for the trip.
#654, BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS. Wow. With a wingspan like that of a Bald Eagle, but much more delicate in nature, they were simply awesome. At times, the boat would approach fishing vessels. Interested in us, the albatross would leave that boat and investigate ours. Add some chunks of suet and you have birds literally feet from you. They nest in Hawaii. An Albatross, by the way, was considered a bird of good omen by ancient mariners. Check out this song to find out what will happen if you shoot one. I don't recommend you do it.
A few Sabine’s Gulls were seen. This is one of the examples of a bird that is recorded out at sea as it moves south from its Arctic breeding grounds. I am convinced it is one of the best looking North American gulls. People would certainly hesitate to call this a “sky rat” if they saw it at a Taco Bell parking lot!
Other goodies included Leach’s Storm-Petrel (a great bird for the trip, but not a life bird), Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, ArcticTern, Pomarine Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Murre (photographed below), Cassin’s Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Tufted Puffin.
Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. You can’t help but to be awed by a Humpback Whale, even if all you see is the blow followed by the dorsal fin.
I can say for certain that this boat trip was new experience for some birders. I know in one case, this was the first trip across the Rockies and the first trip on the ocean. Damn near every bird was new. How cool is that? I remember those days!. A “baptism by fire” would have just sucked. Smooth waters. Great birds. Damn good day.
To the best of my knowledge, only one person got sick. After chatting with his buddy, it was learned that the cursed had suffered a head injury a few years ago and has had trouble with his balance ever since. Apparently, he gets sick on every trip! Guaranteed motion sickness does not stop this man from doing what he loves!
I suspect you are familiar with the three monkeys with the “hear no evil”, “see no evil”, “speak no evil” gestures. That was him. Sitting on the little step, at one point, his ears where covered. A few minutes later, it was “see no evil” combined with a near-fetal position. By the time he got to “speak no evil”, it was time to get out of his way. Projectile vomiting was imminent.
Amazing enough, at one point, he just got up and was back to normal. It was like the seasick switch was simply turned off! He was immediately better. I figure he missed about 2 hours of the trip. A total trooper, that man.
As the boat returned to the marina, an effort was made to secure birds along the jetty. A cormorant hat-trick was easily scored: Double-crested (sarcastic “yay”), Pelagic, and Brandt’s. A Black Turnstone was hiding among the rocks well enough that, sadly, not everyone saw it. I did. But, the best of the rock birds for me was the (drum roll please) SURFBIRD. Three of ‘em. Life bird #655.
At the dock by 3:30, a quick bite of ice cream in town hit the spot. I got some wacked-out flavor. Egg nog, I think? A few hours later, I was the grill master at Rebecca’s house. Steak and beer. The Wildcat IPA from the Snoqualaimie Brewing Company was quite good. A 22oz bottle. I wish I had the chance to have it on site straight out of the tap. I’m suspect it would have been near perfect. Four out of five. The Citra Blonde Summer Brew from the Widmer Brothers, on the other hand was pretty poor. Taste was minimal. Pretty lifeless stuff.