Sunday, September 21, 2008

Oceanic Adventures

The ocean is surely the final frontier of California birding. It is amazingly vast, and inhabited by the most amazing birds and marine mammals. Though I've been on very few pelagic trips, I enjoy them immensely. Unfortunately, they are usually pricey and require a long drive to get to the dock (it is difficult to convince my parents to drive to San Diego, let alone Monterey, for a pelagic trip). So, I was delighted to learn that Sea & Sage Audubon was running a trip out of Dana Point for fifty bucks on Saturday.

There is a reason why very few pelagic trips are run out of Orange County. Compared to other areas, Orange County is rather dismal for pelagic birding (the ocean floor is just too flat). Still, I hoped we'd find something of interest.

Early on Saturday morning, before most of Orange County was awake, about fifty other birders and I chugged out of the Dana Point Harbor on The Sea Explorer, a vessel owned by the Ocean Institute. We saw several Black Oystercatchers on the jetty as we departed. Soon we had a swarm of gulls following us, fighting over the chum in our wake. Chumming is important on pelagic trips. The birders bribe the gulls to follow the boat by tossing popcorn, bread, and other food off the back of the boat. Pelagic birds see and hear the feeding gull flock and will often swing by to investigate. These gulls gave me a chance to hone my photographing birds in flight skills (or lack thereof). Here's a shot of a first-cycle Western Gull, one of many that were following the boat.

Surprisingly, chumming also attracts lots of Brown Pelicans. They probably expect the gulls to be feeding on fish, and seem disappointed to find popcorn.

We hadn't gotten very far out when we spotted the first Black-vented Shearwaters of the day. This species is fairly common off southern California in fall and winter, often within sight of shore. They skim the water, frantically beating their narrow wings stiffly and occasionally gliding. The boat scattered dozens of these small shearwaters, and they were in sight most of the day.

After enjoying the Black-vented Shearwaters (affectionately known as "Blackies") for a short time, we headed farther offshore in search of other more unusual species. Once we were several miles out, we added a new species to our list for the day: Pink-footed Shearwater. Only a handful were present, and they did not approach the boat as closely as the Blackies had. A Sooty Shearwater blasted by, but did not slow down. Three species of shearwaters in a day in Orange County isn't bad. A Pomarine Jaeger winged by in the distance, way too far out for a photo. A few small groups of Red-necked Phalaropes bobbed around among the swells, like vagrant ping-pong balls. It is difficult to believe that such a small, delicate-looking bird can survive at sea. We also encountered a small pod of friendly Risso's Dolphins.

After a long "dry spell" of few sightings - even our attendant flock of gulls had abandoned us - action began picking back up. Someone shouted "Sabine's!", and sure enough, two Sabine's Gulls were resting with a few Western Gulls behind the boat. These dainty gulls are pretty, for a gull; unfortunately, they were skittish and did not allow close approach. They are quite rare in Orange County - a new species for my county list. This species has a very distinctive wing pattern, with a large white triangle on the trailing edges of otherwise black and gray wings.

Our course took us back closer to land, and as a result we began seeing more birds. We got back into the Blackie zone - they were zooming by the boat constantly. A small, dusky bird swimming on the water turned out to be a Rhinoceros Auklet. Amazingly, it held its ground and allowed very close approach, to the point where I was hanging over the trail to get close-up photos! Believe it or not, this photo was taken on the Pacific Ocean, and not my bathtub!

Everyone was so busy studying the Rhinoceros Auklet that no one noticed a surprising bird fly by. When I got home and looked at my photos, I was surprised to see another bird had sneaked into the frame.

The other bird (the blurry one in flight) is a Common Murre! Later on we saw a single Common Murre, so at least we didn't miss seeing one in person. Despite its name, Common Murres are very uncommon in southern California. It was a county bird for me. Careful scanning of the large flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes (there were hundreds) revealed a few Red Phalaropes, yet another new county bird for me.

However, perhaps the best sighting of the day was to come. We were cruising back towards Dana Point in the late morning (we had gone north all the way to Huntington Beach), when suddenly someone yelled "WHAAAAAAALE!!" The skipper quickly stopped the boat, and a gorgeous BLUE WHALE surfaced nearby. It came up several times to breathe before a dive, and we were able to approach extremely closely - it was practically under the boat. It was rather small for a Blue Whale ("only" about sixty feet), but still magnificent to see. Blue Whales are the largest creature to ever have lived on earth - you don't get to see something like that every day, do you?

It came up for breaths several more times before diving. It stayed under for about seven minutes before surfacing nearby. The nice thing about Blue Whales is that they don't move around a lot when they dive. It continued to put on a great show at close range for several more minutes.

Reluctantly we left the whale - we had to head back, or be late. We couldn't find anything else that could beat a Blue Whale, but it was exciting to see a Black Tern traveling with a small group of Common Terns. It was another county bird for me.

The Sea Explorer pulled into the Dana Point Harbor, and we reluctantly filed off the boat. It was an excellent day of pelagic birding, especially by Orange County standards. I didn't see any bird lifers, but I had never seen a Blue Whale before. I can't wait to get back on a boat headed to sea for birding!


Parus said...

Sounds like a good trip! Now you'll have to take a pedal-powered boat out there to add those birds to your Bigby list.....

Birdfreak said...

Love the photos, they turned out really well. Sounds like a most successful trip.

Good birding to you!