Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Cliffs of Coronado

One of my favorite chapters of one of my favorite books is "The Cliffs of Coronado" in Wild America. Wild America, written by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, is a fantastic account of their epic journey across the American continent in search of birds. There have been plenty of books of this sort published - Kingbird Highway, The Feather Quest and The Big Year, to name a few - but Wild America stands out. It is older than the others - Peterson and Fisher staged their trip in 1953 - and thus more interesting (I suspect my parents would grimace if they knew I considered this "old"). At that time, much less was known about birds and where to find them, so they were truly out adventuring on their own.

Ah, but to get back to "The Cliffs of Coronado". The Coronados are a cluster of a few small islands off northwestern Baja, Mexico. The islands have long hosted large colonies of gulls and pelicans. When Peterson and Fisher visited the islands, they also saw storm-petrels, murrelets, and shearwaters, and had a grand adventure in the process. When I moved to California, I learned of pelagic birding trips run by Buena Vista Audubon that visited the islands. I was immediately interested, particularly because Brown Boobies have recently colonized the island. Unfortunately, I was never able to get on one of them... until yesterday.

After a wake-up time that was way too early yesterday morning, my dad drove John Garrett and me to the dock for the trip. Of course, we ended up being early, so we had to wait excitedly for the boat to leave. There was only one small problem: it was extremely foggy. Fortunately, the fog disappeared once we were a few miles out at sea. The first oceanic species to be spotted was Black-vented Shearwater. Dozens buzzed by the boat. The chummer (the person tossing popcorn off the back of the boat) did his job well, attracting a Black-legged Kittiwake close behind the boat.


The parade of pelagic birds became more and more interesting as we headed farther offshore. Fat little Cassin's Auklets flushed off the water as we approached, furiously beating their stubby wings in an attempt to become airborne. This is a very wary species, usually flying directly away from the boat and giving poor views. However, a few were so full of food that they couldn't take off and were forced to give decent views as we pulled up to them.

The boat nosed south across the border. John and I eagerly added some common seabirds to our paltry Mexico lists. Visibility was poor, because it was cloudy and hazy, so we didn't get our first view of the Coronados looming ahead until we were within a few miles of them. We cruised by North Island first, seeing Wandering Tattler, Black Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, along with the expected gulls, cormorants, and pelicans. North Island is a beautiful place!

We continued on to Middle Rock, home of the Brown Boobies. As we approached the island, a small passerine, most likely a White-crowned Sparrow, flitted by the boat towards the island. It would have safely reached the island if a Peregrine Falcon hadn't casually swooped down and snatched it out of the air. Ouch. The Brown Boobies weren't hard to find - about a dozen were loafing on the cliff, occasionally taking short sallies out into the air. A life bird for me, and a very fun one to watch!

These long-winged aerialists have only recently colonized Los Coronados. They certainly were not there when Peterson and Fisher visited the islands. The boobies have successfully nested here, and previous trips have counted over thirty individuals! One has to wonder if they will eventually colonize any of the Channel Islands as well.

After we had our fill of the boobies, we continued on to Middle Island (the Coronados are so logically named!). Among the Black Oystercatchers prowling the rocks at the base of the cliffs were a couple American X Black Oystercatcher hybrids. The American Oystercatcher's range extends into northern Baja, though it stops fairly abruptly and is very rare in the United States and the Coronados. We found a group of California Sea Lions and Elephant Seals on a small rocky beach on Middle Island as well. The more agile sea lions dashed into the surf as we approached, but the slug-like Elephant Seals remained sprawled on the beach.

It was sad to watch the Coronados fade into the distance as we headed back for San Diego. They lived up to my expectations: large rocks jutting out of the ocean hosting great sea birds and mammals. I hope to visit them again in the future!

The trip wasn't over yet, however. We still had to get back to San Diego! Everyone kept a careful watch of the ocean as we cruised back. We found a few things that we hadn't seen on the trip down: a couple Humpback Whales, Mola Mola (aka Ocean Sunfish), Pomarine Jaeger, and some "dark" shearwaters (read: Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwaters). I believe the experts decided that one was a Short-tailed and the other couple were Sooty Shearwaters. One "dark" shearwater was repeatedly swooping through the boat's wake to check out the gull flock feasting on popcorn. This individual was quite cooperative for photography. I'm no expert on seabird identification, especially for such a tricky one as this, but I believe this is a Sooty Shearwater because of its extensive pale "blaze" on the underwings and a long bill. Comments appreciated!

The boat pulled into the harbor late in the afternoon, and some thirty of us tired but happy birders piled off the boat. John and I caught a ride to the Amtrak station with a couple birders and rode the train home. It was an inexpensive (twenty bucks) and easy way to get back home - my parents didn't want to make to trips to San Diego in one day.

It was an awesome trip. Pelagic birding is always a thrill, but this one was extra-exciting because of the added lure of the Coronado Islands. I had always wanted to visit them since reading "The Cliffs of Coronado". I netted one life bird (Brown Booby), though I see even the most common pelagic birds only occasionally, so I enjoyed every Cassin's Auklet and Pink-footed Shearwater we came across. I upheld my record of not ever getting seasick on a pelagic trip, though John didn't; I'll have to remember not to talk about cat food with him on pelagic trips. Hah.


Birdnerdguy said...

Agreed, it is a Sooty. Check out the Short-tailed Shearwater pic here:

Donna said...

I am green with envy! What a wonderful birding trip!

Donna R.

Dany said...

American Oystercatchers are common back east up to Boston, so it's just rare in the US out west.

Birdnerdguy said...

Congratulations Neil. You have thought like a Westerner. No more Eastern bias. I am (mostly) proud to call you a Californian now.

betchai said...

thanks for your trip report, i am looking forward to having my trip to los coronados one of these days, and you surely made me excited.