Saturday, August 21, 2010
My meager savings account is devoted to exactly two things: textbooks (bleh) and pelagic trips. I hoard the paltry amount of money that I occasionally manage to scrounge up, only to blow most of it on pricey pelagic trips. Worth it? Check out that photo.
I really wanted to squeeze in one more pelagic trip before I move to landlocked Michigan. My comrade Tim Snieder also wanted to venture out on the high seas before he returned to Ontario, so we decided to fulfill our destinies and booked spots on the two-day pelagic out of San Diego last week.
It takes a different breed of birder to do pelagic trips. First, resistance to seasickness is helpful. I score well in this category; I've felt the slightest queasiness on only a couple of trips. Second, the pelagic birder must endure hours of boredom. Huh?
I won't lie. Pelagic trips are boring. Hours can stretch between sightings of interesting birds. On this trip, another of my young birder friends Kenny and I amused ourselves by keeping hourly lists of birds. The lowest number of species we tallied in an hour was three. We thought it was pretty funny that we were entertaining ourselves on a birding trip by birding.
Fortunately, every trip has its moments of excitement. Like when a Skua wings by...
Or when the leaders start bellowing "TROPICBIRD" over the intercom, sparking a mass-awakening of birder-zombies from the legions of camp chairs in the stern (sitting after hours of standing on a pitching deck is highly tempting, but it invariably leads to sleep.)
Birds aren't the only attraction of pelagic trips. Whales, seals, and fish compete with jaegers, shearwaters, and storm-petrels for attention. On this trip, we were treated to thirty-six Baird's Beaked-Whales, two Blue Whales, numerous Mola-Mola, Guadalupe Fur-Seals, and Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. It was a truly unforgettable experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
(Incidentally, if that previous line sounded exceptionally corny, excellent perception! It's a direct quote from...ehhh, I'd better protect his reputation.)
Even the "boring" pelagic birds (like this gaggle of Pink-footed Shearwaters) are always fun to watch simply because they are only seen when you venture offshore.
Our journey did not end when we disembarked. Tim and I decided to drive east and bird a second sea: the Salton. The only hitch occurred when we couldn't find a grocery store to purchase food and drink to sustain us through the ordeal of birding the Salton. Eventually, we found a little Mexican market and stocked up on orange juice, cheese, and pineapple. We did not leave without filling a bag to the brim with warm Mexican sweetbread, which we mercilessly devoured as we sped eastward.
Actually, there was a second hitch: border patrol. We were the victims of a small amount of crap from a couple border patrol officers simply because they found out Tim is Canadian. 'Nuff said.
These minor mishaps could not prevent us from reaching the sea. I had spent the entire two-hour drive warning Tim of the ferocity of the heat, but he was still shocked by the dense wall of stinky heat that hit us as soon as we were vomited out of the air-conditioned bowels of the loyal Subaru. "They say pelagics are the final frontier of birding," he muttered as he slathered on sunscreen. "But I think THIS is the final frontier."
The Salton Sea would be nowhere near as famous among birders if Yellow-footed Gulls hadn't decided to randomly invade from Mexico and hang out at the sea in the summer. The Salton Sea is the only spot in the country where they occur. Tim easily ticked his first ones while the car was still moving. We celebrated by slaughtering the unfortunate pineapple and gobbling it down in one sitting. For the next hour, my mouth burned and I felt sick to my stomach.
And it wasn't even that good of a pineapple.
We endured the heat (at least, we like to think we did...Tim entered a state of dormancy at several points) and the pineapple's revenge, finding lots of other great birds. Wood Stork, Ruff, Gull-billed Tern, Black Tern, Lucy's Warbler, and Gila Woodpecker, to be precise. Dragonflies were also abundant. I finally saw my lusted-after Roseate Skimmer for the first time, and even photographed it before Tim promptly murdered it in cold blood.
While searching for the phantom Pyrrhuloxia in Brawley, we almost tripped over this beastly-looking dragonfly. It wasn't a clubtail (as I had hoped), but a White-belted Ringtail.
It was with relief that we realized it was getting dark and that we could leave for home. The air was still hotter than a grilled cheese sandwich fresh off the skillet; temperatures remained in the triple digits well after nightfall. After another very long drive, we were back at my house, coated in grease, sweat, and mud, and a bit dehydrated as well.
Heck, I think birding either sea takes a different breed!