Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Off the Pier
I've seen more seabirds this summer than any previously thanks to my weekly pier vigils. Shearwaters and alcids are cool, but only a certain level of satisfaction can be garnered from the glimpses had from the pier of black specks bouncing around at the horizon. Earlier in the summer, I swore off pelagics to save funds for textbooks and dates to the sewage ponds. However, when a free ticket came my way (thanks, Rhoda and Joey!) I couldn't exactly turn it down.
The trip was Los Angeles Audubon's thirteen hour cruise on the speedy Condor Express out of Santa Barbara, an annual odyssey into the far reaches of the ocean, the domain of the pterodroma and tropicbird. Two great perils challenge any birder daring enough to sign up for one of these trips: seasickness and sleep. The Condor Express is a large, stable boat, yet somehow several among our ranks lost the contents of their stomachs over the rail. I remained untouched, and even managed to stave off the latter evil, not counting a quick five-minute nap during a lull in the afternoon.
What's out there? Instead of writing "Well, we were cruising along, with shearwaters everywhere, and then we saw an albatross, which we stopped and watched for five minutes....", I'll just give you the photos, perhaps with a brief accompanying comment.
I'll start with the alcids. This grayish little chunk of blubber has been likened to a football. It's a Rhinocerous Auklet, which is actually more of a puffin than anything else. We saw perhaps a half-dozen.
Next on the alcid roster: Cassin's Auklet. Another chunk of gray blubber, but smaller than a Rhino Auklet, with a smaller bill. More of a tennis ball (albeit a very dusty one) than a football. If you squint, you can see the small white mark above the eye.
When I see Cassin's Auklets at the pier (which I do, nearly every week), I see them in flight. From that distance, they look like gnats buzzing along the surface in a fast, direct line the way a gnat would never fly. At a closer distance, from a boat, they look more like horse flies. Note on the bottom left photo the impressive amount of white on the underparts, more extensive and well-defined than is shown in some field guides.
Gem of the swells, the desire of every non-Californian birder...Xantus's Murrelet. I'm rather fond of them myself. We saw about ten, all of the expected scrippsi race.
Before delving any farther into the wonders of the pelagic world, let us pause to appreciate the scum circling around the back of the boat: Heermann's Gulls. Sure, they're common on the beach, but it's cool to see them fifty miles offshore, particularly when they're crisply-fringed juveniles fresh out of Mexico. Oh, and the bird in the background is a Pink-footed Shearwater.
The ball analogies are not exclusive to alcids. I have heard birders compare Red-necked Phalaropes to ping-pong balls. I can't remember the last time I saw a fleet of two hundred ping-pong balls spiraling on the water or twisting and fluttering among the swells.
Bigger, and redder, and farther out: Red Phalarope, still partially in alternate plumage, accompanied by a couple Red-necks.
The leaders almost blew out the PA system on this bird, and for a good reason: it's a Manx Shearwater. In North America, they normally range off the East Coast; however, a few turn up in the wrong ocean every year.
A few Northern Fulmars summer off of southern California every year. This bird was so pathetically ragged and bleached that I felt sorry for it and included it here.
This Laysan Albatross has the distinction of being the first, and only, Laysan Albatross I've seen thus far in my life. They are regular off California, but apparently not in the summer. Its dwarfed bodyguard is another fulmar, a much more pristine one at that.
Laysan Albatross (front), Pacific Ocean (back), sky (top).
Arctic Terns, I can't get excited about them. They're terns that spent their entire lives flying around over the ocean, which would be cool if they were shearwaters or petrels or something, but they're not.
Birders have a thing for jaegers. They compare them to pirates, or brutes, or triathletes, or bodybuilders. But, I must admit, Long-tailed Jaegers deserve admiration. They spend their time beating on those loser Arctic Terns and look classy while doing so.
Skuas are jaegers so intense that they aren't even called jaegers. Born in Antarctica and raised on penguin meat, these beasts roam the oceans the rest of the year, wintering (during our summer) off California and making a livlihood by terrorizing hapless Heermann's Gulls, shearwaters, or whatever else gets in their way.
Yes, skuas demand respect. Even the zombie-birders emerged from their hibernation in the cabin to gape at the two skuas that circled and wheeled in our wake.
Once you start seeing Leach's Storm-Petrels on a California pelagic, it's probably safe to go asleep. They inhabit deep, deep water, the kind of water that is devoid of avian life except for Leach's Storm-Petrels. Seriously, once you get out a hundred miles, an hour may pass with twenty Leach's Storm-Petrels and nothing else. However, birders are attracted to these barren seas with hopes of finding some great rarity. Quality, not quantity. We managed to rustle up a couple Red-billed Tropicbirds to compensate for the scarcity of birds.
And now I shall return to my trusty pier, accumulating dollars in my bank account for other wonders. Wonders like The Essentials of Organic Chemistry.