Well this was the day I was scheduled to go out on my first pelagic of our trip. I had booked this trip months before and had partly based our trip itinerary around it, and was pretty excited about what seabirds and cetaceans we might encounter. Fortunately I was blissfully unaware of the debate the day before about whether the trip would go ahead, but when I returned to our accommodation that evening, the first email I saw was from Debi Shearwater, it was titled 'WE ARE A GO!!', scrolling down I then saw all the others discussing the offshore wind and heavy seas, and the predicted forecast. The weather to me looked great, clear sky, warm sun but a stiff breeze in the afternoon, foolishly I didn't appreciate that a stiff on shore breeze, and winds from the north-west meant for high seas 30 miles out on the Cordell Bank! But it didn't matter now, we were going!
Our day began with a pre-dawn start at the Mariner off Bay Flat Road, Bodega Bay, and after our safety briefing we headed out to sea on the New Sea Angler, I didn't ask what had happened to the old one! The sea in the harbour was like a mill pond so it was difficult to understand what all the fuss had been about, but nevertheless I listened intently to Captain Rick Powers' warnings. Birding in the harbour was good with American White and Brown Pelicans, three Black-crowned Night Herons, two Belted Kingfishers and my first Black Turnstones of the trip. The intertidal was full of waders too, but with no scope and a moving platform there was no point in trying to identify them all.
Out of the shelter of the harbour the swell began to increase along with the numbers of seabirds, initially it was just Common Murres and Red-necked Phalaropes, but before long we were seeing our first Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters.
We were spoilt on this trip, because as well as Debi Shearwater and Lisa Hug we were graced with the presence of two of the leading Californian seabird experts, Todd Mcgrath and Steve Howell, Steve is the author of the recently published Petrels, Albatrosses, & Storm-Petrels of North America which I urge anyone interested in seabirds to get.
|Buller's Shearwater with Black-footed Albatross in bound in the distance.|
After a steady trickle of shearwaters that included more Sooty and Pink-footed and our first Buller's, we were visited by our first Black-footed Albatross of the trip, and at the same time a group of Pacific White-sided Dolphins and two Humpback Whales.
|Pacific White-sided Dolphin|
|Two Humpback Whales|
I didn't know which way to turn, but eventually things settled down as the dolphins and albatrosses stayed with us for a while. It was so tough trying to photograph things as the swell had really picked up by now, standing up was only possible whilst holding onto the side, so I had to wedge myself into a corner in order to let go and get some shots.
|Black-footed Albatross - note yellow colour ring with black writing, |
which is apparently from the French Frigate Shoals.,
unfortunately its not possible to read the whole number.
The albatrosses were coming in very close, several landing on the sea near the boat, one of these birds had a yellow colour ring with black writing, on its right leg. It appears, according to Monterey Bay Whale Watch, that birds with this combination come from the French Frigate Shoals, which are over 2700 miles away. For those interested, other Black-footed Albatross leg bands are from the following locations: Black/white letters - Kiaulea Point, Blue/white letters - Laysan Island, Purple/white letters - Kaena Point and Green/white letters - Kure Atoll.
Whilst engrossed in trying to get more photos of the albatrosses a close Buller's Shearwater passed the boat, quickly followed by a Hawaiian Petrel. It all happened so quickly, as I was focusing on the Buller's, Todd Mcgrath hollered from the back of the boat, I looked up saw the bird and quickly grabbed a few shots as it passed, unfortunately it didn't return! This is a mega off the Californian coast so it was great to get some shots, for the American Birding Associations Rarity Committee.
The seas were getting pretty rough now and a couple of smacks on the side of the boat by a large wave made us all concentrate on holding on again, albeit with a little bit of smugness at our recent finding. We were heading along the Cordell Bank, to an area where the captain had recently seen hundreds of petrels, when a Black Storm-petrel flew past, then a Fork-tailed and then an Ashy. Before long, and with the help the menhaden oil slick, which the captain ordered we put out, we were soon surrounded by the largest number of storm-petrels I have ever seen in my life! There were thousands, they appeared to be mainly Fork-tailed, with Black being the second most numerous, then Ashy, there were even a few Wilson's for good measure.
The sea was alive with storm-petrels literally riding the crest of waves, then drifting up off the surface before settling back down on a calm area of water, hundreds were constantly streaming past the stern over the menhaden oil slick...it was simply spectacular. I tried so hard to get some shots, to try and convey what we were seeing, but bouncing around on a very rough sea made it pretty tough....I'm glad I took my sea sickness pills!
|Raft of Fork-tailed, Black and Ashy Storm-petrels|
|Raft of mainly Fork-tailed, but also Black, Ashy and |
|Raft of mainly Fork-tailed, but also Black, Ashy and |
With the wind speed picking up and the seas stacking up it was time to head back. I couldn't believe what I had just experienced and we were still adding new species, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers were regular, with occasional Parasitic (Arctic), a few Red (Grey) Phalaropes, Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets, Pigeon Guillemot and then a species of cetacean that had always been high on my wish list...Dall's Porpoise. These stocky black and white porpoises are just stunning and so fast, they are like mini Orcas. I tried so hard to get some shots but the rough sea and unstable boat made it just impossible, so I settled down and watched them ride to bow.....amazing!!
Safely back in Bodega Bay the talk was all about the Hawaiian Petrel, a very good bird off the coast of California, and one that so many of the American birders on board had wished for. But for me, whilst the moment of the passing Hawaiian Petrel had been exciting, so many of the birds I had seen were new to me, and the spectacle of seeing thousands of storm-petrels in such dramatic seas will live with me forever. I was so excited about this trip that I immediately booked myself on a trip out of Monterey Bay the next week, but that's for a later post. Debi Shearwater and her teams ID skills and Rick Powers, with his mastery of the sea, were fantastic, if you love sea birds you have to come to California and take a trip with Shearwater Journeys. For details of the numbers of different species seen on this trip check out Debi Shearwater's Blog. Our trip ended with a fly by from some hopeful Brown Pelicans who foolishly thought that we had been fishing.