Saturday, 13 October 2012

California, September 2012 - Monterey Bay and Sea Valley Pelagic

In stark contrast with the pelagic out of Bodega Bay, this pelagic left Monterey with an  overcast sky and an oily calm, millpond like sea. We exited the harbour slowly, so that we could view the seaward side of the breakwater in search of waders, and were rewarded with Black Turnstones and Surfbirds, and Black Scoter, Pigeon Guillemot and Common Murre on the sea.

Black-vented Shearwater

The calm conditions were ideal for spotting small birds on the water and we were soon picking up Red-necked Phalaropes, Rhinocerous and Cassin's Auklets, the latter being extremely nervous of the boat and taking flight before we got anywhere near them. As we headed out to sea we started seeing our first shearwaters, initially Sooty, but quickly followed by Black-vented. This small shearwater, is dark brown above and white below, but as the name suggests has dark undertail coverts. We were advised to make sure we got a good look at these birds since it would probably be the only ones we saw, there were three in total, but we did in fact see more, or the same three on the way back in.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Continuing out we picked up more shearwaters in the wake of the boat, Sooty's were the most numerous initally, but were soon being replaced by Pink-footed and then a few Buller's appeared. There were many more Buller's out of Monterey that there was out of Bodega, but despite their often close views it was difficult to get any decent photos due the poor light.

Buller's Shearwater
Buller's Shearwater

A small group of Pacific White-sided Dolphins came into the ride the bow briefly and then it was back to the birds as a Flesh-footed Shearwater came into the wake. I had seen this species before in New Zealand, but don't remember appreciating its lumbering flight, which was more reminiscent of Cory's Shearwater. This bird stayed with us for a while and I was eventually able to get some acceptable record shots.

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Flesh-footed Shearwater

During this pelagic we were also able to see some visible migration and had a few land bird species visit the boat. A small group of Lesser Goldfinches circled and attempted to land before heading off, as did a Red-winged Blackbird, but the bird that drew the most attention was an exhausted Red-breasted Nuthatch. This bird initially landed on a pole hook, before deciding that the best looking habitat on the ship was someones fleece hat, whilst they were still wearing it. This bird was eventually captured and released in a nearby park back on shore.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

The calm conditions made for excellent viewing of marine mammals and fish, and we saw five species of cetacean, Humpback Whale, Risso's and Pacific White-sided Dolphin and Dall's and Harbour Porpoise, plus got some excellent views of Ocean Sunfish. We had seen brief Humpback Whale blows on the way out, but the animals dived as we approached and did not resurface, whereas on our return to harbour two animals put on an excellent show. One of them was rolling around in kelp, and then swimming through it, presumably using it to remove parasites, or deal with an itch!

Humpback Whale blow. Much of the literature describes the blow of
Humpback Whale as being variable, tall, vertical and bushy, but all of the
Humpbacks we saw gave the 'V' shaped blow as pictured above.
Apparently this type of blow is more typical of North Pacific Right Whale,
but it would appear that is not the case in Monterey bay.
Two Humpback Whales
Fluking Humpback Whale

We had two encounters with Dall's Porpoises, one group of three and then a group of 12. This species is so fast, that it makes photographing them really tough, even in a millpond like sea.

Dall's Porpoise

Dall's Porpoise

By contrast the Risso's Dolphins that we saw just effortlessly glided through the water as if they didn't have a care in the world, making very easy photographic subjects.

Risso's Dolphin
Risso's Dolphins

The Ocean Sunfish were massive, certainly the biggest I had ever seen, it is difficult to gauge size in the image below but they dwarfed the accompanying Western Gulls. They have a laterally flattered body and apparently attract a large number of parasites, which is the reason they have a tendency to float on the surface. By doing this, they allow gulls to feast on the parasites that have accumulated on them, which is a great example of a mutually beneficial relationship, whereby the gull gets food and the Sunfish has its parasites removed.

This Ocean Sunfish was massive, but it is difficult to see that without
anything for size comparison, you will just have to take my word for it.
This group of at least a dozen young Ocean Sunfish had attracted
numerous gulls who were getting quite excited at the prospect of a nourishing feast.

Other bird species seen included Parasitic, Pomerine and South Polar Skua and a handful of Sabine's Gulls, one of which was a cracking adult.

Sabine's Gull

Returning back into Monterey harbour we were greeted with excellent views of a Southern Sea Otter with her cub. The mother was obviously used to boats and didn't really pay us too much attention, but the pup was much more wary, and made sure mum was positioned between us for protection.

Southern Sea Otter and cub

So that was the end of my second pelagic with Shearwater Journeys, a much calmer affair than the first out of Bodega Bay and not as much excitement. But it still produced an excellent mix of good birds and marine mammals, and was every bit as enjoyable. The trip was billed as Monterey Bay and Sea Valley and Storm-petrels, but we did not see a single Storm-petrel, but then I think I had had my fill further north. Both of my trips with Shearwater Journeys have been excellent, and I would still urge anyone coming to visit the west coast of California to book on at least one.

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