View Larger Map As a result of the unique properties of the land/water interface here (underwater canyon, coldwater current, prevailing winds, etc.), pelagic birding in Monterey Bay is a Big Deal. People fly in from all over the country, and from elsewhere, for these trips; war stories fly thick and fierce in the cabin on the way out in the darkness. Tales from remote Alaskan islands like Attu, big years past and present (one lady told me about her big year starting out in the Everglades this year), reminiscences of pelagic trips of yore--all this and more can be overheard as the group attempts to ward off nervousness and anticipation, seasickness and excitement through conversation. I have little to add to this banter, being a veteran of no trips to Alaska, no Big Years, and just barely (now, after this trip) 500 bird species seen worldwide. I am content to take what birds may come (really, what

Monterey Bay pelagic birding

I took a very brief business trip to California last week. Flew in late, had a late dinner at the best Chinese restaurant in the world (Golden Willow in Concord, if you’re curious). Met clients in the SF Bay area on Thursday morning, then drove down to Monterey for Friday morning meetings. The entire trip was very short; I had only 45 minutes at Moe’s, and barely enough time for dinner with Mom coming and going from SFO!

Despite feeling rushed throughout, and having a mild case of sinus congestion and cold symptoms, there was no way I would have cancelled this particular trip. Because for once, in all my long years of journeying from Florida to California on business, I was able to end up in Monterey on a weekend that Debi Shearwater was running an all-day pelagic bird trip. So despite the cold (my own cold, and the coldish weather–I am now a Floridian, at least as far as my heat-shedding capillary layer is concerned), I was one of the eager crowd milling around in the dark on Fisherman’s Wharf at 5 a.m. on a Saturday waiting to embark on a 12-hour tour (no wimpy Gilligan-style 3-hour cruises here!).

Here is the approximate location of our cruise, thanks to Google maps. Look at that topography; maps like this make me wish I’d gone into ocean sciences:


View Larger Map

As a result of the unique properties of the land/water interface here (underwater canyon, coldwater current, prevailing winds, etc.), pelagic birding in Monterey Bay is a Big Deal. People fly in from all over the country, and from elsewhere, for these trips; war stories fly thick and fierce in the cabin on the way out in the darkness. Tales from remote Alaskan islands like Attu, big years past and present (one lady told me about her big year starting out in the Everglades this year), reminiscences of pelagic trips of yore–all this and more can be overheard as the group attempts to ward off nervousness and anticipation, seasickness and excitement through conversation.

I have little to add to this banter, being a veteran of no trips to Alaska, no Big Years, and just barely (now, after this trip) 500 bird species seen worldwide. I am content to take what birds may come (really, what choice does one have?), and perhaps go a little out of my way for those that won’t come close by (10 business trips to India so far and I have yet to visit Bharatpur, although I have been to other bird refuges quite a bit less famous that happened to be on my business itinerary–Ranganathittu, near Mysore, and Sultanpur, in Haryana, along with “the” spot in Delhi, Anand Arya’s stomping grounds, the Okhla bird sanctuary on the banks of the Yamuna). I plan my travel, when possible, around the opportunity to see birds, but I have yet to travel outside Florida exclusively to see them.

So as the boat cruises out to the Albacore grounds, wherever in Monterey bay those might be–we went south, I understand, because the day was so calm–I listen more than I talk, and I go over the basics of pelagic birds, trying to remember how to distinguish pink-footed from flesh-footed shearwater (easy, it turns out: despite the confusingly similar common names, the all dark underwing of the flesh-footed looks nothing like the salt-and-pepper underwing of the pink-footed). In fact, though, most of the shearwaters we encounter on this trip are Buller’s, with very clean white underwings; the rest are pink-footed, with much more dark intruding into the white areas. Late in the day we see the lone flesh-footed of the trip, almost entirely dark throughout, particularly in the fading light. Here, from top to bottom, are flesh-footed, pink-footed, and Buller’s shearwaters, as seen by my camera:



As we begin the cruise, though, I tick off other possibilities, too, wondering just how similar a light morph Northern Fulmar might be to Western Gull (not very, it turns out), or Black-footed Albatross to Short-tailed (never got the chance to find out, on this trip).

And I freeze. Despite having geared up with “windproof” and (in Florida, anyway) warm rain gear before I left, and having purchased at the last minute a “Hot Peppers” thermal undershirt to complement it, and wearing tights under my jeans, I was just plain cold for most of the day. Fatigued from the trip, yes, sick, yes, so slightly more susceptible to the chill, but I  really did think that I had prepared appropriately–that I had in fact “geared up.” And I was wrong. And this on a very mild day–no wind to speak of, except that generated by the boat, and almost no swell. No sun, either, which I hadn’t counted on; the lack of light made picture-taking with my little non-VR 70-300 telephoto zoom something of a challenge, I can tell you (oh, for some real glass, or at least a bit more light!).

While the main object of the trip was birds, perhaps the most exciting sight I encountered on the trip was on the way out, in the early gray light. I was one of the people situated almost perfectly to watch a Humpback Whale breach the ocean’s surface vertically, pirouette on its tail, and flop onto its back. It was quite a ways from the boat, and I hadn’t even gotten my camera out of the bag, so I was unable to snap any kind of shot at all, but so impressive an event was it that I’m sure I will carry the sight with me to the end of my days. Such enormous grace, combined with such enormous size! It’s no wonder people fought so hard to protect these charismatic animals once their plight came to public attention in the 1960s. Below is a photo from Wikipedia that gives some idea of what I saw, although I was much farther away from the show than this; everyone on board who saw it erupted into applause and oohs and aahs:

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Many another marine mammal was seen on the trip as well: among the cetaceans, fin whales, Arnoux’ beaked whale, and some common dolphins. A few pinnipeds as well: Harbor seal, California sea lion, Northern fur seal, and of course the sea otter. A few snapshots below to give an idea of the diversity. In the photos, I can’t even ID the whales, though, so I’ve included a few shots of pinnipeds from other trips, just to round it out:

But, as I said, the main point of this trip was birds. Birds, birds, birds! A partial list of the birds seen from the boat, including all 22(!) lifers, appears below. And then is the gallery, such as it is. For better pictures, I recommend visiting Abe Borker’s website; he saw all the birds we had on the trip, and has some lovely shots of previous trips; I assume he’ll be posting shots from this trip sometime soon.*

Species seen:

ALBATROSSES
Black-footed Albatross

SHEARWATERS AND PETRELS
Northern Fulmar
Pink-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater

STORM-PETRELS
Black Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

PELICANS
Brown Pelican

CORMORANTS
Brandt’s Cormorant

SANDPIPERS
Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope

JAEGERS AND SKUAS
South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

GULLS
Heermann’s Gull
California Gull
Western Gull
Sabine’s Gull

TERNS
Elegant Tern
Arctic Tern
Common Tern

AUKS, MURRES AND PUFFINS
Common Murre
Xantus’s Murrelet
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Tufted Puffin

WOOD WARBLERS
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

SPARROWS
Spotted Towhee

* Many another photographer was in the boat as well. They were all sporting long telephoto lenses and seemed to take great delight in showing me camera-back displays of lovely clear, sharp photos of all the birds I was only able to capture as fuzzy dark blobs. 400+ photos I took, and fewer than 30 are fit to appear in the gallery, and those only because I processed the bleep out of them. I’m starting to save my pennies… It’s a poor workman who complains of his tools, but I’m not a workman here. I’m an amateur, pursuing this out of nonpecuniary interest; I can’t “invest” in a good quality lens. I have to “indulge” in it, or forgo it.