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:

Black-footed Albatross

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

Black Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Brown Pelican

Brandt’s Cormorant

Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope

South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

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

Elegant Tern
Arctic Tern
Common Tern

Common Murre
Xantus’s Murrelet
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Tufted Puffin

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler

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.

Fish oil

First, thanks to all of you on Facebook for wishing me a happy birthday; I did indeed enjoy a wonderful day. Seeing all your good wishes brought a smile to my face; I understand that’s somewhat out of character for the traditional man turning 40. So be it. I’m smiling, so thanks, y’all! Now, yesterday’s post was about WD40, which is NOT made of fish oil. So today’s post needs to be about, well, fish oil.

What is it good for? Everyone knows, nowadays, that fish oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which apparently we need in order to be healthy. (Can you imagine what life would be like if we had only lean acids in our bodies? We’d probably all die of scurvy, or something.) These fatty acids bioaccumulate* in the fish (they don’t produce the acids themselves), which makes oil derived from fish high in the substances, and, it has been argued, has led to overfishing. (Industries such as commercial fishing, whose existence depends on denying this possibility, naturally tend to disagree. And some of their arguments are quite reasonable. But I’d hate to rely on the fox’s assessment of the health of the henhouse population…)

In addition to the fatty acids found in fish oil, the substance itself used to be used as a digestive aid, a medicinal tonic, and many other things. In addition to all these properties, it turns out that fish oil–in this case, a cupful of unrefined cod liver oil ($100+/gallon back in 1990)–is absolutely what you need to attract a large gathering of pelagic birds. Here’s how Rich Stallcup describes it in his incredibly useful book, Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific (Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 1990):

On 27 August 1983, Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit, and I were 40 miles west of Westport, Washington, with a boatload of birders. The trip was going great, the water was glassy, and there were lots of birds. Four working shrimp trawlers were accompanied by over 5,000 shearwaters of five species, and we had seen Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and several alcids on the way out. It was still quite early in the day, and Terry said, “Shall we go out to albatross habitat?” Sure! So we left this area of teeming activity, put the bow on the compass’s big green W, and powered west. Birdlife promptly declined, and there was only the odd Sooty Shearwater to be seen. When we got to about 50 miles, there wasn’t even that. I did a 360-degree scan. Nothing. Nothing but water, and Bill and Terry said, “This is the spot. Stop the engines.” Passengers were glancing at each other in wonder as gloppy, smelly, clear liquid bloop-blooped from plastic bottles, clinging to itself in patches, floating on the surface of the sea. I scanned. Nothing. Then, at a great distance, a wheeling albatross! Within ten minutes there were 61 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting near the boat, a Long-tailed Jaeger circled near by, and two Tufted Puffins came roaring in like spiraling, black footballs and splashed to stops. Sabine’s Gulls and storm-petrels appeared from nowhere. Everyone was impressed.

Of course, as Stallcup writes, it doesn’t always work this way, but when it does, I can just imagine the excitement that must come over the boat. And, in a few days, I hope to be able to see it, or something like it, with my own eyes, when I take my first pelagic trip.

When I get back, I’m going to try to drum up some interest in our local Florida birding group to motor out to the Gulf Stream some day to see what’s what. I just recently got some leads on local captains who might not mind a charter without the pressure of finding fish…

* Now, don’t get all excited just because I used the word bioaccumulation. The word may have come to prominence because it’s how environmental toxins like DDT move up the food chain, but the word, and the process itself, is fine, even necessary. We rely on bioaccumulation constantly. Can you imagine trying to go out and capture or manufacture each and every essential protein or nutrient in the food chain independently? Much better to rely on bioaccumulation in the food web, from primary producers (autotrophs like algae and phytoplankton) on up, to aggregate all of these packets, which we then just appropriate through the magic of killing and eating those animals in which the required substances bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation, at its simplest, is just digestion.

Flying fish

Tony Gaston, in his Seabirds: A Natural History, speculates on escape flights of flying fish and flying squid, and it brings up something I need to investigate further:

The herding tactics of tropical tuna and dolphins may be an important factor in the development of short aerial escape flights of flying fish and flying squids, tactics presumably encouraged by the more rapid acceleration available to fish and squid in warm waters. A consequence of these escape flights is that some food becomes available to seabirds without contacting the water and this type of aerial foraging has been noted for tropical gadfly petrels, shearwaters, frigatebirds, tern, and the Red-footed Booby (Ballance & Pitman, 1999). Such opportunities are not available to cold-water seabirds. (111)

Now, I grew up in Los Angeles, and in the summers we would visit Catalina Island. The trip always involved an hour or two on the boat out of San Pedro, and along the way, we would frequently see flying fish. (I don’t recall seeing any flying squid, though.) The waters off L.A. are pretty darn cold, but nothing compared to, I suppose, the Atlantic (or Pacific) waters off Canada, which is where Gaston is from.

The questions I have are these:

  • Are there not enough flying fish off L.A. to be a resource for seabirds? (I certainly don’t recall any birds making meals of them, but then, it’s not like I was out there every day watching…)
  • Are the predatory fish off L.A. not able to stimulate sufficient volume of fish/squid needing to escape for them to become habitual prey items?
  • Are the waters off L.A. warm enough to qualify as providing “rapid acceleration,” which seems to be Gaston’s prerequisite for there to be flying fish in the first place?

One thing I’ve discovered since starting this thought process is that Catalina Island’s flying fish only fly in the summer, so there is definitely an element of heat and daylight involved; these fish must be migratory, and presumably follow their food resources, which must be limited by temperature or sunlight.

According to Wikipedia, the California flyingfish (either Cypselurus californicus, the genus name of which is not listed in my KPCOFGS, or Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus, of which the genus name, but not the specific epithet, is listed) is the largest species of the family. Apparently, adults are both epipelagic (meaning they hang out high enough in the water column for sunlight to penetrate, for there to be photosynthetic phytoplankton, etc.) and neritic (meaning they occur near shore [technically from the low tide mark to the edge of the continental shelf]). As such, they occur in those regions of the oceans most frequented by human observers (when was the last time you went below 200m deep?).

These fish are able to burst out of the water and glide (they don’t actually fly) thanks to their enlarged pectoral fins, which serve as airfoils. And, according to Gaston, temperature plays a role in their escape flights as well, providing them with enough metabolic energy for the demanding task of jumping out of the water and then staying out, working the air currents just above the water (the way many birds d0–most of us have seen pelicans surfing the air in front of the waves along the coast) to extend their glide, before eventually going back under (or being eaten by a lucky bird in the right place at the right time). Presumably they fly to avoid underwater predators; it must be frustrating to jump out of the frying pan only to wind up in the fire!

Which brings up a thought. Flying, frying. Maybe I should research frying fish for my next post? Or flame-broiled. Either way, yum!

At sea with the birds

I’m getting ready for a pelagic trip in California in October, so I’ve raided the shelves at Broward County’s downtown library for reading material about seabirds. What I know so far:

  • Seabirds have evolved various strategies for excluding/excreting the salt that is an inevitable part of a life spent at sea. The most familiar such strategy is the development of tubes on the outside of the bill that seem to function as salt excreters and sense-of-smell enhancers.
  • Seabirds all look like gulls, and all gulls look alike. I’m joking, sort of. I’ve gotten pretty good at separating some gulls (ring-billed from laughing here in south Florida; Heermann’s from everything else out in California), but all the books say that Northern Fulmar superficially resembles a gull, and from the photos I’ve seen, some of the shearwaters look a bit like dark gulls as well. I’m sure that once I’ve seen a few for myself the separation will be easier to make, but for now, I’m, well, at sea.
  • Many seabirds don’t have to work too hard, once they get airborne, because the ocean provides plenty of opportunities for soaring on the prevailing breezes, or for strategies to “create” wind without needing to flap (dynamic soaring, slope soaring, etc.). Getting into the air is another matter, though, as anyone who’s seen the opening sequence of David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds can attest. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth getting it from NetFlix for the opening 5 minutes alone.
  • Northern Gannets plunge dive from great heights in order to reach great depths. I’ve seen them doing this from the shore at Cape Canaveral, and even from a friend’s condo in Boca Raton. Unfortunately, there is no regularly occurring equivalent species on the Pacific Coast; According to my Harrison, the only members of their family (the Sulidae) to have been sighted there are (1) the Blue-footed Booby, which normally hangs out in the Galapagos; (2) the Masked Booby, and the Brown Booby. All such occurrences are starred in his maps, not part of their normal range…

Nevertheless, boobies (and gannets) are so much fun to watch, that I’ve embedded a YouTube video of gannets diving off the coast of New Zealand:

In an effort to bring book learning to bear to supplement my lack of personal experience, I’m returning to Leslie Scott’s Sea and Coastal Birds of North America (2008, Key Porter Books; previously mentioned here and here) for its relatively informative (compared to a standard field guide), but still brief, species accounts. Trouble is, it only covers 50 “representative” species, so it’s no help if you want to learn the difference between, say, Sooty Shearwater, which it describes, and Buller’s Shearwater, or Pink-footed Shearwater, or Flesh-footed Shearwater, none of which are in the book. Still, for its small size and thorough discussion of the 50 species it does include, I like it very much.

Looking for more in-depth information, I’ll turn to Anthony Gaston’s Seabirds: A Natural History (2004, Yale UP/Christopher Helm) which covers in 10 chapters just about all you’d want to know about them: types of seabirds, adaptations that suit them to pelagic life, plumage, distribution, feeding behavior, migration & movement, breeding, population dynamics, etc. Don’t know how useful it will be for ID purposes, but as background knowledge it looks wonderful.

A third title I picked off the shelf on a whim is Ronald M. Lockley’s Flight of the Storm Petrel (1983, Paul S. Eriksson) which, according to the dust jacket copy is “the first book to look at all 21 species” of this “smallest and most fascinating of sea birds.” A few chapters are devoted to individual species (Leach’s fork-tailed storm petrel; Wilson’s storm petrel), while others are more general. I hope to get some good background knowledge from this title as well.

More, and more informed, commentary on these titles to come in October.