Friday, May 23, 2008

Bulletin #39 – Monterey Bay, California pelagic trip

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 23, 2008

Bulletin #39 – Monterey Bay, California pelagic trip

Hello friends,

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend!

The last frontier for birders is the open ocean. There are many seabirds that inhabit the oceans of the world. These birds rarely come ashore except to breed usually on remote islands. Thus, they are relatively inaccessible to birders unless you go out on a boat. Most birders have never seen any of these birds.

This is tough birding, as you are out for 6-8 hours or more. There is no returning early for seasickness.

Photography on a boat rolling up and down on the waves is especially tricky. Thank heaven for the image stabilization lenses available now. The camera has to be hand held – no tripods, and they probably would be useless anyway.

Anyway, I went on a pelagic trip with Shearwater Journeys

( out of Monterey CA on May 11th. It was very rough with 4-6 foot seas and overcast for the morning. There were 25 birders on the trip and 3 or 4 got seasick very early and were miserable for most of the 8 hour trip. I took my seasick prevention medication as recommended, and was fine. This was my 3rd trip with Shearwater Journeys, but the first to do photography.

The largest seabirds are the albatrosses. These huge birds (6-9 foot wingspan) spend their lives on the open ocean except to nest and breed on remote islands of the world. Most of them nest in the southern hemisphere. The Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) was my first ever member of this family of 13 species. We actually saw about 150 of them which is a huge number. Apparently a dozen or two is more likely on a trip.

They nest on Midway Island in the northwest Hawaiian Islands chain and fly to the California coast to feed and then return home to feed the chick.

So here is an albatross sitting on the water behind the boat. Notice the hump that the wings make along the back. These birds have their nostrils in tubes along the bill as can be clearly seen.

The adults have a white rump and the 1st year juveniles have a brown rump as can be seen in the next 2 photos. click ‘next’ once

Shearwaters and petrels are another family of seabirds. They are much smaller (12 -19”) than the albatrosses. We saw 2 members of this family. These birds are also ‘tubenoses’ as the albatross above.

The Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) I had seen previously and many were present on this trip. They are all dark sooty brown in color.

Most of these birds are seen gliding above the ocean, so the wing pattern, both top and underside are important to ID the birds.

Here are 2 photos showing the bird sitting on the water and top side of the wings. You can see the ‘tubenose’ in the first photo. click ‘next’ once

These birds have to ‘run’ along the surface of the water to get airborne. The next slide shows the bird doing just that and the underside of the wing.

The other shearwater was the Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus). This was a lifer for me. They are brown on top and white underneath. I have a couple of photos of the soaring birds, but none sitting on the water. The second photo actually has some white on the wings. This is a molting plumage. These birds breed on islands off Chile. click ‘next’ once

The third family of seabirds that we encountered was the storm-petrels. We had a fly by of some Ashy Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma homochroa). Strom-petrels are small (6 – 9”) swallow-like birds come ashore at night only to breed. The birds were perhaps 50 yards away, but I pointed my camera in the direction and snapped some pictures. This was another lifer for me.

The bird has very long wings and a forked tail.

There were several interesting gulls following the boat as well.
The first is a 2nd year Glaucous-winged Gull. He has gray wings and lighter primary feathers.

There was also a single Sabine’s Gull. This is a gull of the arctic. In winter they are strictly pelagic in the Pacific Ocean. This was another lifer for me.

They have a distinctive wing pattern with black wing tips, white central patch and gray at the base of the wings. In breeding plumage, they also have dark gray heads. The bill is black with a yellow tip.

Here is the upperside of the wings to show the pattern.

The next photo isn’t too clear, but it shows the dark head, bill, and underside wing pattern.

There were several Pacific Loons (Gavia pacifica) in breeding plumage and I obtained my first photo of a loon in flight. I think it is rare to see a loon flying, as they usually just dive and swim away to avoid danger.

There were other birds seen, but I got better photos on shore, so they will appear in the future bulletins.

On the trip, we also saw lots of sea lions, several Sea Otters, and several Humpback Whales. The whales were breaching at times, but I never managed to get a photo of the whale jumping out of the water. By the time I got my camera around to the right direction, I just got photos of some huge splashes!

Here is an interesting photo of an adult Sea Otter with a large pup riding on its stomach. I had not seen this behavior before, despite seeing many otters over the last 25 years.

If this type of birding interests you, check out Shearwater Journeys web site. They have trip all year long, but most of the trips are in the fall and the cost is reasonable (about $150).

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

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