Pelagic Birding In San Diego

Hey, do you notice anything different?  We've changed from blogger to word press for blogging software.  All the   are there and hopefully in the next few weeks as I get used to this we'll be able to organize things so you can find answers to bird questions easier. If you think of a category that would be useful, let me know and I'll talk to my trusty web master, Non Birding Bill.


So, I'm going to test out this bad boy with a blog entry from the San Diego Bird Festival.  One of the field trips I was super excited about was a pelagic trip to the Cornado Islands to watch seabirds.  I really enjoy any bird trip by boat--a day in a boat is automatically an adventure.  I must say that this is was one of the smoothest pelagic trips I've ever been on.  The seas were calm and the weather started chilly, but I was down to a t-shirt by the afternoon.  I don't think anyone got remotely ill and we would have been fine without any Bonine.


It was a different set of gulls following the chum off the back of the boat on this trip compared to what we saw on the pelagic trip in Florida.  One of my favorites was that dark gull with the white head--a Heerman's gull.  Actually, the others are Heerman's too, just immature birds.


There were several birds I was hoping to get.  Some I had seen before like the sooty shearwater above, but there were several new birds for me including Xantus's murrelet, black-vented shearwater, rhinoceros auklet and Cassin's auklet.  You might think that getting these new birds are pretty darned easy out on the open water, but looking for dark birds about the size of a nerf football, is a bit tricky.  I've always chuckled about birders say when pointing out birds:

"It's there in that tree," they shout while point to a woods.

Well, it's not much better on the ocean.  You can try the clock, "The murrelet is at about 1 o'clock, about 200 meters out."

I'm not very good with meters and yards, I struggled.  But fortunately, we had some excellent guides on the boat and the captain even made sure to pass as smoothly as possible so as not to spook birds.

steve-howellSpeaking of guides, did I mention that Steve Howell was one of our guides?  Steve has been part of some the largest and most hardcore books out there including illustrations for Pyle books and he co-authored A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America--a hefty book that rivals Sibley in weight and is considered a dangerous weapon in some states.

My first brown boobie!

The most exciting new bird for me  on the trip was a brown booby.  I have been waiting over thirty years to see one of these things, ever since I read about them as a kid and discovered there birds with dirty names.  Plus, they are just a cool looking bird anyway.

Brown boobies, juvenile and adult

I can't really bring a scope on a boat trip, but I did try to get shots by hold my camera to my binoculars.  They are not the best photos on the planet, but they make good souveniers for my lifer boobies.


We had some fun mammal action on the trip too, there were many sealions...


This one came right up to our boat just as we were docking.  It apparently has some eye problems and gets a few handouts by many locals.  It was swam up to the ship and when fish was not tossed to it immediately, went looking for more generous humans.

dolphinOne of the craziest things we saw was a pod of dolphins on the move.  There looked to be between 150 - 200 hundred, close the surface of the water.  They were moving fast and jumping out of the water.  The moved quickly and our boat followed them a bit.  I don't know if they were migrating or what, but was amazing to see so many dolphins on the move.  Other maring mammals observed included Risso's dolphin and gray whale.

Okay, now let's see how this entry posts in the new blog.

Pelagic Birding Off The Florida Coast

NOTE: I just noticed on the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival that they have some items that attendees left behind. If you attended the festival, check it out. My final day at the Space Coast Bird Festival in Florida involved a 12 hour pelagic birding trip with the Explorer Fishing Charters. Above is a photo of our boat heading out to sea with a large flock of gulls following us (because we were chumming the water). Pelagic bird trips involve taking a boat out into the ocean to try and see birds that only come to land for breeding. You watch for birds with crazy names like petrels, jaegers, fulmars. Pelagic birding isn't for everyone--and yet for many people, it' the only way to get certain birds on your list. Even if you're not prone to seasickness, watching birds through your binoculars on a bobbing boat can make you barf. It's also a challenge for me because I can't really digiscope from the boat and we have to rely on what ever my little point and shoot can do all on its own.

The other challenge to pelagic is that there is a lot of gross stuff around. You need to attract birds to the boat and a great way to do that is to dribble some fish oil behind the boat. If you do feel yourself getting sick on a pelagic trip, it's best to go to the back of the boat and blow chow there. If you do it in front or from the side, people behind you could get some residual spray. But it you go in back, you barf can contribute to the chum, but if you're back there with the oil and the fish, it might make you vomit some more.

Also, along with the fish oil, the crew chops up chunks of fish to toss out. Once you get a large flock of common gulls following you, it attracts the attention of other birds. There are several thing you can do to ward off from seasickness. One, the day before don't go out drinking lot alcohol. Have a good dinner--you may think having an empty stomach will make so you have nothing to hurl, but you need a good dinner so you body can function at it' best. The night before take a Dramamine or Bonine. About an hour before you're on the boat, take another Dramamine or Bonine--you need it in your system before you're on the boat for the med to work. If you take it on the boat, chances are good you could just barf it back up. There are also patches, ginger chews, ginger ales that you can use too.

I myself like to tempt fate on a pelagic. I was going to get a shot of me holding one of the frozen fish, when one of the crew put one in his mouth and dared me to do the same. He said not to swallow any ice on the fish and I would be fine--so I went for it. I actually take Bonine, it makes me less drowsy. I do have some motion sickness issues - I can't read in a car or I get nauseous. But I'm fortunate in that the few times I found myself getting woozy on a pelagic, I notice that if I focus on the horizon for a minute, it goes away.

We got some fun birds mixed in with the gulls. Above is a young northern gannet. I love these guys, especially when they dive for food. I have a dream of someday visiting their nesting colony in Newfoundland. I tried to find video of them diving (there's great footage on the Life of Birds). But I found one homemade video here (you may need to hit mute if you're at work, there's a fun little song along with it) and there here is a video of a crew watching sardines. About a minute and twenty-five seconds into it, you see the gannets from underwater--I didn't realize how much they swim once they dive in!

We also saw sandwich terns - note how this tern has a black bill (with a yellow tip) and not orange like some of the others you may have seen in the blog.

I was hoping for some jaegers and we got them. We saw quite a few pomarine jaegers. These are predatory birds that only come to land to nest up in the Arctic and spend the rest of the time out at see. On their breeding territories, they eat mostly lemmings, but when out to sea they will follow ships for scraps and steal fish from birds like black-legged kittiwakes.

Part of the fun of a pelagic trip is seeing other species besides birds, like the sea turtle above. We did see one leatherback and some Man O' Wars, so it wasn't all about the birds. Unlike birding in the landfill, it was a little more challenging pointing out critters on the ocean--there weren't too many landmarks. The Man O' Wars look almost like blue plastic bags floating on the surface--"Hey see what looks like a blue plastic bag at about 2 o'clock? That's a jellyfish!"

We had a big pod of dolphins, both bottle nose and spotted come check out boat out. I'm sure they were interested in the bit of fish trailing out boat. It was fun to watch groups of about seven line up side by side and swim along with out boat.

They came in quite close to the boat, you could almost see them smiling.

As we started the day, it was still chilly. As the boat got closer and closer to the Gulf Stream to look for birds, it got a bit warmer and some of us shed our layers. Most people kept them on. The front of the boat was very crowded and being short I headed towards the upper deck to get a view of the birds. We were lucky in that the seas were quiet and we didn't have too much rocking, blowing, or waves crashing.

But periodically, waves would splash up--especially if the captain was turning to get a the group a better look at a bird. Notice how wet Leica Rep Jeff Bouton got. He loved it, it's a chance to demonstrate how Leica bins can take a water beating and appeals to his adventurous spirit. Jeff also brought his young son, Austin along for the ride. Austin was my savior at a couple of points when he would head down inside to get me coffee. I paid him in donuts. It was and awesome partnership. If you read WildBird Magazine, Jeff has a column about his birding adventures with young Austin.

As it got warmer, I too shed some layers, one being my earmuffs, which were more for keeping my hat on. Now that I have short hair, I don't have the long ponytail to help hold the hat in place. Two minutes later, the wind blew my hat and gave it to the ocean.

I was a tad bummed, it was a hat from the Rio Grande Valley bird fest--black with an embroidered green jay. I have twenty other hats, so it wasn't that big of a loss, but I felt terrible about accidentally littering the ocean. Before I knew what was going on, the boat turned around...the captain was going back for my hat!

We went around, both Bouton from Leica and a shipmate tried to fish it out with long hooks. They missed, the captain circled again for the hat. I was shocked at the effort that was being put forth for my hat. I didn't ask for them to go back, they just did.

On the second turn, the got my hat! I was stunned. I think I now have an official lucky hat. It was dripping wet when they handed it to me...

Here's the crewman who fished out my hat. I put it on right way for a photo. I told the captain, "I can't believe you went back for my hat." He said that I looked so sad when it flew off that he had no choice. Bouton told me that he has lost several hats on pelagics and no captain has ever fished one out for him.

Pete Dunne asked, "Hey, Sharon, are you going to blog about the carbon footprint left from going back for your hat?"

I asked, "Would you rather that I littered the ocean there, Pete?"

*On a side note, I just noticed that Pete Dunne has an entry on wikipedia--who knew??? Birder making strides in the mainstream.

After a full day on the ocean of great sea birds and no vomiting, the group headed back with a large parade of laughing gulls following us.

The brown pelicans started following us in too. I love this shot, it looks like the pelican is standing right on the water's surface.

As we got closer, the captain announced that we had to stop chumming the water. We couldn't go into harbor with hundreds of birds following us, no matter how cool those gannets are. They were a great crew and worked really hard to get us better looks at the fast moving birds on the water. We were all exhausted from the adventure at sea, but it was a great time. To me, any day that involves a boat on open water seems like an adventure.

Laughing Gulls

Heads up: I'm going to Guatemala at the end of February. Mike from 10,000 Birds and Patrick from Hawk Owl's Nest should be there too. Since it sounds like internet access might be iffy while I'm there, Swarovski is going to help me hold a guest blog contest! More details are coming but if you are a blogger who would like to introduce some of your material to my readers or if you have read my blog and thought, "Hey, I can do this, I'd like to give that whole blogging thing a try," this contest will be for you. Details will be up tomorrow (Friday).

I'm wrapping up all my coverage of the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. I think I have about 2 or 3 more things to blog about. It was an action packed festival, I was there for a full seven days. Even if you can't do a full festival schedule, just doing 2 days gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Right now, I'm compiling all my photos for our pelagic birding trip (birding by boat to look for seabirds)!

Here's a video of some laughing gulls that were following out boat out to sea. The crew was tossing out chum and what amazes me is that even as we're bookin' it out, and the gulls are pumping their wings to keep up--they still manage to catch fish chunks thrown at them:

Chum Chuminy Chum Chum Churry

Today was a triumph of the human spirit on many levels. First, I had to meet my field trip group at 3:30 am. That's not a typo folks, that is 3:30 in the am. I don't know how, but I managed to get my stuff together to meet the field trip.

When I met up with the group, I was reminded of a flock of blackbirds coming to roost. The hotel situation in Bangor, ME is a little wonky; we're spread out over three different hotels, and for some reason I'm at the hotel with all the field trip leaders and not participants/exhibitors, so I have to take a shuttle bus to meet the buses that take us on the field trips. When the shuttle bus arrived with all of us, there were about 250 birders waiting in that hotel parking lot. Our crowd joined them and we began milling about trying to figure how who was going on what bus.

Then, just like someone tossed out a peanut butter suet cake to a flock a starlings, someone opened up the breakfast boxes too early. The original plan was that we were to get our boxed breakfasts as we boarded our respective buses, but there appeared to be some sort of bus snafu going on. I'm not sure if someone in charge just left the breakfast boxes unattended and people started going for them or if someone in charge was worried the crowd was getting ugly and decided to throw food at us as a last means of defense.

Once we finally got on the road, things seemed to have calmed down. However, the adventure was just beginning. The sea was angry that day, my friends! I learned later on that our boat was the only one allowed on the water, the swells were six to eight feet and our tour group felt it. I would say that at least half the participants ended up barfing at some point from motion sickness. I don't know how I escaped it, I used a combination of Dramamine, ginger ale, oyster crackers, wristbands and focused on a fixed point on the horizon when I wasn't watching birds. I felt that I won the battle of the bilge. It wasn't easy, especially when they started chumming.

For those who don't know, chumming is tossing in smelly fish stuff to attract sea birds that have a terrific sense of smell. Our chum consisted of fish oil mixed with popcorn (the popcorn helps keep the oil at the surface of the water) and chunks of fish. Shearwaters and storm-petrels came right in.

The second floor of the boat was loaded with everyone who was feeling a tad queasy. I did find these two towards the end of the trip. They looked exhausted, happy about the birds they had seen and a tad in love...awwwwww.

I had a day I haven't had in ages! I got 13 life birds on one trip, I've never been on an eastern pelagic so it was easy to rack 'em up. So many birds were being seen in different directions, I didn't know which one to look at first. Behind me was a gannet, to the right of me was a shearwater and to the left was a razorbill. AAAAARGH! Sensory overload.

Needless to say that in high swells, getting photos of the birds is challenging to say the least. Okay, this isn't anything to write home about, but the above photos is a souvenier to remember puffins and razorbills.

Here are a couple of razorbills flying by. I really enjoyed those birds more than I thought I would. I was ready to go away from this trip with puffins being my favorite birds, but I couldn't take my binos off of the razors.

It was a great day of birding, well worth the early morning rising. One thing about ABA trips, you get your money's worth with birds. The trip leaders are generally top notch and often there are so many leaders on one trip, you can pick the personality you're most comfortable with and hang with them for the day. I chose Jim Danzenbaker, not only because he's a great birder, but because he had a whole Richard Dreyfuss look (from the Jaws movie era) going on. After returning from the trip at 3:30 pm (12 hours after we started) I headed to the vendor area that was opening up at 4pm to work the binocular booth until the banquet at 6pm. Am I bushed? You betcha. Was it a great day? Totally. Did it make up for the Legionnaire incident? So, so very much!

Pelagic Birding By The Seat Of Our Pants

Katie and I had way too much fun on the job yesterday with our whale watching/pelagic birding trip. And best part was that there was no barfing from us. We took some precautions by having a somewhat healthy breakfast with no greasy foods and taking some Dramamine. We noticed that the food offered on the boat was not my first choice for an anti barf diet:

Chili Cheese Dog on a pelagic trip? This boat crew likes life on the edge.

Funions, Cheetoes and tobasco? That sounds vomitish to me. Sheesh.

We had called around the day before asking people who offer whale watching if they ever see any seabirds on their trips. My favorite answer:

"See birds? Yeah, we see lots of birds. There's one that dives down and swims in there just like it was some kind of fish."

We didn't go with that company. When we called H & M Landing asked them about seabirds, the answer was"

"Oh yeah, you'll see some birds, like petrels, pelicans and gulls on our five hour whale trip."

They used "petrel" in their answer, so we decided to go with them. H & M guarantees a whale sighting on their trips and they recommended that if we want to see birds, we should go along on a fishing trip, since they would chum the waters. Katie and I decided to go for the whale trip since, hey how often would someone from Minnesota or Wisconsin see whales. The downside would be that we would be totally responsible for all bird identification, so we made sure to bone up on our seabirds before we left.

We got a kick out of the captain. He saw us standing on the deck with our DLS binos and proceeded to point and laugh at our "teeny" optics. He later showed us his massive pair of 10x70 binoculars--oy! As he poudly showed us his all powerful optics, he offered that if Katie and I were good, he might let us use them. I don't think we could have if we tried, I know I didn't have the upper arm stregth. We considered asking if he might want to look through ours, since like may things in life, size isn't everything. But we had a feeling that he is very proud to be at the help of his boat toting his massive binoculars while coursing the seas.

They had an antique field guide on board just in case any seabirds came by--published in 1957.

We didn't see too much in the way of whales, but did get to glimpse a juvenile gray whale (got the guaranteed whale, so no money back), harbor seals, sea lions, and dolphins. When we first got to the area where the dolphins were Katie and I both spotted a small black, gray and white football shaped birds whizzing around. We both about peed our pants and shouted, "Murrelet"! As we were freaking out over the life bird, everyone else was freaking about about a dolphin and calf swimming along with us at the bow of the boat. One lady in particular was trying to commune with them by leaning forward and sticking her hand out (left). I know Non Birding Bill is reading this and wondering if I was in fact the one leaning over the bow trying to touch the dolphin since I have a track record of doing foolish things to see wildlife, but I must be maturing because I decided to stay sensibly on the boat.

The trip included a run to the Coronado Islands, they looked like matte paintings of prehistoric islands on our approach. It was so sweet to see the brown pelicans catching thermals off of the clifss and circling, while the gorgeous blue water full of sea lions crashed along the rocks below. The pelicans were breeding, so we got to see the gorgeus color on the males and even a few chicks.

Gulls were following along the boat from time to time, hoping we were fishing and could maybe get some chum. It was interesting to note that younger gulls would follow us for a longer period of time before realizing we weren't going to throw out any fish. Adults would make a quick flyby and then move on.

I only got one lifer, but I saw some great old favorites like a Heerman's gull, earred grebes and some of the best looks at surf scoters I've ever had. We both just enjoyed the adventure of being on a boat over the open sea. We took other steps, like brought jackets (it was cool out over the water) and generously applied sunscreen throughout the day--I noticed one fellow passenger was a crispy critter after being in the sun for so long.

Well, the booth is getting busy, I'll update more after loading up on the yummy fresh seafood.