Bunting to the boat

My five hour pelagic trip at the Oregon Shorebird Festival went so well I thought I’d test my system on an 8-hour late fall trip out of Newport last weekend. It was a good opportunity to pad my Oregon year list to try and get to 300 species. I left work early Friday to make way for the coast.

But first I made a stop at Mary’s Peak near Corvallis to look for a reported Snow Bunting. I had a lot of doubts going in that it would still be there. And even if it was would I be able to see it through the thick fog?

Questionable choices

I parked and walked the half mile to the summit along a service road. It was pretty easy walking lucky for me and my ankle. Almost to the top I saw a man and his daughter on their return trip, the man asked if I was a birder and told me “it’s still here, right next to the picnic tables.” Hooray!

Indeed it was! I almost tripped over the thing. In the misty rain and fog it blended right in with the gravel road. I laid down in the grass and hung out with my life bird (#492). Totally worth the detour!

Gosh you’re cute

I got to Newport, settled in, and before long it was the next morning and time to board the boat. The weather forecast was not good. There was a “hazardous seas” alert until 3am the morning of, and 8-9ft swells predicted for the day. A bad weather forecast does nothing to help anxiety. But lucky for us, the day started out calmer than predicted and we even had some sun!

Oregon you kidder, you.

Since there were no processing ships to chase our captain picked an azimuth and kept on going. About five miles out we spotted a pair of Marbled Murrelets.

Not long after we found a group of feeding birds including mostly Sooty Shearwater.

With a Pink-footed Shearwater in the mix.

This was also where we saw one of our only jaegers of the trip, a Pomarine Jaeger that surprisingly didn’t stay long.

Shortly after we had a Buller’s Shearwater that was one passenger’s 1000th life bird!

Cheers

I’d boarded the boat at 297 Oregon year birds and hoped for Laysan Albatross, Black-legged Kittiwake, or any kind of storm petrel. Eventually we came across a small fishing vessel, catching slime eels (or Hagfish). Birds aren’t picky, they were there too.

Our guide Tim (and a few unwell passengers) chummed the waters here and the birds came on over including a Laysan Albatross! #298!

And several Black-footed Albatross!

This was a good chum stop.

Happy Albatross

The Laysan Albatross floated close to the boat, next to black-footed.

Double-decker

Rumor is there is a (new? re-established?) Laysan Albatross breeding colony in Mexico, so (though still not common), more individuals are being seen on Oregon pelagics, not just the LAAL from the Hawaii colony. This is good news for albatross and for Oregon birders.

Hola or Aloha?

About this time the weather turned dark and the boat turned around. I took another Bonine pill and kept my calm. A third of the way back the captain spotted a group of birds and moved us closer to inspect.

Someone yelled Black-legged Kittiwake! Yes! #299!

How lucky am I? Pretty damn lucky. There were at least two juvenile birds. They look almost like Bonaparte’s Gulls but they have an extra black on the neck and of course black legs.

It felt good to get two birds closer to 300. And birds that are hard if not impossible to see in Oregon on land. And did I mention I didn’t chum the waters? Success all around. I survived! With no puking! And I felt good. Good enough to enjoy myself and think about future trips.

Back on land I met my dad for celebratory drinks and dinner at a quaint little Italian joint in Nye Beach called Sorella. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Of course food always tastes that much better after a pelagic.

Mmmmmmm

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shorebird Festival Pelagic

Part of the fun of the Oregon Shorebird Festival is the pelagic trip. After my first disaster of a pelagic experience in 2015 I wasn’t sure I’d ever do it again. But since then I’ve had a couple of successful trips, and after loads of trial and error (and meds) I feel like I’ve finally got my system dialed in.

I’m not saying it’s 100% barfproof, but it’s getting there. Having the right gear and knowing what medication combination works makes the biggest difference for a pleasant ride. This next trip would be my shortest, only 5 hours, less time for “complications” and a good test for my recovering ankle. I felt pretty good boarding the boat as we set off from Charleston.

Oregon Pelagic Tours has the best guides, they’re my favorite people to be out at sea with. Our trip began just past the jetties when we saw Rhinoceros Auklets, Red-necked Phalarope, Marbled Murrelets, and Cassin’s Auklets.

Flying potatoes

Before I knew it we were in Sooty Shearwater territory. And not far behind we got a quick look at terns, a Common Tern, with a small dark bill and dark carpal bars (shoulders).

And a second tern that was first I.D.’d as Elegant until it was examined more closely in photos after the boat ride.

It was thought to be Elegant because of the clean underside and perceived longer bill, but despite this, experts now agree it is actually a Common Tern, as adults transitioning into non-breeding plumage can have red at the base of the bill. Not quite Elegant enough and a very tricky tern.

Eventually we found fishing ships. And lucky for us they were just pulling up their nets.

It was a perfect time to chum the waters. Chum brings the gulls, which brings the jaegers!

We saw all three, a jaeger slam. I’ll start with the easy one. Large, beefy bird with a bi-colored bill, and the largest white wing “flash” on upper and lower wings (6-8 white shafts on outer wing feathers): POMARINE.

A better look at that white flash and those spoon-shaped central tail feathers:

The next jaeger, wing flash is visible, more than two shafts in the upper wing, and a close-up of the bill reveals the gonydeal tip is near the edge: PARASITIC.

And finally, the third.

There are only two white primary shafts on the outer primaries. That is diagnostic for: LONG-TAILED. It also has black and white barring underneath the tail, and a small bill with gonydeal tip in the mid-point, but the minimal flash is what to look for.

Because eBird quizzes are so much fun, here’s a jaeger quiz bird:

Is it A: Long-tailed B: Parasitic C: Pomarine or D: None of the above? (answer at the end)

I thought tail shape was the main factor in jaeger ID and it is helpful, but angles mislead and feathers break. It’s all about the white on the wings and bill shape for jaeger ID. My goal is to eventually learn enough to be able to do more in the field besides hang on for dear life. Clearly I need to spend more time on the boat.

If not for jaeger identification, then to look at more Black-footed Albatross.

They were there too, though in lower numbers than trips in the past. There were higher numbers of Sabine’s Gulls though.

Can’t mistake that one. We also got great looks at a South Polar Skua with the Sabine’s!

Skua-sabine combo

The Skua passed close to the boat several times giving us killer looks.

Also amazing were Buller’s Shearwaters, with that clean white underside.

And scapulars for days.

Not bad for five hours out to sea! I’m grateful for such an amazing barf-free trip. The weather was milder than predicted and the sea swells mostly cooperated. We had a couple of whale sightings and a blue shark visited the chum spot but I failed to get a photo. But the birds never disappoint, they’re the best reason to get back on that boat.

Quiz answer: Two white shafts visible on that upper wing means A: LONG-TAILED

Good job. Some are impossible.

Tweets and chum,

Audrey

December Pelagic and Astoria

Less than a week after my plane landed back in Portland I signed myself up for a 7-hour pelagic trip. Because a winter boat ride in the Pacific Ocean sounds like a good idea, right? Of course it does for the chance for winter seabirds like Short-tailed Shearwater, Ancient Murrelet, Laysan Albatross, Parakeet Auklet, and rare Mottled Petrel.

Since I’d just been on the October pelagic trip, the conditions were fresh in my mind. Honestly, I wouldn’t have dared, but the weather forecast looked surprisingly hopeful, my doctor gave me a Rx refill, and 7-hours sounded mild compared to the 12-hours I was used to. I was on board. And as it turns out, this was a good combination because for the first time, no seasickness!!

Smooth sailing

The best bird of the trip was a Short-tailed Albatross!

This chocolate-brown bird with the bubblegum-pink bill is a juvenile of the species, as they mature their feathers turn white with black edging. It has a wingspan of over 7ft and is the largest seabird in the North Pacific.

It’s also a great reason to go out on a boat in December.

Northern Fulmar for scale

Once hunted nearly to extinction (and even declared extinct in 1949), they are now listed as endangered throughout their range. It was juvenile birds, like this one that brought the species back.

Albatross spend most of their maturing years out at sea, and take many years to return to their breeding colonies. After they were thought to be extinct, some birds returned to Torishima Island and the first egg was laid by returning birds in 1954. Slowly they’ve come back and are now threatened by storms, volcanoes, long-line fishing, pollution, and oil spills. We were incredibly lucky to see one.

Other highlights included the always-popular Black-footed Albatross (they look similar to short-tailed but with a dark bill).

I noticed one was banded!

EA23 was banded in 2009 at Tern Island, Hawaii (look at this photo circle!!). So cool!

Albatross fan club

And a very distant sighting of Laysan Albatross!

So distant and blurry, here’s a one from Hawaii to remember how awesome they are.

It was a three albatross day! That’s a pretty good day.

We also saw a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake.

And a second kittiwake, an adult showing the unmarked yellow bill.

There were Cassin’s Auklets, Ancient Murrelets, and a pair of Parakeet Auklets (seen by few), that I completely missed. Next time I might try my luck the bow of the ship for a better chance to see the smaller birds. We’ll see if I’m that brave.

I did get Rhinocerous Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater, and a Humpback Whale, that was less jumpy than last time.

Back on land, after having survived another pelagic trip, I felt energized and inspired to continue birding at the coast. I took a chance and drove to Astoria where White-winged Crossbills had been sighted. Apparently every decade or so there is an irruption of this boreal forest finch. Chasing crossbills isn’t the easiest gamble, but there’d been multiple sightings.

I drove three and a half hours north and made it to Astoria by 7pm. In the morning I checked out of the mostly adequate Motel 6 and drove farther north to Cape Disappointment in Washington. I thought maybe I could find crossbills in both states (so greedy!).

Is it light enough to look for birds?

A couple of flocks flew by overhead, but no confirmed white-wings. Pine Siskin wanted me to think they were White-winged Crossbills.

I got a tip too look for Trumpeter Swans in a nearby pond.

Can’t a girl look at swans without getting stared at?

Success! I think? Let’s take a closer look at that bill. All black, no yellow lore.

Besides the lack of yellow lore, the characteristic that stands out to me distinguishing it from Tundra is the broad black connection between the eye and the mask. Not an easy ID! I still find this document handy, and I found this website helpful too.

After Cape Disappointment lived up to its name, I decided to look at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon for White-winged Crossbills. This time I had better luck! There were yellow ones.

And red ones, both attracted to spruce cone seeds.

And as per usual, hanging out at the tippy tops of trees and hard to see. Reading up on crossbills, apparently there are ten (!) types (distinguished by calls) that can be interpreted as ten different species. I’m not ready for that. Maybe by the next decade.

Until then, there’s shorebirds to look at like the Rock Sandpiper still hanging out at Seaside Cove.

Leave it to birds to always keep things interesting. The coast does not disappoint either!

Looking forward to the next oceanic adventure.

Happy holidays!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey