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

Alaska By Sea

Speaking of epic, what better way to distract oneself from summer birding woes than to fly to Alaska?

 Aialik Glacier

When I noticed ticket prices out of PDX were under $200 it was a no-brainer. I once visited The Last Frontier with my family about a decade ago, and I was long overdue for a return visit. After landing in Anchorage, Tomas and I bused 3 hours south to Seward, and boarded a boat for a 6-hour tour along Resurrection Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park.

What a magical place. Words don’t do it justice. It helped that the weather was 70 degrees and sunny (!). In a locale that gets 11 fewer sunny days on average per year than Portland, OR, we beat the odds and for that I am so thankful.

Out from the gate, Bald Eagles. Because Alaska.

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles

A few things about birding by boat. This was my first time testing the waters and it’s tough! The boat is moving, the birds are moving, the light is changing. I’m glad it was sunny or else all my pics would be blurry. So many were anyways due to the motion, but it was still good practice. Also, this was not a pelagic birding trip specifically, so we didn’t spend a ton of time chasing birds. But that’s okay, because we did find whales and they’re pretty cool too. Orcas!

Orca Whales

Orca Whales

Orca Whales

Wow. And puffins! Horned and Tufted Puffins! Positively dapper.

Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin

Tufted Puffin

The two types are easy to distinguish in flight as Horned Puffins have a white chest and Tufted Puffins are black underneath. Here is an excellent puffin reference, where I learned I actually saw a third puffin species (out of four), the Rhinoceros Auklet.

Rhinocerous Auklet

Zoom in on that crazy face. (Also note the Common Murre with the two auklets on the right.)

Rhinocerous Auklet

Past the Stellar Sea Lions and a left at the Sea Otters, the captain honed in on a whale spout she noticed far off in the distance.

Stellar Sea Lions

Stellar Sea Lions

Sea Otter

Spout

Turns out it was a Fin Whale. Or more specifically, a pod of four Fin Whales.

Fin Whale

I’d never hear of a Fin Whale before, but now I’d seen four of them. Thanks Alaska. Fin Whales are the second largest mammal on earth (after the Blue Whale) and they are endangered.

We reached our glacial destination at Aialik Glacier shortly after.

Aialik Glacier

Aialik Glacier

We spent some time watching the calving icebergs, while I ran around the boat taking pictures of the Black-legged Kittiwake (small unmarked yellow bill, white underparts, black wing-tips, black legs).

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake

On the return voyage to Seward, we saw Glaucous-winged Gulls  on rocks (pink legs, gray wing-tips).

Glaucous-winged Gulls

And Glaucous-winged gulls in flight (gray wing-tips, white underparts).

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

And to break things up, this bird, clearly not a gull, all black with a dark bar across the white wing coverts, a Pigeon Guillemot! Exciting find.

Pigeon Guillemot

And back to gulls. Herring Gull (First summer).

Herring Gull

And Glaucous-winged.

Glaucous-winged Gull

And because everybody loves a Humpback Whale tail! Ooooh, aaahhhh.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

Finally, this trip report would not be complete without some Dall’s Porpoise action. Their job is to speed along at the bow of the boat, jumping enthusiastically, while the crowd cheers. Woooooo!

Dall's Porpoise

What a crazy-fun excursion. Did that really happen? And this was just day one of our Alaska adventure. The following day we would board a train en route to Denali National Park to explore the backcountry.

Pinch me.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey