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

Oahu Part 8 – Final Chapter

On our last morning on Oahu, just hours before our plane was to take off, we dared to squeeze in one more hike. Tomas’s legs had healed enough to walk normally and I couldn’t resist another chance for seabirds.

Makapu`u Point Hike on the southeastern point of the island is rumored to have amazing sunrises and good odds of birds from nearby nesting sites. We’d bailed twice before due to large crowds and traffic from another commercial film shoot.

But this morning we arrived so early I thought we might have trouble getting in. It was two hours before the park officially opened and the parking lot is gated. I had read controversy about people parking on roadsides as well as car break-ins and possible police citations. There is (legit) high demand for early entry since often the sun rises well before 7am.

We noticed a police car parked up the road so we figured either the rental car would be well protected or we’d get ticketed. We got out and entered the park under the moonlight and no one approached us. Step 1. complete. Feeling like we got away with something we continued along the path. Not long after, more rebellious souls casually joined along the trail in the dark. Hiking is totally normal.

The views were beautiful and the sunrise lovely.

Even prettier was the view on the opposite side of the lookout.

That’s Moku Manu, or “Bird Islandacross the water. We looked down below and were graced with views of Red-footed and Brown Boobies flying along the water surface.

Friends

They flew in mesmerizing formations over the water, a truly beautiful show.

I wasn’t entirely thrilled with my photos; leave it to Tomas to take the best booby picture.

Yesss. A ranger had mentioned if you get to the point early and are patient enough you might pick out a Masked Booby, but we didn’t on this morning. We were lucky to see more Humpback Whales breaching in the distance though. A nice consolation.

Then droves of tourists approached on the trail, and (to my horror) blasted music on small crappy speakers. The magic was over. We were running out of time and I was coming to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to see every bird species on the island hard as I tried. Shocker.

I missed out on White-tailed Tropicbirds and Shearwaters, and I even missed the mascot of Hawaii Audubon Society, the cute little forest dwelling ‘Elepaio.

Doesn’t count

I ended the trip with a total of 44 bird total species (+1 for the “Hawaiian Duck“). 9 migrants including 2 uncommon – Cackling Goose and White-faced Ibis, 6 indigenous species, 24 introduced species, and 5 endemics: Hawaiian Gallinule, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Stilt, and the ‘Apapane, and ‘Amakihi.

Minor unfinished business and a great excuse to return to paradise. This trip was so fun. I’ll never forget the first foggy steps off the plane, the Great Frigatebird at Kona Brewery, my first Pacific Golden-Plover

Watching flying crabs at sunset (A’ama or Lightfoot Crabs!)

That crazy-eyed Mongoose at Diamond Head

Cattle Egrets chasing lawn mowers for insects

The unreal scenery

And of course the albatross that completely stole my heart

I have much to be grateful for. It was all worth it and the Makapu’u Hike was no different. We made it back to the car and on our way without incident.

And we enjoyed the last birds along the way.

Red-vented Bulbul

Red-crested Cardinal (for once I was okay with a backlit bird)

Spotted Dove

It was still early, but much brighter and we soaked up the sun’s warmth enjoying our last views before making the long journey home. And I’m glad we savored those moments because as it turns out we flew home to a major snowstorm in Portland…but more about that later.

Cheers to many more tropical adventures! And thanks for reading.

Mahalo,

Audrey

Oahu Part 6 – Kaʻena Point

We got a tip from a guide on the James Campbell NWR trip to get to Ka‘ena Point early and arrive from the south side. There is a 2.7 mile trail that follows an old road bed along the rocky coast to Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, a rare protected area of natural coastal sand dunes and home to nesting seabirds, especially Laysan Albatross. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I sure hoped to see an albatross.

We followed Kurt’s advice and got to the trailhead parking lot before sunrise. But not early enough to avoid a truck commercial shoot. Luckily, the crew let us park close to the trail. Tomas was too sore from marathoning to go on the hike so he stayed behind to rest and enjoy the view.

I hiked along, sort of not believing this place was real.

Until eventually I reached a long fence.

Oh, I thought, this must be as far as visitors can go. I also thought I spotted a bird flying in the distance so I walked closer.

Wait, what? “Slide Gate”? I can go in there? No way. Turns out the fence is intended for rodent control not to keep people out.

I walked in and could not believe my eyes.

Albatross, albatross, albatross! I’d died and gone to albatross heaven.

Oh look, a Grey Francolin!

No, don’t look at the francolins. Albatross, albatross, albatross!

Holy shit. They were everywhere. And they were 5 ft from my face. I almost walked right into this one along the trail.

So close! I can’t believe they let people in here. And the reason Kurt said to arrive early is because the birds are more active in the morning. Indeed they are. And since it was December, the birds were also doing their mating dance!

They squeak, nuzzle, and clack beaks together, shake their heads, look under their wings, waddle back and forth a bit, then raise their heads and call, “hoooooongk.” My videos didn’t turn out, but here’s a great one of the Dancing Layson Albatross.

Meanwhile, other albatrosses flew right over my head.

Their wingspan is incredible.

I was already near tears of joy when, what’s that breaching out in the ocean?

Of course, Humpback Whales. Surreal!

This was one of those moments I think that birders dream about. I was alone on this corner of the island, just me and the whales and the albatross. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I snapped out of it long enough to register a couple of other birds present.

A Red-crested Cardinal and a Northern Mockingbird – what are you doing here?

There were also Common Myna and Zebra Doves, but mostly I couldn’t take my eyes off the sultry albatross.

This species, the Laysan Albatross, is the same as the famous albatross named Wisdom – the oldest banded bird in the wild, at least 65, and she’s still laying eggs! She’s considered a symbol of hope for ocean birds.

And this is the site where in December of 2015 a group of teenagers killed a dozen albatross and destroyed many nests. It’s deplorable. And complicated because two of the boys were minors, and a third who was 18 at the time and has plead not guilty. The case is ongoing. I can only hope there are serious consequences. It’s news like this that makes me wonder if the general public should even have access to this vulnerable area.

It’s heartbreaking but I want to believe most people are good. And that things are getting better. For the most part at this site, they are.

Plagued by feather and egg collectors early on, the birds were then accosted by 4×4 vehicles, dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose until the breeding population was all but decimated. Once Ka‘ena Point was designated as a reserve and off-road vehicles were banned, restorations efforts were rewarded with a glimmer of hope when the first chick fledged in 1992. Since then the breeding population has increased 27% annually. Susan Scott wrote a lovely article about their comeback.

So that’s the good news.

At this point the birds settled down to sleep as the sun warmed up the skies. Ka‘ena means ‘the heat’ after all. I started the return hike back to the trailhead forgetting to check for nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters that are also there but less obvious than albatross.

As I hiked back, I finally saw people coming in from the opposite direction, the commercial crew must have finished filming. It was perfect timing. And perfect timing for more occasional Humpback Whale sightings as well as my first Brown Booby!

Another unbelievable day in paradise.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey