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

A Better Pelagic

Scarier than Halloween is pelagic birding. Ever since my first traumatic experience I’ve wanted to try again. Crazy, I know but Albatross are that good. It had been too long since I’d seen them and I wanted a better boat experience. I remember saying “I’d do it again in a heartbeat” but those are the things you say when you’re safe on dry land.

I needed timing, weather, and my nerves all to align. When I saw my friend Eric’s post asking if anyone wanted to join him this October for “10 hours of waves and lifers,” I was so scared because I knew I was going to go for it.

I was better prepared this time. I obsessively checked the weather, bought new rain gear, cut out coffee and alcohol, ate bland food for a week, stocked up on saltines, and loaded up on medication. This time I remember my boots. And lucky for me at the last minute my friend Sarah joined for the trip (not the boat part) and she provided exceptional moral support. “Is it too late to back out?” “Yes, put your shoes on and go.” Damn.

Sarah dropped us off early morning and we set off. The real test began once the boat passed the jetty. No turning back now. I nervously held my breath as we spotted the first Sooty Shearwaters.



I gripped the seat as while we looked at tiny Marbled Murrelets.

And Rhinocerous Auklets that I didn’t get great photos of.

I sipped water and saltines as we saw Red-necked Phalarope, Common Murre, and our first Parasitic Jaeger. No photos of that one either sadly, but I did manage one of a Pomarine Jaeger at our first chum stop.

Here we also saw strikingly patterned Buller’s Shearwater.

And Pink-footed Shearwater.

Its best bits

Our first Northern Fulmar.

And as I glared at the dude eating veggi-chips next to me (food smells are tough), I managed to hold it together for Black-footed Albatross!

Yeah buddy, these are amazing birds. They soared gracefully up, over, and around us.

I loved watching them take off, running along the water’s surface.

So good.

The sea swells were 8ft this time (vs. 11ft the first time), still choppy, and not great for keeping composure. See a short video here. This was Eric’s first pelagic and he said he didn’t realize how hard it would be just to stand up. Let alone use binoculars, cameras, and look at birds. But we managed okay.

I appreciated the South Polar Skua coming in to score some food.

I was even able to enjoy the whale sighting this time. About 40 miles offshore we witnessed a humpback whale breaching over and over again and slapping its flippers on the water surface (pectoral fin slapping).


This sort of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It was breathtaking. The guess on the boat was that this was a young whale making noise to locate its pod. Such a sweet whale. I second Jen’s recommendation to check out Sonic Sea on Vimeo (free with code SONICSEE) about how important sound is to these magnificent underwater creatures.

Other interesting highlights were the American Pipit that almost made landfall on the boat, apparently exhausted along its migration. And one Northern Fulmar that actually did land on the boat, then proceeded to projectile vomit on the deck. That’s the bird’s effective defense mechanism. I wish I’d gotten a photo of the ordeal, but I was concentrating on keeping myself from getting sick.

Stand back or I’ll puke on you

It almost worked. But at the last stop, while we watched for Short-tailed Shearwaters I finally succumbed to the sickness. Unlike last time though, I felt mostly better after and could still look at birds.

One of those might be Short-tailed

I picked up three lifers on the trip, Short-tailed Shearwater, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. The petrels were tough to see, let alone photograph.

One of the petrels

On the return trip, unlike last time when I was freezing and pummeled by waves, this time it was smooth sailing. We’d avoided the roughest seas, saw albatross, a breaching whale, and I didn’t die? I call that a win.

So happy to see that bridge

This was a much better pelagic than last time.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Trick or tweets,

Audrey

Perpetua Bank Pelagic Tour

This fall, I spent a day out in the Pacific Ocean with Oregon Pelagic Tours, in search of pelagic birds. Or as I like to call it, a day in the life of a bulimic.

The trip started out great.

Newport

I couldn’t be more excited at the chance to see skuas, albatross, and maybe even whales. I did everything right. I slept great the night before, I ate a bland breakfast, I even got a Scopolamine prescription. I stayed on the stern (back) of the boat in fresh air, and focused on the horizon. I thought: I feel good, I feel good, I feel good, I feel good, I’m not going to get sick. Then I proceeded to become incredibly ill.

Bridge sunrise

About five miles past the jetties, the sea swells really picked up. Past the Steller Sea Lions and the Marbled Murrelets (the birds that nest in coastal old growth trees!), and just before the Humpback Whale. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep it together for the whale sighting.

Steller Sea Lion

After the first incident, I thought maybe I’d recover. Nope. I was sick for the next four and a half hours. Ginger snap cookie? Threw it up. Dramamine? Too little, too late, threw it up. I couldn’t hold down ginger ale or even water. My stomach refused everything. Luckily, (or unluckily?) I was in good company. It became almost comical after the nth time over the rails. Almost.

We reached the turnaround point about 50 miles out to sea. This was actually my small turnaround point too. For about an hour, the water calmed and so did my insides. I could finally enjoy the birds!

Pelagic birds

And there were many to enjoy! (See the albatross in the middle? So big!) It was here we came across two fishing vessels swarming with thousands of birds.

Vessel

Fishing vessel

For the second time that day, but the first time I could watch, our boat chummed the water with fish oil and popcorn. It attracted a few birds like this Northern Fulmar.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

And this other Northern Fulmar. Sinister-looking and unattractive, but at this point, I took what I could get.

Northern Fulmar

Side note: Speaking of vomit, check out this nutty but informative video about fulmar chicks using their vomit to deter predators like skuas and rock climbers.

Back to Black-footed Albatross.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

There were so many other birds sighted on this trip. According to the trip list, we even saw 20 South Polar Skuas (!). I saw a few. I did not get any pictures.

After the turnaround point, we had a 5 hour return journey back to Newport against the sea swells. I felt weak and dehydrated and alternated between staying dry and ill in the cabin, and being ill outside and getting soaked by waves.

While a small part of me wanted to die on this trip, most of me was incredibly thankful for the experience. I gained immense compassion for others who have felt the torture of seasickness. And hats off to those who kept their stomach together this day. It took something beyond my capabilities. Here’s a more complete trip report from Tim Shelmerdine, one of the superhero guides. And here’s a link to better pictures from the trip (including many birds I missed), thanks to Nagi Aboulenein.

Ten seconds of swell:
 

 

It’s funny where birding will take you. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Tweets and chum!

Audrey