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

Texas: Old Port Isabel Rd to Mexico

Heavy fog rolled in the next morning but it didn’t take long for the blazing sun to burn it off. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is hot. Each day I dug deep to my Floridian roots, sucked it up, and birded through the thick wall of humidity and heat. While applying regular applications of sunscreen and bug spray. It’s easy to forget that trying daily routine from the (mostly) comfy Pacific NW.

But of course the same reasons I’m repelled from the southeastern US are what attracts such a great diversity of birds. Heat and bugs. We had plenty of both at our next Texas hotspot, Old Port Isabel Road, seven miles of gravel road through lowland open grassland habitat.

One of the first bird’s to greet us was the Eastern Meadowlark.

I recognize that shape. This meadowlark is best distinguished from the Western variety by song. Western: a rich, low, descending warble “sleep loo lidi lidijuvi.” Eastern: simple, clear, slurred whistles “seeeooaaa seeeeadoo” higher, clearer, with no gurgles (Sibley 2016).

Brightens up that rusty post

Shortly after we heard another tell-tale “Bob-white” call of the Northern Bobwhite! This was one of my most eagerly anticipated sightings. So cool. Even if they just ran away from us.

Then someone spotted a White-tailed Hawk far in the distance. Worst views ever so here’s a slightly less worse view from a later sighting. Clearly white-tailed.

I should mention another hawk of Texas that should have been familiar but wasn’t.

Red-tailed Hawks. Like the one below. Where are the patagial marks? It doesn’t match Eastern or Southwestern varieties in guidebooks. Leave it to red-tails to break the mold. Jerks.

At least Harris’s Hawks follow the rules. And there were plenty of these along the road.

Not just raptors, there was also a fun new sparrow to ID, the Olive Sparrow. It has one of the greatest sparrow songs I’ve heard with a catchy bouncy-trill ending.

Near the end of this road we all got a great surprise on a telephone pole.

Mythical falcons seen only in guidebooks come to life. Aplomado Falcons! (Aplomado  Spanish for “lead-colored”). Then they did what no birds ever do. They both flew directly towards us.

They passed us by at eye level flying incredibly fast and low over the prairie.

It was absolutely stunning. There’s some controversy about “counting” this species for checklists; they currently meet the ABA checklist requirements but “Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC) currently considers the reintroduced population of Aplomado Falcon to be not established, nor self-sustaining and thus deems this species not countable.”

The last wild breeding pair was seen in New Mexico in 1952. These that we saw are a result of a falcon-reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund. Thanks to predator-resistant nesting platforms and the release of 1,500 chicks (since the 80s) there is now a small breeding population in this part of Texas.

I’m grateful because either way you count it, the falcons are amazing. And since it’s my 400th bird species they count extra for me.

What happens after an Aplomado sighting? We could have ridden the high the rest of the day but it was still early. So we did the only thing we could do. We headed to South Padre Island for 0.99 beer bongs.

Jk. We birded on. The afterparty started at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center where a white-morph Reddish Egret drunkenly danced in the tides.

An Osprey danced with a Northern Mockingbird.

Black Skimmers danced in the sky.

And gators sat stoned grinning in the corner.

We also saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers aka wallflowers.

And Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron doing The Robot.

It was good times. We took a break from partying and birded near a random boat ramp.

Among other shorebirds, we found a Wilson’s Plover under the only bit of shade around.

Then there was time for one last stop. Mexico. Or at least up to the border. This took some confident driving skills by Jen.
 

 
At least the tide was going out. Right? Then, before picking out birds in Mexico, finding a dead dolphin on the beach, laughing at cartoon crabs and watching Max catch a fish with his bare hands, we had the second most exciting bird encounter of the day. AJ yelled for us to look at the dark bird over the water!

We all turned to see a Parasitic Jaeger chasing after a Sandwich Tern!

But you can’t see jaegers from the shore?! These are pelagic birds! You have to be seasick on a boat miles off shore to see them!

Except when you’re in Texas. Aplomado to Jaeger in a day? The tropics are growing on me.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey