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

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria I

All in one week. Unintentional (and preventable) but it started with a gull. A very rare gull, which is how I explained it to Tomas when I asked if he minded we leave for vacation a little later than planned. With his blessing I left work immediately, hopped in the car with Jen and we made our way towards Seattle.

The detour paid off with good scope views and terrible photos of a…

Nope, not that goose. Much farther out.

Swallow-tailed Gull! The one on the left (use some imagination). But it was there! All the way from the Galápagos. A gull that feeds nocturnally on fish and squid. Don’t ask how it got there, but I’m glad it did. Some day hopefully I’ll get better looks at the islands, because we couldn’t hang out with this one longer this day.

Four hours later, back in Portland I met Tomas to start our four hour drive southeast. I volunteered to drive and pay for a hotel room since we got off to such a late start. Tomas drove an additional two and by midnight we’d made it to Burns. In the morning we found the desert.

Not long after, I found birds. We visited “The Narrows,” a small channel once much larger connecting Mud Lake and Malheur Lake. Due to various reasons including drought and carp, there isn’t much water left now. Even still, many birds congregate at this muddy stopover. Some of the highlights:

White-faced Ibis

Black-necked Stilt

Forster’s Tern

More White-faced Ibis

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Gobs of Gadwall

The occasional Peregrine flyover

Franklin’s Gull (and Black-necked Stilt)

Pied-billed Grebe or bowling pin

Western Grebe

There were also egrets and heron on site, easy ones like Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and these next couple of complicated birds that I almost don’t want to mention. They are difficult birds to ID and neither one fits neatly in a box. Some call them Hegrets. They’re somewhere between a Little Blue Heron and Cattle Egret with features of each.

Don’t look so innocent with those dusky tail feathers. What are you?

The weirdest find were two dead Red-necked Phalaropes near the road.  Wth.

RIP phalarope

We got stuck in a few cattle drives which was entertaining at first, but grew old quickly after dodging endless piles of stubborn cows.

Once beyond the bovine we finally made it to Malheur Headquarters, at last reopened to the public.

It was nice to see it in the hands of the park service. As it should be. Nothing unusual bird-wise here, Rufous Hummingbird, Caspian Tern, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Say’s Phoebe, and so many Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

While I birded the grounds, Tomas spent time in the museum sketching a Golden Eagle.

It was late afternoon and hot, hot, hot by this time so we headed towards our lodging destination, the Frenchglen Hotel.

We were excited to see what else we could find in the desert.

Peekaboo.

(No grasshoppers were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bonus Broughton

After all the driving on the coast the day before, I opted to stay close to home the following day. I got up early to check out Broughton Beach and found an intensely red sunrise.

One plus to all the wildfires.

There was another birder on the scene who nicely pointed out the Sanderling running along the shore.

I always think of them as small shorebirds, and they are, except when running alongside smaller Western Sandpipers.

Another small peep that showed up was a Semipalmated Plover.

Make that three of them!

A Caspian Tern made a fly-by appearance.

But the star of the morning turned out to be one that had been a lifer just the day before.

Thin bill, dark eye-stripe, stripey back, a Red-necked Phalarope! Within 5 miles of my house. This beauty paid us no mind because it was focused on the insects just above the water.

File these under blurry but I don’t care. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

It’s not a flycatcher, but it flipped out of the water like one catching insects. There must have been a hatch event of something tasty this day. We watched in amazement and then the phalarope did something else it doesn’t do.

It walked right out of the water onto the shore just long enough for our jaws to drop in amazement before it headed back in the water to catch more insects. What a sight!

They’re smaller than they look. Here it is in relation to a gull.

Just when I thought shorebirds couldn’t be more fun.

My thoughts are with my friends and family in Florida today! Hope you’re all holding through okay. My dad recently sent me this amazing photo of a family of Limpkins he saw on his morning walk.

Incredible. I hope they’re all okay too.

Love and hugs,

Audrey