Shorebird Festival Pelagic

Part of the fun of the Oregon Shorebird Festival is the pelagic trip. After my first disaster of a pelagic experience in 2015 I wasn’t sure I’d ever do it again. But since then I’ve had a couple of successful trips, and after loads of trial and error (and meds) I feel like I’ve finally got my system dialed in.

I’m not saying it’s 100% barfproof, but it’s getting there. Having the right gear and knowing what medication combination works makes the biggest difference for a pleasant ride. This next trip would be my shortest, only 5 hours, less time for “complications” and a good test for my recovering ankle. I felt pretty good boarding the boat as we set off from Charleston.

Oregon Pelagic Tours has the best guides, they’re my favorite people to be out at sea with. Our trip began just past the jetties when we saw Rhinoceros Auklets, Red-necked Phalarope, Marbled Murrelets, and Cassin’s Auklets.

Flying potatoes

Before I knew it we were in Sooty Shearwater territory. And not far behind we got a quick look at terns, a Common Tern, with a small dark bill and dark carpal bars (shoulders).

And a second tern that was first I.D.’d as Elegant until it was examined more closely in photos after the boat ride.

It was thought to be Elegant because of the clean underside and perceived longer bill, but despite this, experts now agree it is actually a Common Tern, as adults transitioning into non-breeding plumage can have red at the base of the bill. Not quite Elegant enough and a very tricky tern.

Eventually we found fishing ships. And lucky for us they were just pulling up their nets.

It was a perfect time to chum the waters. Chum brings the gulls, which brings the jaegers!

We saw all three, a jaeger slam. I’ll start with the easy one. Large, beefy bird with a bi-colored bill, and the largest white wing “flash” on upper and lower wings (6-8 white shafts on outer wing feathers): POMARINE.

A better look at that white flash and those spoon-shaped central tail feathers:

The next jaeger, wing flash is visible, more than two shafts in the upper wing, and a close-up of the bill reveals the gonydeal tip is near the edge: PARASITIC.

And finally, the third.

There are only two white primary shafts on the outer primaries. That is diagnostic for: LONG-TAILED. It also has black and white barring underneath the tail, and a small bill with gonydeal tip in the mid-point, but the minimal flash is what to look for.

Because eBird quizzes are so much fun, here’s a jaeger quiz bird:

Is it A: Long-tailed B: Parasitic C: Pomarine or D: None of the above? (answer at the end)

I thought tail shape was the main factor in jaeger ID and it is helpful, but angles mislead and feathers break. It’s all about the white on the wings and bill shape for jaeger ID. My goal is to eventually learn enough to be able to do more in the field besides hang on for dear life. Clearly I need to spend more time on the boat.

If not for jaeger identification, then to look at more Black-footed Albatross.

They were there too, though in lower numbers than trips in the past. There were higher numbers of Sabine’s Gulls though.

Can’t mistake that one. We also got great looks at a South Polar Skua with the Sabine’s!

Skua-sabine combo

The Skua passed close to the boat several times giving us killer looks.

Also amazing were Buller’s Shearwaters, with that clean white underside.

And scapulars for days.

Not bad for five hours out to sea! I’m grateful for such an amazing barf-free trip. The weather was milder than predicted and the sea swells mostly cooperated. We had a couple of whale sightings and a blue shark visited the chum spot but I failed to get a photo. But the birds never disappoint, they’re the best reason to get back on that boat.

Quiz answer: Two white shafts visible on that upper wing means A: LONG-TAILED

Good job. Some are impossible.

Tweets and chum,


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,


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


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,