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

Bike Touring San Juan Island

Lopez Island was a good warm-up for San Juan, because our next camping destination, San Juan County Park, is a very hilly 10 miles from the ferry drop-off at Friday Harbor. There was also heavier traffic, but the strawberry house along the way made up for any hardship.

Strawberry House

We eventually made it to the campground and set up.

Hiker Biker

The views are incredible. The shared campsites on the other hand are pretty tight with zero privacy and no hammock trees. Two things I normally look for in a campsite.

But the whales made up for any discomfort.

Orcas

Orcas

That was amazing. We watched at least four Orca pods breach, splash, and swim by just as the sun set. I could have gone home happy then. But it was only day 3.

There were other perks at the park, including a small island reserve just off-shore with Black Oystercatchers.

Black Oystercatcher

And the noisy Pileated Woodpecker in the old apple tree.

Pileated Woodpecker

While on this island, we also made a point to bike to Lime Kiln State Park because it is “considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from a land-based facility.” Even though that meant riding 6 more miles of hills.

We found a lighthouse and White-crowned Sparrows, but no whales this time.

Lighthouse

White-crowned Sparrow

I refused to bike back over the hills, so instead we went 11 miles farther south toward San Juan Island National Historical Park and South Beach.

Leaving Lime Kiln

It was a pretty pleasant bike ride.

Road to South Beach

Plus, we saw more whales from South Beach, and a lovely trio of Harlequin Duck.

Harlequin Duck

At this point, I figured we may as well bike another 8 miles to Friday Harbor. Easy peasy. Because then in Friday Harbor, we can take the bus (!) with our bikes back to Roche Harbor, check out the Sculpture Park and come full circle. Gotta love public transit.

Bus

Roche Harbor has great shops and ice cream, but the best thing about this fancy marina destination is the public showers. No joke. Private, clean (cost a handful of quarters). And after 3 days of bike-camping we really needed one. It was rejuvenating as we mentally prepared to bike the 7.5 miles back to San Juan County Park.

On the way out we visited the sculpture park where I learned something new about Hooded Mergansers.

Hooded Merganser

Immature males have all black bills and bold yellow eyes.

Hooded Merganser

Female on the right below for comparison (yellow bill, dark eyes).

Hooded Merganser

It gave me food for thought as we meandered our way back to the campground. No whale sightings that final night, but I did get a terribly backlit view of a bird I’d hoped to see at some point on the trip, a Rhinoceros Auklet! Trust me.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Later that night the skies opened up and it poured rain through morning. With no bus until noon and an early ferry to catch, we hesitantly packed up a wet camp then slogged through the 10 miles back to Friday Harbor.

We had another island to get to and hopefully more birds to see on Orcas Island!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey