Hello Sea birders, this is the April 25, 2015 Buena Vista Audubon and Grande pelagic trip report.
Thirty-five birders, five leaders, and two boat-crew met for our trip out of San Diego Bay. Paul Lehman gave a brief onshore orientation. Leaders were Paul, Bruce Rideout, Peter Ginsburg, Justyn Stahl, and myself. The Grande was captained today by Jimmy Merrill and crewed by Oscar. We cast off under cloudy skies. The forecast this morning gave us a nice weather window early, but with winds expected to increase from the west as the afternoon went along. Paul and Jimmy made the decision to forego the normal relaxed looks around San Diego Bay and inshore to press for offshore waters early, so we could have the increased winds and waves behind us the rest of the day. That worked out perfectly.
We did slow down to take a look at each of the harbor entrance buoys, as they have often held Brown Boobies this year. The number 5 buoy was empty, but we found an immature Brown Booby sitting atop the number 3 buoy. The lastbuoy in the line is the San Diego Buoy, at 3 n.m., and there we hit the mother lode – five Brown Boobies on the buoy, with another 7 around the immediate area. Nice show!
I can't predict how long this recent dramatic expansion of Brown Booby into our area will last. It could be a permanent change, or perhaps just ephemeral. Just a few years ago any booby sighting would be rare. Brown boobies have now been seen as far north as Alaska. Since mid-2014 we can motor fifteen minutes out of San Diego Bay and have an excellent chance of seeing multiple Brown Boobies. Dare I say we can now count on it!
The Booby show kind of overshadowed the Pacific Loons flooding by justbeyond the Whistle Buoy. Most, if not all, were in breeding plumage, with the gray heads and necks and white scapulars. We did see a few northbound Pacific Loons all day and at all distances offshore, but the vast majority of the nearly 400 seen today were in this 3 to 5 n.m. zone.
Black Storm-Petrel Raft
This inshore area turned up a few Black-vented Shearwaters as well. Thisisgetting on the late side for this otherwise common species, so we were happy to get a dozen to study. Black-vented Shearwaters return in early spring to the nesting islands off the central coast of Baja California some 300 n.m. south of San Diego. They will return here in the late summer.
A nice surprise in this same area was a rather inshore Pink-footed Shearwater.This Southern Hemisphere species looks somewhat similar to our Black-vented Shearwater, but is larger and has a slower wing beat, longer glide, a pink base to the bill, and of course, pink feet. A close up comparison of these two species is always nice.
Normally Pink-footed and Black-vented Shearwaters are separated by both season and distance from shore. Pink-footedShearwaters are in the greatest numbers in the summer, and are usually seen further offshore – often along the outer edge of the Nine Mile Bank and further out. Black-vented Shearwater is most abundant in the winter months and often seen from just outside the surf line or kelp beds to 5-6 n. miles.
We did have good numbers of Pink-footed Shearwater all day. They are a crowd pleaser and a photographers dream bird. They also make the chummer look good, as they make repeated close passes to the chummed gull flock, circle, and stick with the boat for a considerable distance. I counted eight following the boat at one time. Some approached the boat as close as ten feet, and one even flew directly over the heads of the passengers in the stern at no more than arm’s length.
The deep water just inside the Nine Mile Bank turned up several pairs of Scripps's Murrelets, though the first seenwas a solo bird that might have had a mate in a nest burrow on the nearby Coronado Islands. Conditions for spotting small alcids on the water were only fair today with the wind and waves, so to have 28 Scripps's Murrelets for the day was an indication of this being the peak season locally. I'd guess if we had flat calm conditions our total might have been much higher.
Our arrival on the Nine Mile Bank was marked with our first well-seen Sooty Shearwater. This is another Southern Hemisphere species, nesting primarily on islands off of New Zealand, Australia, and southern South America. Their migration into the California Current is one of the most impressive migrations in the animal world. SootyShearwaters satellite-tagged in New Zealand were found to be feeding near Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, then traveled to the west coast of North America and up into the Gulf of Alaska in the Northern Hemisphere summer. Other sooties were found to go to areas off Japan, and yet others to the west coast of South America. Some of the estimated world population of 20 million Sooty Shearwaters do this in a single calendar year. Today most of our sooties were in singles and small groups of up to five, split into two plumage groups – those in fresh plumage and those in heavy wing molt. The latter showing what appeared to be a light bar on the upper wing, but which was actually the light colored bases of the flight feathers (normally covered by the now missing feathers).
The Nine Mile Bank also had a few miscellaneous species such as a flight of three Cassin's Auklets. Distant andpoorly seen, these were the only Cassin's Auklets for the day. Usually one of the more expected species, they are typically quite boat shy, so often not well seen. We had small groups of Elegant Terns and Least Terns here as well, and would see both species all the way to the inner edge of the Thirty Mile Bank. One Parasitic Jaeger flew down the left side of the boat. Several SurfScoters crossed our bow headed north. Two somewhat offshore Double-crested Cormorants checked out our gull flock, and we had our first of perhaps 2 to 4 Fin Whales of the day.
We pressed on to the west still hoping to beat the forecasted increase in afternoon winds, moving over the escarpment and out into the deep water of the San Diego Trough. The drop-off here is created by the Coronado – Palos Verdes fault. Marine charts show a series of eleven 50-fathom contours, starting at 100 fathoms then dropping off another 550 fathoms. That makes a 3300 ft. escarpment face!
We increased the number of following Pink-footed Shearwaters and quickly added a Black-footed Albatross. Black-footed Albatross is not always the easiest bird to get in San Diego County waters, though fairly common much further offshore in spring and summer. Depending on the exact location, these offshore waters might "belong" to L.A. County, Ventura County, or even Mexico. The closest point of land determines the jurisdiction, and because San Clemente Island belongs to L.A. County, most of the offshore waters do as well, since the Island is the closest point of land offshore, despite being right out in front of San Diego. As it turned out today we needn't have worried – we picked up a second and then a third Black-footed Albatross, all well within San Diego County waters.
Most of the rest of the afternoon we had one or more Black-footed Albatross behind, in front, or alongside the boat. They even followed us back onto the Nine Mile Bank on our return, perhaps helped by the increasing winds at that time of the day.
The Trough held most of the Red-neck Phalaropes we saw over the day, which occurred in small groups of 10s and 20s, most now in alternate or well on the way to that plumage. Mid San Diego Trough we picked up our first few Black Storm-Petrels. I understand the distress some birders were feeling here –these stormies would dart in, get lost in the swell and wind wave, change direction, and then be reported in a completely different side of the boat. That frustration would end as we drove to the southeast corner of the Thirty Mile Bank and started north along the inner slope. We found more and more Black Storm-Petrels until we came upon a raft of about a thousand! For the next 15 minutes these guys swirled around the boat and gave us as good a look as one could expect, with a few birds coming in to a cod liver oil slick 75 to 100 ft. from the boat. A single Ashy Storm-Petrel was calledout here, but even with its smaller size, lighter coloration, and more fluttery flight style, it was extremely hard to pick out of the mob of Black Storm-Petrels.
We also picked up our first Northern Fulmar, and then had several more of the darker, smoky gray-morph birds. We had a good number more as we returned south over our original track. Before we left the Bank, we got a group of eight Sabine's Gull that flew by. I had someone nearby say he wished we'd gotten a better look at them, and as soon as said, another Sabine's Gull flew by, then another, and then a third – all as if following the original group. A couple more were called out at a distance, and then they were gone.
This area offshore produced a number of Pomarine Jaegers, almost allwith nice tail "spoons". As we returned towards the Nine Mile Bank, we had Pom after Pom streak into the gull flock, with several picking at the Popcorn the gulls were after. Among this flood of Pomarine Jaegers was a beautiful, nearly black, dark-morph bird. I'm sure it was the subject of a good number of photographs. At least I heard a lot of shutters clicking.
Both Pomarine Jaeger and Sabine's Gull breed in the high Arctic. They, along with Red-necked Phalaropes, winter at sea – Sabine's Gull off the west coast of South America. Red-necked Phalaropes and PomarineJaeger also make it below the equator, but some Pomarine Jaegers may linger as far north as California in winter.
Our return to the Nine Mile Bank was marked with a spectacular breaching Fin Whale. This whale made a series of full length and half-length breaches that received lots of ooohs and aahs. Nothing like a 75-80 ft. whale suspended in the air then crashing back to the surface. We did also see a second (or third ?) Fin Whale in another direction here.
Returning to San Diego Bay we came across a spot of fast moving, feeding Pink-footed Shearwaters, BrownBoobies, Least Terns, and Elegant Terns, with the usual Brown Pelicans, gulls and cormorants. This appeared to be over a feeding school of Pacific Bonito.
This turned out to be a very nice day of seabirding. We did have a miss or two, most notably Red Phalarope, but overall we got everything we could reasonable expect. The weather, though not great for small alcids on the water, made for nice flight conditions for tube-noses (albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters, and storm-Petrels), yet was fairly easy on the passengers. Skies were dark overcast, partly cloudy, and mostly sunny at various points during the day. Winds were 8-12 kts. in the a.m.; as low as 5 kts. mid-morning; and 12-15 kts. from the west in the p.m. Air temps were in the upper 60s and low 70s. The swell was mostly 3-5 ft., with a 2-3 ft. wind wave. Sea Surface temps were mostly 64-65; close to normal after a winter of a much warmer than normal water temperatures.
Species List for San Diego Bay
Great Blue Heron
Species List for the ocean
Ashy Storm Petrel
Black Storm Petrel
Trip Track 25 April 2015 by Dave Povey
Pomarine Jaeger Dark Morph
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