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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pelagic trip out of Half Moon Bay, CA

        Sharon and I went on a three week long trip to California to visit my son Chris at Edwards Air Force Base in late August and early September. Our first full day there, we headed for Bonelli Lake Park in San Dimas (of Bill and Ted fame). My objective was to find the Arctic Loon that had been present for at least four months. We arrived at the park and I dropped off the family at the swim beach and went in search of my quarry. Well after a 45 minute search of the lake and almost giving up the hunt, I spotted the loon. It was hiding in a small corner, out of sight from the main lake. Although not in breeding plumage I was thrilled with my first life bird of the trip.
Arctic Loon at Bonelli Lake Park
     After staying two weeks with Chris and the gang, Sharon and I drove seven hours north to Half Moon Bay which is south of San Francisco. The temperature there was 69 degrees which was awesome after 102 degrees at Edwards AFB. We made the trip here because I had scheduled a pelagic trip with Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys. 
My new home for the day
       I boarded the boat at 7am and we were off on our adventure. The boat pulled away from the docks and navigated out to the jetties around the harbor where we picked up Whimbrel, Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants, and Wandering Tattler plus a Common Murre.
Poor photo of Black Turnstones
      Once we cleared the harbor, the Western & Heerman's Gulls started to follow the boat. 
Western Gull with Half Moon Bay in background
      As we got further away from shore we ran into a fog bank which helped in viewing, as it eliminated the glare from the sun off of the water. The fog eventually cleared but a haze remained all day enabling great viewing conditions. Soon we started finding the Pacific coast alcids, some really cool looking birds. Common Murres were seen by the hundreds and Rhinocheros Auklets were common.
Rhinocheros Auklet transforming to winter plumage
Common Murre

       Of course everyone's favorite alcid is the puffin and we got to view the Pacific Ocean version when a Tufted Puffin came into view off the starboard bow.
Tufted Puffin
        It didn't take long after leaving the dock until we reached the offshore waters where the true pelagics are found. 

About 30 minutes after leaving the harbor we started seeing Sooty Shearwaters. These were the most common shearwaters that we would see today, probably around a thousand birds were seen. Well this got everyone's adrenaline rushing. I started thinking about the one bird that I wanted the most and that was the Flesh-footed Shearwater, a rare visitor from Australia and New Zealand. Although I never got a photo of the bird it was one of the last birds we saw on the trip. Usually a deep, warm water bird we found one on the way back to the harbor as we were finishing up the trip. The guides were shouting when they spotted it and I ran to the stern to get a good but fleeting look at the bird as it flew off into the haze.

      Past the Sooty Shearwaters we started running into other species. We found a flock of birds on the water that contained Sooty's but in among them was my first lifer of the trip, a Buller's Shearwater, actually three of them. This was my first lifer of the trip. We would find more of them as the trip progressed.

Buller's Shearwater (Photo from Internet)

       Among the participants on the trip was a husband and wife from England who came to find one bird in particular and that one bird was any species of Albatross. Well their wish was granted many times over when he spotted a Black-footed Albatross flying in from the port side. These birds are just magnificent flyers as they glide over the water with amazing agility and ease. Then they land right next to the boat. Very cooperative birds making for good photos. Although I only had a point and shoot camera I was able to capture a few images.
Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross, Western Gull and Steller's Sea Lion
       Next we encountered a very large raft of petrels on the ocean about a mile ahead of us. We slowly drifted towards them so as not to flush them and started laying out an oil slick behind the boat. As we approached the flock was very nervous and began to flush.    

Mixed Flock of Petrels
       The flock contained about 1200 birds and were mostly Ashy Storm-Petrels and about 30 Black Storm-Petrels, both of which were lifers. 
Ashy-Storm-Petrel (Internet Photo)

Black Storm-Petrel - larger than Ashy (Internet Photo)
       We eventually got to study these birds quite well and than moved on and were encountering small rafts of shearwaters lingering on the water. The guides spotted a Manx Shearwater but lost it in a crowd of other birds and I never saw that guy. 
      We had spotted a small raft of Sooty's and Pink-footed Shearwaters in the distance when someone shouted out "Skuas". Almost right in front of the bow were two South Polar Skuas resting on the water and than they took off so we could get good looks at the large white wing patches and very short tails.
South Polar Skua (not my photo)
        This was my fourth lifer on this pelagic trip and as stated earlier we lucked out and had a quick fly by of a Flesh-footed Shearwater on the way back to shore. Before the trip, I was hoping for five lifers but was thinking I would be happy with three, but as luck would have it I did get my five life birds. This will always be a trip to remember, my first Pacific coast pelagic. It was great fun and I got to meet a lot of great folks also.


  1. Sounds like a great trip! It's been a long time since we've been on a pelagic tirip.


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