Half Moon Bay Pelagic Birding

To the outside eye, birding makes a man do some crazy things. The list is too long to retell here and to be honest I have conveniently forgotten a few.

So what do I do on my first Saturday after my first week back at school. Relax? Of course not! I wake up at 5:30 AM, drive 30 minutes through pea soup thick, Pacifica fog and stop to caffeinated at the Press Cafe, where all the fisherman of Pillar Point Harbor do the same (they open at 4 AM daily).

I then stood at the base of the Johnson Pier, coffee in hand and my binoculars around my neck, wearing them as a lanyard at a conference, announcing my place in the world. Other birders slowly wandered in to form in loose flocks, some nibbling ginger cookies other talking about recent avian sighting.

Our destination was the pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County and we would be heading out to the Continental shelf aboard the New Captain Pete, a 53 foot fishing charter boat. But we would be doing no fishing on this all day trip.

Sunrise over Pillar Point breakwater as the New Captain Pete heads out to the Pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County.

We headed out from the harbor it was interesting to see the groups of birds we were seeing as we were heading out to the pelagic or open ocean birding grounds. We first where seeing coastal species such as brown pelican, Caspian tern, and Brandt’s cormorant. A little further out we started seeing marine species that can be seen from land but with a scope. Common murre, a parent with begging young in tow, a pair of marbled murrelets, and a few Heerman’s gulls on the water. At the edge of this zone we spotted our first northern fulmar.

My pelagic map (from Pillar Point Harbor).

As we headed closer to the Continental shelf we became to see more pelagic species that are rarely seen from land such as Buller’s and pink-footed shearwaters, pomarine and long-tailed jaegers, and the long haul migrant, the arctic tern.

As we approached the shelf we spotted a giant of a bird, sitting on the water. This was the master of the wind, the black-footed albatross, a west coast speciality. These birds are amazing to watch on the wing and there can be very tame, often approaching boats.

Once we hit the weather buoy on the Continental shelf, we seem to be seeing more shearwaters and were surrounded by Pacific white-sided dolphins that road the bow wake and paralleled our path. On this journey we also spotted about 40 humpback whales.

Over all it was amazing day at sea, with calm seas, many pelagic bird species and marine mammals.

I highly recommend going with Alvaro’s Adventures on a pelagic trip to the Continental shelf.


Nemesis Bird

Nemesis (noun)

the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall.

Nemesis Bird (definitely a verb)

the avian agent of a birder’s downfall

I have had a few Nemesis Birds in the 20 years I have been birding.

These are birds that you try to add to your life list, but after repeated attempts, you fail, making you want to pull out the hair that you still have left on your head and chuck your binoculars into the nearest body of water or a deep, dark crevice, whichever is closest.

I’ve had a few nemesis species in my birding life, the plumbeous vireo comes to mind. This small, gray bird’s range skirts the eastern part of California on it’s western edge. The vireo is to be found around the Mono Basin which lies between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains.

Well this should be easy, I thought. Just show up where the bird has been reported and with a little patience, you have a lifer.

Such is not the case with a nemesis bird (hence the name), I tried and tried for the plumbeous video all around the Mono Basin in different locations and at different times of the breeding season. No luck. (I finally added this vireo to my life list, not in California but in Arizona’s Madera Canyon.)

My latest nemesis was a rare visitor from Alaska that was summering on the western edge of San Francisco on Hermit Rock, a mere 15 minute drive from my residence. Well this should be easy, I thought to myself. You get the picture.

It should be a piece of proverbial cake to see the lone parakeet auklet on the entire west coast of California. So I headed out on my first attempt during the summer of 2017 after I had returned from birding in Costa Rica.

As the Jimmy Cliff lyric says, “You can get it if you really want but you must try, try and try ’til you succeed at last.” Went I did the try, try, and try bit but the murrelet remained as illusive as Bonnie and Clyde at a Sunday afternoon church potluck.

Birders had reported seeing the small black alcid with a white tear streak but somehow I had always managed to arrive ten minutes too late. The parakeet had just been on the water or was preening on the cliff face of Hermit Rock but now I was left intensely looking at every pigeon guilimot that flew to or from the rock with the growing urge to take my binoculars by the strap and hulling them around in circles and pitching them into the Pacific!

At the end of the summer of 2017, the auklet remained off my list and I was resigning to going to Alaska in June during my retirement years to add this nemesis bird to my ABA list.


Then during the summer of 2018, after I had returned from Ecuador the parakeet auklet had returned to Hermit Rock! I tried once and failed and then I returned the following day and the coast was fogged in and I began my search. I was soon joined by three other birders.

The fog slowly lifted and an hour after I started my search, a small black alcid with a white teary streak appeared on a low rock, just below the lookout. The auklet remained in view for about five minutes and then flew around the rock twice before disappearing behind the rock on the far side, probably where it had been on all my previous attempts. Bingo! My Nemesis Bird was a Nemesis no longer.

The parakeet auklet (Aethia psittacula).


Only Bear in Town

After heading back down the valley from Antisana with giant hummingbird, Ecuadorian hillstar, black-faced ibis, Andean condor, coot, gull, lapwing, teal, and ruddy duck on my World Lifelist, we headed north, skirting the edge of Quito.

We turned northeast on the road that eventually leads to Amazonian Ecuador. Our destination was Papallacta Pass. Our quarry was one of the eight species of bear in the world and the one species that exists in South America: the Andean or spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). This is the last of the short-faced bears. They are very tough to see in the wild and are classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss.

We scanned the mountainside to the right as we headed up to the pass. Gustavo instructed me to look for a “large, dark moving bush”. So I did and found nothing among the mountain side. We pulled over and scanned the landscape and the high grasses of the paramo were constantly washing in the Andean winds.

As we climbed towards the pass, we were at 14,000 feet elevation and the fog hemmed in the views and the winds cuts through every layer of clothing I had put on. The cutting winds and the difficulty I had breathing at 14,000 feet above sea level made me happy when we headed into the truck and headed back down the pass towards the capital.

As we drove down the pass, in a westerly direction, Gustavo kept an eye on the mountainside we had just passed on the way up, which was now to our left.

The pass was full of cars and trucks and our side of the road lacked shoulders or pullouts.

We were nearing the end of the valley where the mountainside fell away, when Gustavo said, “There’s something up there!”

He stopped the truck in the middle of the slow lane (must be perfectly acceptable in Ecuador) and we got out and peered at the mountainside.

“See if you can find it?”

I love a good challenge.

It didn’t take long to see the large, moving bush of a bear, foraging on the far mountainside. This bear closed out South American bears for me! It’s hard to see the continent’s one and only bear species and I enjoyed my amazing views in the late afternoon light.

I was a little more concerned with being flatten by a semi speeding down the grade. And I kept one eye on the bear and the other on downhill traffic.

Most trucks and cars swerved around our illegally parked truck (well in the States anyway) but one car slowed and pulled over in front of us. They were ecotourist vultures, coming to feed on our eco find. A couple from the Midwest and their guides exited and the guide inquired, “Bear?”

Gustavo pointed out the dark moving bush to the eco vultures and we now had two scopes on the bear.

Eco Vultures looking at the dark moving-bush.

This was a great sighting to end an incredible time in Ecuador. I end the trip with 331 bird species and one very amazing bear species.


A Tale of Two Condors

On July 10, 2018 I saw my last Andean condor wheel above the cliffs as I watched from the patio of the Tambo Condor Restaurant. I now had closed out the world’s condor species. It was not too hard to do because their are only two condor species in the world. But it require making a journey to Quito, Ecuador and then a drive up to Antisana Biological Reserve. They are both large, dark birds that soar in the air so they are not difficult to spot. But their rarity  and their majestic awesomeness make them a much sought after bird.

The two species of condor are only found in the western hemisphere on the continents of North and South America. The western United States is home to the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the western part of South America, along the spine of the Andes mountain range, is the domain of the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).

When I returned to the States I still needed a condor fix and I knew that they were only an hour and a half drive away from my cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

So on August 2, 2018 I left my cabin just before 7:00 AM, my destination was Big Sur.

The Big Sur coast is the best place to see the California condor in California. While most tourists stand by the roadside, facing the ocean, I am usual faced the other way, scanning the ridges for North America’s largest bird.

The best place to look for the condor in the Big Sur area is Grimes Point. It was here in June of 2009 that I saw the most condors I have ever seen.

California condor on the Big Sur coast from Grimes Point in 2009.

June 22, 2009. In this photo from Grimes Point shows an incredible seven California condors!

After birding at Andrew Molara State Park I headed further south. riding the ribbon of road that has been called the most scenic drive in the world. After cutting into a canyon, Highway 1 pulled up out of the canyon and headed south again. At the top was the pullout for Grimes Point.

Grimes Point looking north.

I pulled off at the pullout at 10 AM and began my condor watch. The sky was clear and a low haze was skirting the coast below. There was a southernly movement of swallows and a few turkey vultures soaring up on the ridges. But no condor, not yet.

I looked north at the A-frame house that clung to the point and at 10:05, an adult condor appeared from around the point and flew south below me! It is always amazing to see these large birds in flight and to see these condors in close proximity and from above, is an unforgettable experience!

My second condor species in less than 30 days, California Condor below Grimes Point.

In the less than 30 days I had both species of condors in my binoculars in two very different locations, one at sea level and the other, high in the Andes at 13,000 feet. Almost 4,000 miles separated these to signings but they seemed to bring the world closer together,


Andean Condor

There is one bird that is held in such high esteem that it is the national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. It is also the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, and Ecuador.

It is also one of the largest flying birds in the world with a wingspan of ten feet and a bird that was on the top of my Ecuadorian wish list, so much so that I took an extra day and hired a guide to take me high up in the Andes, and hour and a half from Quito. It is the Andean condor!

My guide Gustavo picked me up at my lodging at the Puembo Birding Garden and we headed southeast, our destination: the Antisana Ecological Reserve. The Reserve is centered around the 18, 714 foot volcano Antisana. The high Andes are perfect place to see the true giant of the Andes, the Andean condor.

The cloud hidden peak of Antisana. At 18,714 feet is is the fourth highest volcano in Ecuador.

After winding our way up from Quito on streets that got progressively narrower and more rustic through small villages we stopped for a mid morning snack and caffeine break at the appropriately named Tambo Condor Restaurant.

Condors, this way!

We stepped out on the patio and watched a giant hummingbird at the feeder. We were here to see another giant. Gustavo focused his scope on a distant smudge that was just to the left of the thin cascade of white that was falling from the cliff.

“There’s your condor,” he announced as he stepped back.

Centered in the scope was an adult condor, preening on a cliff ledge. Lifer! This was just the opening act. Looking down the valley, with the sprawling capital in the distant haze, three condors appeared on the wing. They rose up from the valley and flew above the cliffs, one condor coming in for a cliff landing.

Over the course of out time in Artisan we saw about eight condors. A true treat to see this slowly declining species and a symbol of the Andes Mountains.