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Santa Cruz County Pelagic

County lines are a bit strange when it comes to off shore waters. They can seem arbitrary in the same way that county, state, or country lines can be. Only these county lines are drawn over deep water.

One of Alvaro’s pelagic boat trips was scheduled to head north from Monterey Harbor into Santa Cruz County waters. So I had to take this trip on my quest fro 300 Santa Cruz County birds.

Pelagic birding can be sublime and maddening in equal measures. For one, you are birding from a platform that is pitching in constant motion and the birds are often on a surface that is undulating where birds appear and disappear at a blink of an eye. Some birds fly to and over the boat while other birds, that had been resting on the water, take off at the first sight of a boat and you get a view of a retreating bird. Also because the bird boats are really designed for fishing and not pelagic birding, it is impossible to be two places at once. So if you are on the starboard rail and a rarity is seen on the opposite side of the boat, you have to make a mad scrabble on a surface that make one look like a drunk sailor, and only to find that the bird is gone with a spotter pointing to the spot where the Manx shearwater used to be!

I suppose this is the draw of pelagic birding. It is challenging and it can often give you incredible memorable experiences. Such as the time when our boat was surrounded my a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins that numbered in the high hundreds or the time when we kept pace with two blue whales or another time when a black-footed albatross flew in and rest in the water a few yards from the boat.

We where scheduled to depart at 7:30 AM and at 7 a group of Santa Cruz Bird Club members where milling about, cleaning their optics and looking at gulls in the harbor. Our leader, Alvaro walked down the wharf. I was surprised to see him upright because he had flow in the night before from Spain, having just finished a birding trip. He said he felt fine but joked that if we found him asleep later in the afternoon we where to kick him awake.

We left on time and we where only about an hour from port when we saw our first pelagic gem: the black-footed albatross. We soon crossed into Santa Cruz water and I wanted to add this albatross to my county list but unfortunately the four that we saw where all in Monterey waters. There where large numbers of shearwaters throughout our trip, the most common being sooty and pink-footed but with sightings of Buller’s and just one short-tailed and Manx shearwaters.

Looking down the port side of the Pt. Sur Clipper, or in pelagic birding parlance, 6 o’ clock to 9 o’clock. Here we are cruising above the Monterey Bay submarine canyon.

In all it was a very pleasurable cruise, even though I did not get an albatross over Santa Cruz waters, I did add 12 new county lifers, including: south polar skua, Arctic and common tern, Sabine’s gull, two jaegers, northern fulmar, Manx, Buller’s, and pink-footer shearwater.

As we headed back towards Monterey Harbor and the pelagic species where being replaced with inshore species like brown pelican, Brant’s cormorant, and western gull, there was one last surprise for use. One of the spotters picked out a far off brown booby flying along the coast. Not a bad way to ended a productive pelagic.

While we whiffed on black-footed albatross in Santa Cruz County, this photo of an albatross, blurred in motion over Monterey waters, sums up the motion and excitement of a classic Monterey Bay Pelagic.
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Monterey Bay Classic Pelagic

The first time I remember going out on a boat on Monterey Bay I was in high school. That year (1988, I think), numbers of blue whales were being attracted by krill into the nutrient-rich bay.

My dad and I took a whale watch boat out of Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf and it was the first time I set eyes on the world’s largest animal. I was able to take a few pictures of the whale’s blue-gray mass. Later, I told my biology teacher that I had seen blue whales in Monterey Bay. He didn’t believe me, but I showed him pictures to prove it!

In the ensuring 30 years, I have been on a few Monterey Bay pelagic birding and whale trips. But it had been a while so, when I saw that Alvaro’s Adventures was taking a trip to the bountiful Monterey Bay, I signed up.

I love Monterey because of it’s place in California’s history. The American flag was first raised in Monterey. Our state constitution was written (in English and Spanish) at Colton Hall, a short walk from Monterey Wharf.

What I don’t love about Monterey is it’s wharf. This is full of tourist junk shops and cheesy nautical themed restaurants but it’s saving grace is to be found at the end of the wharf: the companies that lead nature tours (mainly for whales) out into the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.

The orca sign at the dock to Monterey Bay Whale Watch and our masked-leader below, Alvaro. I had seen a pod of orca in the bay a few years ago. I wouldn’t mind seeing the world’s largest dolphin again.

I found myself here at a quarter to seven at a wharf that was slowly coming to life, which would be a jarring contrast on our return later that afternoon when hordes filled the wharf, having not got the note about social distancing.

A few pelagic birders were milling about. You could always tell them apart, they had on birding hats, often displaying some national or international birding destination. They usually had optics around their neck and were nibbling on ginger snaps or cookies and thumbing through bird guides. Some where even checking out the local western gulls and pelicans.

Today our boat was manned (this doesn’t sound right) by two women. She was a large boat, the 70 foot Sea Wolf II and was made, not for fishing, but whale watching, a perfect vessel for pelagic birding! Of course the real Sea Wolf of the seas is the orca aka the killer whale.

There was plenty of leg room on the Sea Wolf II. The red tape on the rail was placed six feet apart to encourage social distancing. One of these lines of perspective is straight. My money is on the horizon. The Sea Wolf had lots of places to stand or sit with clear views of Big Blue.

We boarded and before long where heading out into Monterey Bay. The swells were high and I enjoyed riding the rhythms of the sea like a nautical bucking bronco, a raucous sea horse! A few members of birders joined the Feeding-the Fish Club. Luckily, touch wood, I have never been a member of this club.

The reason Monterey Bay is a legendary location for pelagic life is the marine canyon, the Monterey Submarine Canyon, that bisects the bay. This canyon starts just to the west of Moss Landing. The canyon, at certain places, is a mile in depth and is the deepest submarine canyon on the west coast; a Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This canyon produces nutrient-ruch waters that attracts cetaceans (from blue whales to orca) and pelagic birds. This also means that you do not have to travel too far out to see pelagic species.

Today we headed south to search the waters off the coast of Big Sur. I told Alvaro that I would be checking the skies for California condor! (there is a nerdy bird joke in there.) The pelagic birding in the bay had not been as prolific in recent weeks, possibly because of water temps, so Alvaro directed the crew of the Sea Wolf to head south. And it turned out to be a good decision.

Within 30 minutes of leaving port, we had our first pelagic species, a lone sooty shearwater. This trip was dominated by the presence of pink-footed shearwaters. Alvaro noted that “weirdo” shearwaters (aka rare) associate with pink-footed and not sooty shearwaters. I could only hope for a Manx!

A little further out, we were upon a pod of Risso’s dolphins. These gray dolphins have dorsal fins that resemble female orcas. Our captain called attention to one individual Risso’s, an albino, named by whale watchers as “Casper”.

Risso’s dolphin. These dolphin don’t seem to enjoy bowriding like the gregarious Pacific white-sided dolphin. But a great dolphin to see nonetheless.

Further south we encountered sweet spots with many shearwaters, a smattering of ashy storm-petrels, and some south polar skuas. One skua was being chased by a Heerman’s gull, oh how the tables had turned. In this general direction we saw our first, of about ten, black-footed albatross. We added two species of jaegers to our list.

I spent most of my time in the stern of the boat. It it usually is less crowded, less wet, and less turbulent in the back. Once we headed back north again, I migrated to the bow of the Sea Wolf. Here is was important to keep at least three points of balance and attempt to hold binoculars to your eyes. At times, I wore my binos like a dense necklace and scanned the waters with the naked eye. This is a wide angle lens approach to pelagic birding. This approach has payoffs.

I spotted a chocolaty shearwater crossing our bow from right to left. “Shearwater”, I called out. Alvaro, who was standing to my left, got bins on it and proclaimed, “Flesh-footed!” It really does pay off to stand next to someone who knows more than you do. It always makes you look better. This was the only flesh-footed shearwater we saw on the trip and only the second one I had ever seen.

Something similar happened a dozen miles later when I spotted a grouping of four birds. It looked like two phalaropes bookended by two California gulls. One of the spotters identified the two birds as red phalaropes. The seas, swells, and light can play tricks on the birder, even the most seasoned pelagic birder. As we came closer the birds were not phalaropes but the smaller Napoleon’s gull. They showed their dark bills and ear muffs. These small gulls were a pleasant pelagic surprise. I have never seen this gull in open ocean but on terra firma.

It was surprising to see a few passerines so far out at sea. The closest these birds might come to water was a bird bath. An American pipit strafed the boat and then later a golden-crowned sparrow crossed our stern. We also spotted an unidentified sparrow that was laboring, inches above the waters. It was flying towards us. Some passerines hitch rides back to port but this sparrow did not look long for this world. It most likely had gotten lost flying over the bay and this shortcut can prove deadly. We soon lost sight of the sparrow, it disappear behind the swells.

We soon made a course to the west as we headed back to port. Here we saw more inshore species like common murre, Brandt’s cormorant, and brown pelican. The latter species it’s truly one the of the iconic inshore west-coast species. Brought close to extinction by the pesticide DDT, they now flourish in the Pacific. A line of pelicans approached from our port side. Such a common species here, now, but is there no other bird in flight, over the seas that is more soothing to soul and meditative, than a line brown pelicans?

To me, there never has been, nor will there ever be a species that says “Monterey Bay” than the brown pelican.

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Pioneer Canyon Pelagic

For months, Grasshopper Sparrow has been dreaming of going on a pelagic to see some of the iconic west coast species: shearwaters, storm-petrels, and the mighty black-footed albatross! And finally the morning came for a September Alvaro’s Adventures pelagic trip to the continental self from Pillar Point Harbor.

A loose sketch of a budding birder checking out the birds on the breakwater as we head out of Pillar Point Harbor.

We arrived at the harbor half an hour before the meeting time of 6:30 AM. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve, I was excited and I rarely sleep well before a pelagic. Pelagic trips are so exciting because you never know what you’re going to see.

This pelagic produced some avian highlights but on this trip the cetaceans really shined.

A loose pen brush sketch from the stern of the Huli Cat. Not an easy thing to do with the rolling and rocking of the boat in open sea. That’s why it’s loose!

As we headed out into the foggy bay we saw many rafts of common murres. It took a while to see a sooty shearwater and our first was a lone individual, strange for such a gregarious species. As we headed further out we saw more sootys and then our first pink-footed shearwater. A bird misinterpreted by an elderly woman on the trip as a “pink” shearwater, the flamingo of the sea. We came upon small rafts of red-necked phalaropes. Then we saw our first storm-petrel, an ashy.

We were all anticipating the first appearance of an albatross. Once the depth went from 200 feet dropping down to 1,000 and more, we knew we had passed over the continental shelf and were over Pioneer Canyon. This is where pelagic life really intensifies. These were the waters of the albatross. But we didn’t see any of these monarchs of the open seas (well not yet, anyway).

We where not over the submarine canyon long before we were surrounded by dolphins, hundreds of them. Pacific white-sided dolphins same toward the Huli Cat, riding our bow wake and jumping in our stern wake. Mixed in with this large pod were the northern right-whale dolphin, it’s finless back can be easily confused with sea lions. The large pod seemed to seek out our boat and many dolphins where fully breaching out of the water! Their playfulness in water reminded me of ravens in the air.

We next encountered a pair of humpback whales. As we cruised along the continental shelf we came to our best whale sighting of the day. Two blue whales that we kept pace with for about 10 minutes. This is the largest animal to have ever lived on planet earth and it is always amazing to see this leviathan of the Oceans. In fact, there were two of three other blue whales in the area, their tall, straight blow gave away their positions. The two whales would pause on the surface, perhaps resting before diving down, showing their massive fluke as they searched the nutrient rich waters for krill.

The mighty blue whale. We saw their flukes as they dived down.

Later, to our starboard, a young humpback whale entertained us by breaching (jumping) out of the water. We were able to watch about ten breaches from this playful whale.

We came to a group of gulls and shearwaters on the water, perhaps feeding on the remainder of a sea lion meal when Alvaro yelled out the word we were yearning to hear, “Albatross!” A lone black-footed albatross passed us on our port side, giving us great views of it’s effortless flight. We later saw one other albatross but this pelagic was marked by the presence of some amazing cetaceans.

And Grasshopper also got some great lifers, both pelagic birds and marine mammals!

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Albatross

At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough the fog it came; 
As if it had been a Christian soul, 
We hailed it in God’s name.
 

~The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots

Albatross.

Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!

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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.