Another Pier, More Storm-Petrels

“I’m surrounded by storm-petrels!” I said as I watched another fork-tailed  wave swallow pass underneath me.

“I’m heading down”, Dickcissel said, “don’t go anywhere!”

I had been reading about the continuing fork-tailed storm-petrels that were being seen at the Pacifica Municipal Pier and figured I’d make a jaunt out to the coast after work to see these pelagic delights from another pier in another country: San Mateo.

So while I waited for Dickcissel to head south from Marinland, I pulled out my camp chair, my sketch book, and my pen case and sat on the beach and sketched the pier.

It could be a scene from a Film Noir but no, it’s just Pacifica Pier.

From my vantage point, the “L” shaped concrete pier is not much to look at. The “Rev. Herschell Harkins Memorial Pacifica Pier”, as it is officially known,  was built in 1973 as part of the city’s sewage system where a pipe pumped sewage (treated I hope) out into the Pacific Ocean. It now primarily is used as a fishing pier but today it was used by birders as a quasi-pelagic platform that juts out a a quarter mile into the Pacific. This pier is much shorter and certainly less interesting than the Santa Cruz but it provided outstanding looks at the storm-petrels.

A storm-petrel flying below me on the Pacifica Municipal Pier.

Instead of seeing three FTSPs from a great distance, I was now surrounded by about 20. They were on all sides of the pier and frequently flew underneath the pier giving unique views that would be impossible on a pelagic boat trip. I figured that this experience may come once in a lifetime and felt lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Sketching the low flight path of fork-tailed storm-petels.

Field sketch from the Pacifica Pier. Just sketching these storm-petrels helps me understand and see them more fully.


Put a Fork-tailed in It

This lifer was a parking lot bird in a manner of speaking. I looked at the text from Dickcissel: “fork tailed storm petrel san lorenzo river mouth. you going?”.

I really needed a pair of black pants but they could wait for a possible lifer so I left the Capitola Mall parking lot and headed to the San Lorenzo River overlook, which was about 15 minutes away. 

At 9:52 AM a fork-tailed storm-petrel was seen again, two were first first reported from the rivermouth at 8:23 AM, one was being stooped on by the local peregrine. It was now 10:15 AM and I hoped the pelagic petrels would stay close enough to shore to be seen.

I parked, grabbed my car binos and headed out to the overlook. The first thing I saw was two birders, which was a very good sign. I walked out to the point and scanned the waters between the buoy and the Municipal Wharf, looking for a grayish low-flying petrel. One birder had it and I soon had the sea-swallow in my binos, tracking it as it flew to the right. The bird passed in front of the wharf and one birder suggested heading off to the wharf to get closer looks.

I was off to lunch to watch a Real Madrid “B” team slaughter already relegated Granada 0-4. It reminded me of the time I was in Bilbao last Spring, on a Sunday afternoon after the home team, Athletic Bilbao had drawn 1-1 with Granada. I was walking up to the Federico Moyúa Plaza, the town’s center, as the Granada team bus circled the plaza, quietly making it’s way out of town and now the Spanish minnows were quietly making it’s way out of the Spanish Primera Division.

A shop front in Bilbao sporting the crest of the local all Basque team. Futbol is a religion in this northern part of Spain. But I digress. . .

In the afternoon I decided to head out to the wharf, which was a popular destination in my childhood. I have many memories of eating burgers and fries with my dad and brother and then heading to the end of the wharf to watch the snoozing California sea lions. This area and the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk is the tourist side of Santa Cruz and I now rarely visit this part of town, but close looks at a rare Monterey Bay petrel drew me to the very end of the west coast’s longest pier at 2, 745 feet. That’s 2,745 feet jutting out into the Monterey Bay was almost like being on a pelagic boat trip but without the rocking and rolling. Dramamine not needed.

The sealions of my youth. Under the wharf of the West Coast’s longest pier. 

When I walked to the end of the pier, there were two good omens.the first was that there with about eight birders peering off to the waters (always a good sign). And the second was a honey bee that alighted on my right hand (can’t ask for a better blessing). And I just kept birding with my pollinator guest.

Show no fear, don’t get stung. It’s a lesson I  teach all my students: don’t be afraid of nature, nature has more reasons to fear us.

It didn’t take too long, with so many scopes and binos  trained on the waters to find a fork-tailed storm-petrel. One was sighted as I walked up, in fact there were three of them foraging off the pier. One came so close that I lowered my glasses and watched it with the naked eye. Amazing for a pelagic species and not being on an ocean going vessel!

We were frequently asked by the tourists if we where looking for whales. The standard response was, “No, just a small ocean bird. ” That answer usually struck them dumb and they hurriedly walk off as if we had the Pneumontic Plague.

As a nice bonus I spotted a humpback’s blow on the horizon, followed by its flukes as it dove. So I  now could say we where looking at whales. But they didn’t ask and I didn’t answer.