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!


West Coast “Snow Day”

PG & E gave me a gift by cutting off power in the Highlands neighborhood because of high winds and dry conditions. I found out late Sunday afternoon that we would be without power and school was cancelled. Call it a Bay Area “snow day”.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County was making San Francisco smell like a camp fire so I planned to get out of Dodge and head south, on Highway One, and bird some of my favorite places in San Mateo County: Devil’s Slide (it was closed), Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, Pillar Point, Tunitas Creek Beach, Pigeon Point, Pescadero Beach, Ano Nuevo, and Gazos Creek Road. I have birded some of these locations for almost 20 years and they are always points of solace and repose. And some amazing birds and wildlife!

I started the morning with breaking the fast at Java Beach, across from the San Francisco Zoo on Sloat Boulevard. My first planned stop was Devil’s Slide. The gates to the parking lot were closed. Driving through Pacifica told me why. The power was out and all hands where helping to direct traffic at intersections where traffic lights where down, which meant all of them.

I drove on to Pillar Point and walked out to the point. Highlights where common loon (I just saw this species on Squam Lake in New Hampshire), red-breasted nuthatch, spotted sandpiper (which I’m always surprised to see, not sure why), and brown pelican. Brown pelican is such a common bird on the west coast but we should never forget how close to extinction this species was (because of DDT). This is such an amazing bird to see in flight. Let’s not forget the power of the commonplace.

I sat back against the rocky levy and did a loose sketch of the hills (the Coast Range as I teach my students).


The view from Pillar Point, looking northeast.

My next stop was Tunitas Creek Beach, where a week ago I have seen the Bar-tailed godwit. This rarity had flown but was now replaced by the Hudsonian godwit that was associating with a group of marbled godwits. I was joined by four other birders from the Sierra Nevada who were out on the coast to see a west coast rarity. And I was happy to point it out to them.

IMG_6882The Hudsonian godwit (left) and two larger marbled godwits on Tunitas Creek Beach.

S Plover

Pen brush field sketch of a snowy plover on Tunitas Creek Beach.

I headed further south and my main focus on the open plains of the San Mateo Coast was raptors. I found red-tailed hawks, American kestrel, northern harrier, white-tailed kite, but no ferruginous or rough-legged hawks. I  had seen a roughie  on October 18 at this location.

IMG_6315I found this rough-legged hawk as I was driving south to my cabin in Santa Cruz. This is an infrequent bird for San Mateo County and I’m glad some birders got to add it to their county list. On my return visit, I did not see the hawk.


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.


The Flight of the Boobies

Pillar Point Harbor, on the San Mateo County coast, is a Mecca for avian ratites. I mean the sort of rarites that makes a birder want to jump in their car and drive all night or book a last minute flight to the west coast. A drop-everything-and- go rarity.

A prime example was the Ross’s gull that showed up on Thursday January 12, 2017 and stayed until it was taken by a pair of peregrine falcons on Saturday afternoon. This is a mega rarity and only the second record in the lower 48.

I saw my first booby in Pillar Point. A brown booby had flown into the harbor in January 2003 and perched on the breakwater.

There are six species of boobies. The name comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning “stupid” or “clown”. This refers to their tame disposition. Because they show little fear towards humans, there were easy to capture and kill for food.

Almost fifteen years later, another booby flew into Pillar Point Harbor. This time it was the smallest species of booby, a native to southern tropical waters , the red-footed booby (Sula sula).

With climate change, will we see more equatorial birds coming into Pillar Point to rest and be seen by birds former and wide? We can only hope to see the silver lining.


An Extremely Rare California Gull

On Thursday January 12, 2017 at 2:07 PM, word went out of (a birding lists digest) that a very rare gull had been  found in a parking lot in Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay. This small, dove-like gull was a Ross’s Gull, an arctic breeder that spends it’s time feeding near ice flows in the Arctic. And this gull was only the second time this species had ever been seen in California. It was previously seen in November of 2006 in, (where else?) the Salton Sea.

On the following day, Friday the 13th, I saw that the gull had been seen up until 3:20 PM on Thursday when it had flown north and the Ross’s could not be refound.  I knew where I would be heading after work to attempt to add a rare gem of a bird to my list but in the morning, the gull’s location was a mystery. Then it was refound at 12:20 at the Half Moon Bay Airport. Now if the gull would only stick until I could get there! But the gull flew east, fortunately no further than the flooded Brussels sprout field across highway one.

I left work and headed west on Highway 92, willing the gull to stay put and not head north into oblivion. Traffic slowed through Half Moon Bay and was equally as sluggish once I turned north on Highway One. I passed the intersection to Princeton, just a bit further, then I spotted all the cars pulled over on either side of the highway. I parked and swiftly walked north, towards the hordes of birders.

The Ross’s stood out like a sore thumb, a brilliantly white gull in a brown field. Bingo Lifebird #509, the perfect lifer!


The Ross’s gull in the flooded field, across Highway One from the Half Moon Bay Airport on Friday the 13th, 2017.

The Ross’s was the perfect lifer because it was ultra rare (only the second California record), it was seen in amazing afternoon light, it was tame and extremely accommodating, it was only 30 yards away in a puddle by itself (no massive gull flock to muddle through), and it acted as if 150 crazed birders watching it was an everyday experience.


Field sketch from Highway One.


Overexposed digiscope photo of the Ross’s. The little gull was scanning the skies, two peregrines were spotted earlier, heading northeast.


The hordes or birders from near and far, enjoying a late afternoon gull from the edge of Highway One.


On the following day, Saturday January 14, at 2:10 PM, it was reported that the Ross’s Gull had been flushed up from the flooded field by a pair of peregrines and the gull was taken by the two falcons, ending it’s wayward journey.