Coasting Part II: Pelagic Birds and Beasts

A highlight of any birding year is a trip (maybe more than one) with Captain Phil Anderson, First Mate Chris Anderson on the Monte Carlo heading out to the offshore Pacific waters west of Westport.  Weather can certainly make the trip better or worse but the wonderful pelagic birds with the ever present possibility of something truly special are hard to beat.  Add in great company with the superb spotters (Bruce Labar and Scott Mills on this trip) and other birders plus the usual presence of some marine mammals and the experience is a must do.  There are a number of pelagic trips from other ports around the country – California, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Maine and probably others.  I have been on many out of Westport and one out of Maine.  From all accounts, there is no better operation than Westport Seabirds out of Westport.  We are very fortunate.

Captain Phil Anderson

Captain Phil

First Mate Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson

Probably for the first time in my life (yeah, right!!) I made a mistake.  I had actually signed up for the pelagic trip on Saturday May 14 but had put it in my calendar as May 15.  Fortunately there actually was a second trip on Sunday and there was room so when I showed up 30 minutes early (5:30 a.m. the departure time for the previous day instead of 6:00 a.m.) I first apologized to Phil and then was welcomed aboard for the day.  Whew…

This trip was not going as far off shore which could affect the species to be seen, but the weather was great and the seas were calm and I was very happy to be aboard.  Everything about the Westport Seabirds trips is first class.  Phil is a wonderful skipper and Chris is simply as good as there is. The spotters are all terrific and essential to finding and getting the ret of us onto the birds.  I think Bruce and Scott are as good as there are – both as pelagic birders and terrific folks so I was very pleased.  The trip was a special one for a group of birder/naturalists associated with the University of Washington – so unlike most trips nobody else I knew and they mostly hung together but were good company as well.

One non-UW birder was Tyler Davis from Kenya.  He manages a posh camp/resort there and we had a fun talk about Kenya, its birds and people – recalling many fond experiences from my trip there in 2007 (blog post ahead some day).  The contrast between birding the African savannah and the Pacific Ocean could not be greater.  Tyler was a super guy.

Bruce Labar (He is much better looking in person… 😉 – added just in case he reads this)

bruce labar

There are always some interesting birds on the way out of the marina, but usually the good stuff – the truly pelagic birds are further out when the waters deepen and the food supply supports their presence.  But close in there are generally some Pigeon Guillemots and maybe some Rhinoceros Auklets, various gulls and cormorants and some loons.  Brown Pelicans are on the rocks and flying by and on this trip we had our first Common Terns and Black Legged Kittiwakes, the latter a First of Year bird for me.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican1

Black Legged Kittiwake (Non Breeding)

Black Legged Kittiwake Flight

Crossing the bar can be rough but this day was a piece of cake and we were distracted by an endless flow of Common Murres and more of some of the birds mentioned above.  Often there are many shearwaters close in but not on this day and I wondered what that might portend as they are a major attraction for the trip.

Pelagic birding can be hit and miss and can be alternately boring and exciting.  Sometimes birds are very close (especially behind fishing boats/trawlers/processors and at “chum spots”) but more often are distant or appear and disappear quickly seemingly coming out of nowhere.  I do not have great eyes but at least after many trips have learned to identify some of these often fast flying birds but without the expertise of the spotters and better eyes of others on board much would be missed.  There were long periods without much activity on this trip but you always have to be ready as the one special such and such can easily be missed if you are not always alert.

The first pelagic species seen was probably the very beautiful Sabine’s Gull – often seen fairly close in but more plentiful further out.  We also had a fairly early single Black Footed Albatross.  Both were year birds but much better intersections were expected. We then intermittently picked up some Red Necked Phalaropes – little beauties but to me not as beautiful as the Red Phalaropes which are usually less plentiful and more pelagic.  A couple of Red Phalaropes were sighted by some at a distance but I missed them this trip.

Sabine’s Gull

Sabines Gull1

Red Necked Phalarope

Red Necked Phalarope1

From here on, this report is not going to be sequential – birds came and went and there was great excitement when they were found and especially up close.  We did not have any fishing boat interactions so missed those concentrations but we found some active spots when Phil spotted some distant whales which were surfacing – interesting on their own part but also because seabirds are often attracted by their activity which can bring food up to the surface or as just their presence means they are feeding and food is around for the birds as well.  And while there are some whales or dolphins/porpoises on most trips, this trip was especially good on that front.

Humpback Whale Hump

Humpback Back

I admit that while whales are truly impressive, I generally just don’t get very excited especially when they are distant and showing just a small fraction of themselves.  This trip was going to be different as there were LOTS of whales and LOTS of above the surface activity.  All told we saw 16 Humpback Whales and much tail slapping, fluke waving and even some full breaches.

Humpback Tail Slapping

Humpback Tail and Fluke

Humpback “Spying”

Humpback Whale

Humpback Breach

Whale Breach

Each antic would be accompanied by shrieks onboard the Monte Carlo and the UW group was especially pleased…

And now back to the birds…

We were now out about 30+ miles and pelagic birds were definitely around.  Our first shearwater was a Sooty Shearwater but we soon had Pink Footed Shearwaters as well.  At times thousands of Sooty Shearwaters are seen – and this is the species most likely to be seen from shore (Point Brown Jetty at Ocean Shores or from Westport) and I once had several thousand deep into Grays Harbor visible from the Hoquiam STP.  I probably have the number wrong but I believe I have heard that there may be a million Sooty Shearwaters off our coast.

More Black Footed Albatross flew by and at our first chum spot – Phil throws out cut up fish parts and suet to attract the birds – they came in close and were joined by Northern Fulmars and Fork Tailed Storm PetrelsLeach’s Storm Petrels are the other storm petrel possibility but are generally seen further out (like where the trip went the previous day).  None were seen close on our trip.  Two were seen high in the sky and at distance.  I got a fleeting and pretty unsatisfactory look at one but definitely no photo opportunity.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross2

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar5

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater1

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater2

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

I have chosen photos of these birds in flight which is how they are generally seen.  These shots also allow easy identification of the two shearwaters as the Pink Footed has a pale belly and pale bill compared to the dark belly and dark bill of the Sooty.  Easy to see in the photos but not always so clear when they are moving and distant.  After time though these features are apparent and the ID is fairly quick.  It gets a bit more complicated when there are other shearwater species around and the spotters definitely make all the difference for these rarer sighting which we birders are most interested in.

These photos also allow easy observation of the tube nose for these sea dwelling birds.  Special anatomy allows them to drink salt water and excrete the salt through these adaptations which also enable them to smell minute traces at great distance. Later when Phil chummed with fish oil cast onto the water with no birds around, within minutes the odor would be picked up by these sensitive organs and the birds would appear right above the slicks.  Birds also have great vision and when they see other birds feeding, they would be drawn to the spot as well.

Sooty Shearwater on Water

Sooty Shearwater1

Northern Fulmar on Water

Northern Fulmar3

Black Footed Albatross on Water


Pink Footed Shearwater on Water

Pink Footed Shearwater

These photos show the tube noses and also some different perspectives for identification. The photos were all of birds attracted by the chum and were often within just feet of the boat. We also had more Sabine’s Gulls and some distant views of tiny Cassin’s Auklets – the smallest Washington Alcids – analogous to the penguins which are flightless and found only in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cassin’s Auklet (Although I got a photo of one on this trip, I am using a photo of a much closer bird from this same trip in April 2015)

Cassin's Auklet in Flight

Time to return to port.  We saw more whales and many of the same birds on the way back in but the highlight was easily the many dolphins we found.  These included perhaps 100 Northern Right-Whale Dolphins and 70 Pacific White-sided Dolphins. Speed and acrobatics were very impressive – often bow riding next to and below our boat.  We had several breaches and fabulous views.

Northern Right-Whale Dolphins

Right Whale Dolphins

Another marine mammal that all enjoyed was a Northern Fur Seal that waved at us with its furry flipper.  We also saw Sea Lions on a buoy close to the harbor and Harbor Seals in the marina.

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seal1

There were still to be some good birds as well.  Nearing the marina, Tyler Davis spotted a “different” looking shearwater, it was dark above and pale below and smaller than the others we had seen.  Bruce Labar confirmed it as a Manx Shearwater – a treasured find on these trips.  One had been seen about the same distance from shore on the trip the day before.  I was barely able to get my camera on it as it flew away from us.  The poor picture (I only got one) was sufficient to confirm the identification though.

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

As the boat nears the marina, we generally search the rock jetty for Rockpipers hoping especially for Wandering Tattlers.  None were found this day but we did find two Black Oystercatchers, striking with their bright red bills, pale pink feet and bright yellow eyes.  They are uncommon at this location.

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

Back in port safe and sound after another great trip.  I had added 12 new species in Washington for the year and had some good photos and admittedly a very enjoyable mammal trip.

I look forward to many more pelagic voyages.



2 thoughts on “Coasting Part II: Pelagic Birds and Beasts

  1. Absolutely fantastic and yes Bruce is awesome! Hope to go on one this year you guys always get better birds than we do on our BC pelagics lol

    You got some fabulous shots of albatrosses Blair!


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