Next week I will be back in Southern California motivated primarily to take my first San Diego Pelagic trip. In part to get into practice for that, I signed on for the August 12th trip with Westport Seabirds, with some shorebirding at some other spots on the coast on Saturday. The first stop was at the Hoquiam STP. Not real birdy, but a pleasant surprise was meeting Dick Holcomb. He is another birder from Edmonds and we had not met before. He was going to be on the pelagic trip the next day as well, so we shared stories and planned to do some birding together later that day as well.
My schedule was dictated primarily by the tides. High tide would be at 2:06 p.m. which meant that I wanted to be at Bottle Beach not later than 11:15 a.m. This gave me enough time to drive the open beach south of Westport, beginning at the Bonge Road entrance. There were lots of birds but not much diversity – thousands of Sanderling and thousands of California Gulls, some Western Sandpipers, Caspian Terns and not much else.
I made it to Bottle Beach on time and was joined by Dick and by Anna Kopitov. She had contacted me after I posted I would be in the area and would enjoy joining forces with anyone else who was at the coast. She was an eager and good birder and nice to have along. We had timed the tide pretty well and immediately found some dowitchers, a large flock of Marbled Godwits, even more Black Bellied Plovers and even more peeps. It was particularly fun to see the Plovers in so many plumages. Some still had full black bellies and some had no black at all. I somehow managed to delete all my photos from Bottle Beach except for the Marbled Godwit so it will have to represent that location for this blog post.
The tide came in pretty rapidly and the show was over by 12:30 p.m. another reminder that you have to get to this location well in advance of the high tide. We caravanned down to Tokeland where we found a cooperative group of 11 Willets and many Least Sandpipers on the grass near the boat launch and also had hundreds of Heerman’s Gulls and Brown Pelicans on the island in the bay.
We made a stop at the Fisher Avenue spit and saw hundreds of California Gulls and many Caspian Terns but no shorebirds. At this point the group split up and I made another long drive on the open beach this time entering from the Midway area and leaving at Bonge. There was some kind of Waverider party going on and there were hundreds of people and almost as many cars on the beach. There were no birds near them, but fortunately they were pretty concentrated. Mostly the same birds as before but this time I also found several hundred Semipalmated Plovers.
The number of California Gulls along the coast was truly staggering. There was a huge concentration at North Cove. I would guesstimate that combining them, the ones on the open beach, those at Fisher Avenue and the ones seen on the pelagic trip the next day (primarily juveniles), there were easily 4,000 birds.
Unfortunately I had decided to make this trip somewhat at the last minute, and I was unable to find a room anywhere near Westport. So after dinner with Dick, it was a night sleeping in the car. Not all that bad except that the noise from the fog horn, gulls squawking and a seemingly endless coming and going of cars meant only a few hours. If this had been one of the North Carolina pelagic trips with too much heat and too few birds, I probably would have fallen asleep midway. Westport is not North Carolina. Granted no Fea’s Petrels or European Storm Petrels, but we had excellent birds and lots of action. Adrenalin overcame tiredness.
Everyone was punctual and we met Captain Phil at the boat at 5:15. Our official spotters would be Bill Tweit and Gene Revelas so we were in good hands and Scott Mills was onboard unofficially so even more help. We headed out in near darkness and had a lot o chop until we got past the jetties. Then the seas ranged from “ok” to quite smooth the rest of the day. There had been showers the day before and at night, but we remained dry for the whole trip. Not great sun light which made some photos challenging, but all in all excellent conditions.
Our first good bird was a Pomarine Jaeger that was resting on a drifting log. It allowed us to come quite close before flying off. The lighting was bad and I did not use the best camera settings, so the photos were just fair, but a good start for what turned into a very good trip.
On my earlier Washington pelagic trip this year in March, the only jaeger seen on that trip was also a Pomarine, so the jaeger on the log was a nice start but from a “listing perspective” a Parasitic or Long Tailed Jaeger would have been preferred. On each pelagic trip there are generally some “regulars” that you can count on, some “usuals” that are almost always seen and then the chance for something rare and/or exciting. On that March trip we had some Short Tailed Shearwaters and a Laysan Albatross as better than usual species, and a Manx Shearwater – much better than usual. But there had been no Pink Footed Shearwaters and no Fork Tailed Storm Petrels, usual fare even for an early in the season trip. Both of these species were on my expected First of Year list and by the time we got to our first shrimper with hundreds of birds circling it, we had seen both of these species.
Pink Footed Shearwater (note the pink feet)
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
On my earlier trip we had also had a Laysan Albatross. Still a much sought after species, it used to be very rare. During the last couple of years, however, they have become almost regular or at least not unusual. Nonetheless they are quite striking and when one was seen among the dozens of Black Footed Albatross with the shrimp boat, there was heightened excitement. It was a year bird for almost everyone and a life bird for many. I took a lot of photos.
Black Footed Albatross (An Adult – see the white above the tail)
There is always something to learn on these trips. Until fairly recently the Laysan Albatross bred only on a few islands in the Pacific along the Hawaiian Archipelago. Lately a breeding colony has developed on Guadalupe Island off Mexico. This has correlated with the increase in sightings of this species on Westport trips. I don’t think there have been banding and tracking studies to prove it, but it is likely that many if not most of our birds come from the Mexico breeders.
Captain Phil Anderson took the boat out to the deeper waters of Grays Canyon. I have been on many of these trips and have learned that some species are most likely to be found in the deeper waters and there is always great anticipation of something really special. Nothing extraordinary was found but we had two species that were great additions: some earlier than usual Buller’s Shearwaters and a few Arctic Terns both new for the year.
We had seen several Red Phalaropes earlier, but now we had many more and closer looks better for photos and they were easier to distinguish from the Red Necked Phalaropes which were encountered in smaller numbers. All of the spotters are amazing and can tell the different species from great distance. In addition to their knowledge of detailed field marks and skill in seeing them, vast experience has also given them an almost sixth sense about the gestalt or “jizz” of a bird – an immediate characteristic impression based on shape or wingbeat or behavior. Sometimes I get such a feel and it does help, but I also make mistakes and have to be careful not to prejudge. It was impressive how the spotters could immediately tell that a distant small phalarope was a Red and not a Red Necked. Yes the bill and coloration details may be different, but those are details that require a good look to discern. We learned that the best first indicator is the “stockiness” of the bird. Red Phalaropes are definitely stockier and the Red Necked Phalarope is more svelte. It actually worked — most of the time. A similar lesson was learned to distinguish between two alcids in flight, the more football like Rhinoceros Auklet and the Common Murre which is pointier at front and back.
Red Necked Phalarope
Another species we had seen earlier in greater numbers but with better looks in the deeper water was the Sabine’s Gull. Not great light and not my best photo but a beautiful small gull with a striking wing pattern and a yellow tipped bill.
Sabine’s Gull (The first photo is from this trip and the second is from Nome, Alaska where I saw many in full breeding plumage splendor and in good light)
As we began our return voyage, I was talking with David Olsen up near the bow of the boat when my eye caught a small bird flying towards but angling away from the stern. It was one of those times when jizz kicks in and sends a quick mental message – my brain noted it as a storm petrel with a rump patch. I immediately yelled out “Leach’s”, cut my conversation with David and raced towards the rear of the boat hoping others were on the bird. Scott Mills was intently looking at something but it turned out to be another Short Tailed Shearwater so everyone was looking away from where this bird might have been seen. I had processed that it was darker and browner than the Fork Tailed Storm Petrels and there was that unmistakable rump patch at the base of the tail. From my North Carolina experience distinguishing Wilson’s Storm Petrels from Band Rumped Storm Petrels which both also have white rump patches, my eye had subconsciously noted even in my quick glance that the legs of this bird did not extend beyond the tail – which they do on a Wilson’s. Finding a Wilson’s in these waters would not have been impossible but extremely unlikely. I could conclude only that it was a Leach’s Storm Petrel– a bit past the prime of their time here, but several had been seen on this trip the week before. Sure wish I had a photo.
Leach’s Storm Petrel (from my Westport Seabirds trip in August 2015)
There were still some more good birds ahead. We had a couple of Parasitic Jaegers – distant views only but a fun view of one chasing a California Gull. This is what jaegers do, they “parasitize” other birds, generally gulls, trying to get them to disgorge food which is then taken by the jaeger.
Parasitic Jaeger Chasing a California Gull
We also had a distant South Polar Skua – a close relative of the jaegers. It is a powerful bird – apparent even at a distance. Birders may refer to the “Skua Slam” – seeing the three jaegers – Parasitic, Long Tailed and Pomarine – and the South Polar Skua on the same trip. We fell short because we found no Long Tailed Jaeger – probably. Gene Revelas had seen a distant jaeger which could have been one but he was not sufficiently certain with the distant look to make a positive ID. Gene made a great analogy to the Grand Slam in baseball – getting a single, double, triple and home run in the same game. The triple is the hardest of those hits to get. For a “Skua Slam”, the South Polar Skua is the home run and the Long Tailed Jaeger is the hard to get triple.
South Polar Skua (taken from at least 100 yards away)
Another good find was a Tufted Puffin – a juvenile without the tuft or the humongous bill of an adult, but still a large bill and an easy ID. They are not seen often on these trips although they breed in Puget Sound and on islands off the northern coast.
Tufted Puffin Juvenile
I generally do not pay much attention to the commonly seen gulls on these trips but on this trip I was really struck by the beautiful feathering of the immature California Gulls. There were hundreds of them seen throughout the day. I could not resist a photo.
Immature California Gull
The trip back in on a following sea (incoming tide) was smooth. We would search for rock pipers on the jetties and call it a day. The search was successful with several Wandering Tattlers on the outer jetty and then Black Turnstones, Surfbirds and Marbled Godwits inside the marina.
It had been an excellent trip as usual. In addition to spending time visiting and soaking up knowledge from the spotters, I had fun chats with a number of birders on board. It was nice to get to know David Olsen. We had interacted before only briefly. David just returned from a summer in Wyoming working on a pediatrics program as part of his med school program at the University of Washington. He completes his M.D. this year and then is vying for a very competitive residency program.
It was also great to meet Dan Gesualdo, if or no other reason than he makes some of my listing pursuits seem simple and sane. He is doing a “Lower 48” Big Year – seeing how many species he can see this year in the U.S. excluding Alaska and Hawaii. The Tufted Puffin was species number 650 for him this year – second in the Ebird rankings. Among the amazing aspects of this incredible feat is that he has done it without taking a single flight. I may have the number wrong but I think Dan said he has put on over 60,000 miles this year – yikes!! Dan had been on pelagic trips in North Carolina in May just before Frank Caruso and I did our trips. He had seen what may be the Bird of the Year – first record of a Tahitian Petrel. We missed that by two days. Dan will also be on the same pelagic trip I am taking in San Diego this upcoming Sunday. I fly down on Thursday. Dan of course is driving down.
As always, Westport Seabirds was super – great operation and great results. I added 9 new species for the year in Washington: Fork Tailed and Leach’s Storm Petrels, Pink Footed and Buller’s Shearwaters, South Polar Skua, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, Red Phalarope and Parasitic Jaeger. The traffic back was abominable – even worse than usual. Sleeping without a foghorn was welcomed that night.