San Diego Pelagic – Terrific Birds and Birders – Some Frustrations As Well

Background and Preliminaries

Just as on my pelagic trip out of Hatteras, North Carolina earlier this year in June, this trip was a chance to add multiple new ABA Life birds.  There would be some overlap with birds I see regularly on trips out of Westport, Washington, but being much further south, there were a number of new species that ranged from sure things to probable to rare but not impossible.  I was especially interested in a variety of Storm Petrels that have been seen frequently and some others that have been seen recently, if not often.

Pelagic trips are different in every location.  This results from the operator, the sea conditions, time of year and especially the distance out to deep water.  Most pelagic trips are on boats that are more commonly used for deep sea fishing ventures and they were not designed with ease of visibility for birders in mind. Our trip was offered through the Buena Vista Audubon Society and was organized by super San Diego birder Paul Lehman.  The boat was the Grande, a large fishing vessel (85′) with a full galley and some bunks, often going out on overnight or even multi-day tuna trips.  It docks at H&M Landing between Shelter Island and Harbor Island and our departure was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. which is 60 to 90 minutes later than the boats depart from Westport or Hatteras.

The Grande

The Grande

And of course the birds are different as well – determined by many factors including food sources, proximity to breeding areas, ocean temperatures and currents and at least for birder observations, luck.  On my Washington trips, finding a shrimper, trawler or processing boat can make a huge difference, as the boats can have hundreds or even thousands of seabirds following them.  I had been on pelagic or semi-pelagic trips in Washington, North Carolina, Maine and South Africa as well as crossing oceanic areas in Florida on the way to the Dry Tortugas and in Southern California on the way to Santa Cruz Island to see the Island Scrub Jay.

This trip was different from all my others in many ways.  The boat was significantly larger (not counting the much larger boats to the Tortugas and Santa Cruz which are more passenger ferries) and there were more than twice as many birders on board compared to my other trips.  As is often the case, there were advantages and disadvantages as a result.  A larger boat has plenty of room and access to spread out, but when a really good bird is seen, there is often a rush to an area where the view is theoretically best.  It was often the case on this trip that it was difficult if not impossible for everyone to see some of the birds with birders crammed in small preferred spaces often three or four deep.

All pelagic trips count on spotters – excellent, experienced birders with particular talent for finding and identifying often very similar species.  All trips I have been on have had great spotters.  I am amazed at how quickly they can identify birds that I can barely see.  Not all spotters and not all operations are equally good at getting others on the birds, however.  In part this is a numbers and location game and in part it depends on the personalities and preferences of the spotters.  For example, with maybe one exception, the spotters on the Washington trips uniformly make it a priority to be sure everyone gets on the birds.

Paul Lehman Preparing the Group

Paul Lehman

Often the Boat Captain with his or her elevated position in the wheelhouse plays a lead role in seeing distant birds.  Captains Phil Anderson in Washington and Brian Patteson in Hatteras are both terrific at this – announcing birds they see often before the spotters or anyone else.   On this trip, the Captain was seemingly not involved with the birds at all as Paul Lehman remained in the wheelhouse and his announcements were the main or at least first source of notice to the birders of what birds were being seen.  Paul was connected to the spotters by radios and I am sure that many of his announcements were of birds seen first by them and then communicated to Paul who so advised the birders via a speaker system that was better than any I have heard on other trips.  With a couple of exceptions, it was my take that the spotters on this trip had relatively little direct communication with the birders to help them get on what were often (too often) distant birds.

We had very favorable calm seas with minimal chop and almost no waves.  This makes it easier to see birds both because there is less movement of the boat and also because the birds do not disappear behind waves – now you see them, now you don’t.  It was very pleasant in the morning but got quite warm in the afternoon.  Sunscreen was a must, but warm clothing was not.  This was a long and full day as we were out a full 12 hours – somewhat longer than other trips I have been on.  The galley was a big plus.

The Birders

There was an extraordinary collection of birders on this trip.  I will mention some that I know or know of and am leaving out many that I don’t know who may as well be as or more noteworthy.  Many were doing “Big Years” of some sort and the specialty birds on this trip plus the possibilities of rarities made it a mandatory stop for them.  I personally knew 12 of the other birders – 5 of whom were from Washington State including Shelli and Meghin Spencer who are doing a mother/daughter Big Year, and Scott and Sierra Downes, a father/daughter combo from Yakima who are racking up many birds in Washington and out of state as well.  Four of the birders, including friend Mel Senac and spotter Nancy Christenson, are the top 4 listers on Ebird for San Diego County for 2018.  The top six and seven of the top ten ABA Area Ebird Listers for 2018 were onboard.  This included Dave and Tammy McQuade from Florida who I had met in North Carolina, and Dan Gesualdo from Ohio who I had met just last week on a Westport Pelagic trip and is doing a lower 48 Big Year – all by car.  I did not meet (shame on me) Richard and Gaylee Dean from Texas who each had over 744 ABA species last year and were out doing it again this year.  Finally there was Nicole Koeltzow who is already at 738 species for 2018 and has set her sights on a Very Big Year.  A big regret was that I did not meet the legendary Guy McCaskie who was also on the trip.  He is affectionately known as the “Godfather of California Birding” and at 85 is still going strong.  Also onboard was Kyle Kittleberg who I met the night before at dinner with Mel SenacKyle is an excellent and enthusiastic young birder who among other things at age 25 has been one of the key spotters on many of the Hatteras pelagic trips.  Again I know I am leaving many great birders off this list – just did not know or know of them.

Before getting to the trip itself, I want to share one of those birding/small world stories.  I stayed at the Dolphin Motel the night before the trip conveniently just across the street from the docks.  A simple breakfast is available on the patio – available early around 5:00 a.m.  One other person was out when I went for some early coffee.  It was someone else from Seattle, John Bjorkman.  The world got even smaller when we learned that John was an attorney at a Seattle Law Firm that I had worked at (before escaping from lawyering) almost 40 years ago.  We had lots to talk about and hope to get some birding in together back in Washington.

The Birds

It was perhaps an auspicious start when a Black Crowned Night Heron was on a railing immediately next to us as we boarded the boat.  And it was also not long before we had Elegant Terns overhead as we motored out of the harbor.  I wish some Elegant Terns would make it back to Washington.  The last two years they have been scarce or non-existent.  At other places I had birded in the area before the trip, I had also seen many Forster’s Terns, a species I usually see at Potholes in Washington but missed this year.

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron-1

Elegant Tern

Elegant Tern

Our first real pelagic species was Black Vented Shearwater, the most common Shearwater in the area.  I got my lifer last year on the boat trip out to Santa Cruz Island to find the Island Scrub Jay.  We also had several Red Necked Phalaropes early and later had Red Phalaropes as well.

Black Vented Shearwater

Black Vented Shearwatera

Not long afterwards several individual Black Storm Petrels appeared crossing the bow  and then flying by on mostly the starboard side. This was my first Lifer on this voyage, the one that was almost a guaranteed observation.  They are quite large and almost look like small shearwaters with a flight pattern that reminds me of them as well.  We would see well over a hundred of this species during the trip, most fairly distant.  Unlike my experience with Wilson’s Storm Petrels in North Carolina and the Fork Tailed Storm Petrels in Washington, these guys did not come in close to the boat.

Black Storm Petrel


Relatively early and perhaps another good omen was a Brown Booby that flew alongside the boat maybe 70 yards away.  A good bird for the year.  Another was seen later.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby1-1

As is usually the case on pelagic trips, there were periods of almost no activity and then times with more birds.  There were no periods of hyperactivity – primarily because there were no congregations behind fishing boats and chumming seemed ineffective.  In Washington chumming is either by throwing fish pieces behind the stern or by creating a slick with fish oil.  It can be very effective bringing birds of a number of species in very close.  The technique in North Carolina was to use oil and to drag some Menhaden in a cage behind the boat.  It mostly attracted Wilson’s Storm Petrels.  There may have been some fish oil put out on this trip but I never saw it and if so, it was ineffective.  Some fish parts were dragged but the main technique seemed to be to throw out popcorn.  The only birds I saw come in for the popcorn were Western Gulls.  We never found any really large rafts of Storm Petrels – maybe chumming would have been effective if we did.

There had been an excellent scouting trip the previous day on a smaller boat.  They had many good birds at was is known as the 9 Mile Bank – a high spot in the bottom that runs for 9 miles north and south.  There was a pick up of activity here as we found our first Pink Footed Shearwaters and continued to see Black Storm Petrels and some Black Vented Shearwaters.  I think it was here that we had our first Craveri’s Murrelets – another Life Bird for me and another disappointment as the birds were never close and were always flying away from the boat giving us only distant views primarily of their backs.  Like Marbled Murrelets in Washington, these birds are generally seen in pairs.  We probably had at least 6 pairs on our trip – all with the same distant fly away views at least from the bow where I spent most of my time.

Craveri’s Murrelet (My best of a lot of bad photos)

Craveri's Murrelet-1

There were not a lot of birds at the 9 mile bank and then even fewer for quite a while after we left it and before we got to what is called the 30 mile bank where there was some increase in both Shearwaters and the Black Storm Petrels and we added some new species.  I don’t know exactly where we saw our first Ashy Storm Petrel but altogether we had only 5 – in hours 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the trip.  These were even further out than the Black Storm Petrels and were very hard to photograph.  They could be identified as a bit smaller than the Black Storm Petrels and with noticeably shallower wingbeats.  To me they were very hard to tell from the Leach’s Storm Petrels except for the Leach’s that had some white on the rump (never fully across).  In flight the Leach’s had a springier wingbeat, but I will need a lot more observations to get that down.  The Ashy Storm Petrel was another Life bird.  I was able to see and identify at least two and maybe three of the Ashy’s but I am not sure of the photo.

Ashy Storm Petrel (Probably)


Since there were no gatherings of birds and it was my first trip in the area, it was difficult to keep track of where we were when something was seen.  I will just add some photos without them necessarily being in sequence starting with a picture that did come out well of a Cassin’s Auklet.  We had several during the trip, not quite as many as the Craveri’s Murrelets and these were our only two alcids.

Cassin’s Auklet

Cassin's Auklet-1

We also found some Sabine’s Gulls, both adults and juveniles and we had a couple of Pomarine Jaegers. Later we would have a Parasitic Jaeger and a distant view of a South Polar Skua.  I thought someone had a Long Tailed Jaeger  that would have completed the so-called Skua Slam, but I never saw it and it did not make it onto the trip lists.

Sabine’s Gull (Juvenile)

Immature Sabine's Gull-1-1

Pomarine Jaeger 

Pomarine Jaeger2-1

Parasitic Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger1

There was a bit of excitement when a small Storm Petrel which appeared to have a white rump flew by.  I got a few lousy photos and showed them to Paul Lehman.  The question was whether the white went completely around the base of the rump and down on the side not just the top.  If this had been the case, we would have had a Townsend’s Storm Petrel – split from the Leach’s Storm Petrel which either has a dark rump or a pale rump or some white but not fully across the rump.  My photo was at best inconclusive but it did not appear that there was enough white to make it into the very rare Townsend’s.   Later we had quite a few Leach’s Storm Petrels and I got better photos that showed the partially white rump clearly.

Leach’s Storm Petrel


The hoped for large rafts of Storm Petrels never materialized.  I think the largest raft was just over 30 birds – all Black Storm Petrels.  One other raft had a much smaller darker bird – a poorly seen Least Storm Petrel – another ABA Lifer for me.  A second one was also seen.  They are distinguishable by size although if alone and at distance that is problematic.  They also tend to have a very direct flight.  This is my only photo – terrible as it is.  I am also including one taken by Kyle Kittleberg.  I was on the same bird at the time as we were comparing notes but I could not get the photo.

Least Storm Petrel – Second Photo by Kyle Kittleberg


Least 2

In general birds became few and far between except for continuing immature Western Gulls and a few of the species already mentioned as we were returning to port.  Especially as the clouds and breeze disappeared and the temperature rose, I got very tired and a bit inattentive.  I needed a shot of adrenalin – something to excite.  When someone yelled out “Red Footed Booby“, I was no longer tired and raced to get a view.  This was one of the most cooperative birds on the trip coming relatively close and circling twice and landing twice giving us good views and photo ops.  I had seen my lifer Red Footed Booby at Pillar Point in California last year and got a terrible distant photo.  These would be much better and clearly show the red feet.  Only the second one in my life.

Red Footed Booby

Red Footed Booby2-1

Red Footed Booby on Water-1


Red Footed Booby1-1

And if a two Booby day is good why not go for three.  About 30 minutes later there was another stirring call: Masked Booby“.  Not quite as cooperative as its Red Footed cousin, but still good and close looks.  I had seen several in Florida in 2017 but this was the first on the West Coast.  Added to the Nazca Booby I had seen earlier this year, it was the fourth Booby species I have seen in San Diego County.

Masked Booby

Masked Booby2

So the smaller birds had been challenging but these big guys were making up for it.  And the show continued first with good looks at a Black Footed Albatross and then with what for most people was the star of the show, a Laysan Albatross.  In Washington the Black Footed Albatross are very common and we often see more than 100 on a trip many just a few feet away.  And lately Laysan Albatross has become pretty regular in Washington as well.  In fact I saw one last week and also had one on my April pelagic trip.  Such has not been the case in San Diego and it was a new county bird for almost everyone including top county listers Mel Senac and Nancy Christenson.  I was thrilled for them and they were definitely happy birders.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross-1

Laysan Albatross

Laysan on Water-1

Laysan Underwing1-1

Purely coincidentally not much before the Laysan showed up I was discussing its occurrence in Washington with one of the San Diego area birders and told him how it had become almost regular and that was being attributed to the development of a new breeding colony on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico,  He said it was not fair if somehow those relatively close  birds flew past San Diego to get to the Northwest.  Then this guy showed up and as can be seen in the next photo, it is a banded bird and sure enough, the band (3R4) indicates that it is from Guadalupe Island.

Banded Laysan Albatross


There was still one more show ahead as we approached home.  The captain had learned that a second Red Footed Booby was hitching a ride on the Liberty one of the tuna boats returning to the docks.  It had been on the bow quite awhile and we slowed our return to wait for the boat to come in.  Indeed a very tame and photogenic Red Footed Booby was sitting on the anchor chain at the bow of the Liberty as it came up next to us.

Red Footed Booby on the Liberty

RFBO boat2

Especially with the flourish of larger birds at the end, it had been an outstanding trip,  Sure some closer and better views of the Storm Petrels and Craveri’s Murrelets would have been nice, but they were all seen and I got some photos.  I added 4 ABA Life Birds and photos on the trip bringing my totals to 724 and 689 respectively.  I have a couple more trips planned for the year which with luck could add another two ABA Life species and another 6 to 8 ABA photos.  I think my goal of 700 ABA life photos will be in reach in 2019.

It was especially rewarding to spend time with so many excellent birders, to see some old friends and to make new ones.  I am sure that some of us will bird on the same paths in the future again – planned or not.



The day after the pelagic I made a brief visit to the Tijuana Slough NWR and again was fortunate to see two Ridgway’s Rails.  One was in the open long enough for a very nice photo.  I also had a Vermilion Flycatcher at the ball fields in the Dairy Mart Road area.

Ridgway’s Rail

Ridgeway's Rail

Vermilion Flycatcher


Earlier today (August 23, 2018) I got a nice email from Shelli Spencer who is from Gig Harbor, WA and is doing a Big Year with her daughter Meghin,  She sent the following two photos.

Big Year Birders – from Left to Right:  Dan Gesualdo, Richard and Gaylee Dean, David and Tammy McQuade, Meghin and Shelli Spencer and Nicole Koeltzow.

Big Year Birders

This photo is of me onboard the Grande checking out my camera settings with lens extended.  The gentleman on the right is Guy McCaskie.

Boarding the Grande

One thought on “San Diego Pelagic – Terrific Birds and Birders – Some Frustrations As Well

  1. Sounds like your SD Pelagic didn’t quite meet your expectations. Still, you managed to add to your ABA life & photo lists.

    I was surprised by your comments when you compared the SD and Westport Pelagics, particularly when you critiqued the unnamed spotter. Frankly, I have always found the crew to be very responsive to the individual needs and goals of their passengers.

    Ann Marie



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