The Calm Before the Storm

The Seattle area is famous for rain…supposedly lots of rain and rain all the time.  On average the area gets just under 38 inches of rain a year.  By contrast Washington D.C. gets just under 41 inches.  Atlanta gets 52 inches; Boston 44 inches; New York 45 inches; Miami 62 inches and St. Louis gets 42 inches.  The national average is 38 inches.  So in many ways Seattle is not a rainy city.  On the other hand…  If you compared the number of days in the year that the city has rain, the story would be different, because many of those other cities get large thunderstorms with several inches of rain at a time.  In Seattle, rain usually comes in little drizzles and not in storms.  On average there is some rain in Seattle on about 150 days a year compared to 129 in Miami and 119 in New York City.  Rainy city?  Depends on how you define it.

On Saturday September 7th, Seattle did get a thunderstorm.  There were more than 1,000 lightning strikes.  The threat of lightning delayed the start of the University of Washington football game that evening by almost 3 hours.  It rained – HARD!!  Earlier that day I had been on a boat 30+ miles out into the Pacific Ocean on a pelagic trip with Westport Seabirds.  We had the calmest seas I had ever seen.  No wind.  No rain. No waves.  The trip would have been canceled if there was any threat of lightning.  It was definitely the calm before the storm before returning to Seattle that night.

Better yet, it was a great trip, especially since the absence of wind often means a tough day seeing birds on the ocean as pelagic birds count on wind for flight and for carrying smells to them when the boats put out a fish oil slick or are chumming to bring in the birds.  No problems this day.  And the previous day was a fun and productive day of birding on the coast before the pelagic trips, especially looking for shorebirds in migration.  No real rarities either day, but lots of good birds and some nice photos.

By September the sunrise is later and so is the departure time for our boat.  We left dock at 6:30 a.m. in truly the calmest seas I had ever seen.  Some Cormorants and some Brown Pelicans and lots of gulls but on these trips it is always much further out when things get exciting.  The first truly pelagic birds are generally the Sooty Shearwaters, at first just single birds and later maybe seemingly hundreds or even thousands of them.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican Flight1

A bit further out it is time to pay attention and look for the specialty species, other Shearwater species, Albatrosses, Jaegers, Alcids, Storm Petrels, Phalaropes, Terns and Gulls.  My “target” species for the trip with at least a reasonable chance of success were Arctic and Common Terns, Short Tailed, Flesh Footed and Buller’s Shearwaters, Long Tailed Jaeger and South Polar Skua.  Much rarer would be Short Tailed Albatross and Scripp’s Murrelet.  And there was always the chance of something truly rare like a Mottled Petrel (in my dreams).

First seen after the Sooty Shearwater were a number of Pink Footed Shearwaters, some Cassin’s Auklets, Red Necked Phalaropes, Fork Tailed Storm Petrels and Rhinoceros Auklets .  A beautiful adult Pomarine Jaeger was our first less than common species.

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel2

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Jaegers are very cool birds.  They are gull like and are often found with gulls.  They chase and harass gulls trying to get them to regurgitate food from their gullet which is then eaten by the Jaegers.  There are three species of JaegerPomarine Jaeger (blunt tail feathers), Parasitic Jaeger (two pointed tail feathers) and Long Tailed Jaeger (long tail feathers).  In Europe the Jaegers are called Skuas.  In our area, there is another Jaeger-like bird – the South Polar Skua.  A highlight of any pelagic trip is the so-called “Skua Slam” when all three Jaegers and the South Polar Skua are all observed.  On this trip, we did find all four.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua Flight1

Parasitic Jaeger Harassing California Gull

Parasitic Jaeger Attack

Long Tailed Jaeger

Long Tailed Jaeger.jpg

They may be old hat for pelagic trip veterans, but the first sighting of an Albatross is always exciting for “newbies” and there were several on the boat.  We had fewer Black Footed Albatross than usual but they are indeed spectacular.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross Head

On these trips, birds are not the only specialties.  Often there are whales, dolphins, porpoises, various marine mammals, and fish.  We had a couple of Humpback Whale sightings and a few porpoises and dolphins.  There was one very large (and several much smaller) Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish).  The prize fish though were the many Blue Sharks seen – more than a dozen.  One was at least 5 feet long.

Blue Shark

Blue Shark3

Most of the gulls seen on the trip were California Gulls, both adult and juvenile, but the most appreciated were the fairly numerous and very beautiful Sabine’s Gulls – again both adults and juveniles.

Sabine’s Gull (Adult)

Sabine's Gull Adult1

Sabine’s Gull (Juvenile)

Sabine's Gull Juvenile2

Usually we have lots of Northern Fulmars on these trips, but this year they have not been nearly as numerous.  We only had a few, but with terrific looks and photo opportunities.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

We did not do real well with Terns.  There were no Common Terns and only two distant Arctic Terns.  We had much better luck with Shearwaters though.  We had already had the Sooty and Pink Footed and then added both Buller’s and Short Tailed Shearwaters, each new for the year for me.

Buller’s Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater on Water

Short Tailed Shearwater

Short Tailed Shearwater Wings

Both of these Shearwaters are generally seen predominantly or even only in the Fall.  The Buller’s nests on islands near New Zealand and was once known as the New Zealand Shearwater.  It is known for its elegant buoyant flight .  The Short Tailed Shearwater is often hard to identify being very similar to the Sooty Shearwater.  It has a shorter bill and a rounder head and less white under wing.

While I was happy to add both of these Shearwaters to my Year List, the one I was really hoping for was the much rarer Flesh Footed Shearwater.  We finally found two in a mixed flock.  It is easy to identify with its all dark body and a light colored bill.

Flesh Footed Shearwater

Flesh Footed Shearwater Gaping

We saw three Alcid species on the trip but unfortunately missed Scripp’s Murrelet.  This generally rare species had been seen on several recent trips.  Not ours (but it was seen on the trip the next day – aaargh!!)  We had Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets in good numbers and only a single Tufted Puffin – odd looking in its non-breeding plumage.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin1a

Returning to the marina, we scanned the outer jetty for “Rockpipers“.  We found a couple of Wandering Tattlers and that was it.  In the past few years there has been a single Bar Tailed Godwit among the hundreds of Marbled Godwits in the harbor.  Not this year though.  Too bad as it would have been a new year bird.

Marbled Godwits

Marbled Godwits1

One last detail.  On the way out and again on the way back we spotted Fur Seals on the water.  They have a strange look as they float with one fin waving in the air.  I have seen them on other trips and understood that they were “Northern Fur Seals“.  On this trip one of the ones observed may have been a much rarer Guadalupe Fur Seal, until recently thought to be extinct.  One distinguishing field mark is the length of the fin with the Guadalupe’s being shorter.  I don’t think there was a definitive ID on this one.

Fur Seal – Northern or Guadalupe

Possible Guadulupe Fur Seal

Despite missing the Scripp’s Murrelet and the Common Tern, it had been a great trip.  Calm seas certainly helped.  We had good looks at all of the birds seen and I added 6 new species for the year – as many as I had any right to expect.  This will be my last pelagic of the year but I look forward to joining Captain Phil Anderson and First Mate Chris Anderson again next year aboard the Monaco.  They are terrific and it is a truly first class operation.



One thought on “The Calm Before the Storm

  1. Sounds fantastic and you got some killer shots well done Blair. Westport Seabirds runs their pelagics like a well oiled machine all the guides are top knotch you can’t possibly have a bad trip with those folks


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