Sunday, September 21, 2014

I Pelage Allegiance...

It has been two weeks now, two weeks since my maiden pelagic birding expedition out of Half Moon Bay. It has been two weeks since the hard lifering and substantial sunburn, the (mildly) choppy seas and foggy horizon. 
"Life will never be the same," some folks like to say. Well, that's not entirely true. My time and experience of birding in Phoenix in the past couple of weeks has been nothing to speak of, so there is some consistency. At any rate, I've waited long enough since this first Pelagic Date. I can post now without seeming desperate. I can play it cool and act like it's not really a foregone conclusion, my greatest dream and desire, to do it again. Even doing it again, it wouldn't be the same. It could be better and it could be worse. In fact, by most standards the Sept. 7th HMB Pelagic was mediocre. Even so, it's not every day one gets to see one gigantic lifer framing another with its 8 foot wing span.  

Rewinding a bit, this date was not a solo date--further reason why I can't get too clingy too quickly. With the incomparable Seagull Steve leading and chief lieutenants Party Don't Stop Jen and Nate "McGowan's Longspur" McGowan also on board alongside the expected slew of a dozen other birders, this boat was dorkier than a pod of titillated Sperm Whales.  Turns out, birders are way easier to photograph than birds on a Pelagic (also, always). Since many of the birds we saw were in unappealing mid-molt plumages, the birders were sometimes prettier. 

My pre-Pelagic poemy prayer had been answered. Although I arrived days behind and late to the party, Steve and Nate were good enough to take me birding Saturday afternoon at the Sutro Baths. There I was able to log Western Gull, Elegant Tern, and Surfbird, in that order, which meant ABA #500 was not the dreaded WEGU. That was but a taste of the tip of the sweet sweet lifeburg to come. We were joined later that afternoon by Jen in an ill-fated romp after a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, because the birding gods are not without a strong sense of irony. 
Sunday morning came both too early and too late. We were full of grogginess but not of grogg, and forgot to sacrifice to the necessary deities prior to departure. As you have no doubt read on other more punctual and better-decorted blogs, this trip was pretty muted by HMB standards. But luckily everything was new to me, much like the Common Murre chick first heading out to sea. 

These unassuming alcids proved to be one of the most common birds of the day, predominantly in their father-son dance pairs and often filling the air with grunts and croaks. All of the adult males I saw were well into their winter plumage (or rather, were well out of their breeding plumage). COMUs spend 1-2 months flightless as a part of their molting process too, but for the most part they prefer to dive anyway, sometimes past 550 feet!

The HMB harbor was littered with Brown Pelicans, Double-crested, Brandt's and a few Pelagic Cormorants, and Elegant Terns, as well as Western and California Gulls. Especially in the early morning and throughout most of the day, heavy cloud cover prevented sharp photography so we had to pass painstakingly close by these infrequent sights (for an Arizonan) and head for deeper water. The COMUs were waiting just as the harbor opened into the bay, and not long after that the tubenoses came, filling a void  in the soul that had been yawning open since nigh the days of puberty. 
**Since it was preponderantly overcast throughout the morning, I'm borrowing some photos from later in the afternoon to show birds seen first early in the day. 

Brand'ts Cormorants were one of few birds seen from the boat that were not a recently accrued lifer. They weren't even sporting their snazzy sapphire throats for the sex-making, but after so many, many years of Double-crested and Neotropic, any change of Cormorant is a good change. 

Of the truer pelagic birds, species one seldom sees close to shore, Sooty Shearwaters are the first to emerge. Their rapid wingbeats and no-nonsense drab plumage speak of the harsh life many birds endure out in the salted, alien world.  

Although Sooties are not especially unique as far as tubenoses or other recognizable pelagic birds go, the first one of these birds I saw made an immediate impression as it darted across the water. There are no birds I have seen over land with proportions or movement like this bird. It was at once drab and dazzling in comparison to so many more terrestrial species. 
Of course, as anyone who's weather a pelagic or two knows, the differences between these exclusive seabirds and those favored by us land-lubbers only grows more pronounced the far one creeps from shore.  

We only had two species of Shearwater on the day, missing out on both Flesh-footed and Buller's--probably the best looking bird found off HMB--but the Pink-footed stepped up their game. We encountered many rafts of these polymorphic tubenoses throughout the trip in addition to the singles and pairs that would fly strafing runs past the boat and drift into the gull-filled chum line every once and again. Though calmer in demeanor than the Sooties, the Pink-feet kept busy throughout the day, and likewise kept their observers busy and bustling around the boat. Whereas the Sooties were immediately recognizable even from distance, the greater similarity of Pink--feet to other Shearwaters made every distant bird worth an examination. Never long did the binoculars rest, nor the eyes that used them.

The night before our voyage we had sat and brooded (and brewded) over our most desired and possible species for the next morning. Northern Fulmar was one of my answers, a stocky, variable, and recognizable bird with perhaps the most pronounced naricorn of them all. This was one of those birds in the guide books to which I was drawn for no particular reason, maybe just because it stood out from most of the other shearwaters and gulls that all lumped together in my mind.
When Seagull Steve called out this dark individual floating twenty yards from the boat I felt great excitement...and to be honest a bit of disappointment too, for I had been looking at the thing rather blankly without realizing what it was.

That bill gave ol' Freddy Hitchcock nightmares as well as inspiration for sure. Like most of their pelagic ilk, Fulmars are more comfortable in the air than on water or land, and this bird soon attempted to get airborne...which it did with great difficulty. This molt = nasty.
Also nasty but cooler is the tendency of Fulmars to projectile vomit a triglyceride stomach oil at other predatory birds, matting their plumage and causing immobility. It is also as a food-source for young, used in the same manner as many humans use Prego sauce.

Less bilious than the Northern Fulmar, South Polar Skua was the other bird I put atop my most wanted list. There were three or four individuals on the day, none of which were very close nor quite as scrutable as the Fulmar. But hey, stocky, macho bird with blaring white at the base of the primaries...tis' only one thing it could be.

There were plenty of dull periods on the trip too. We had a constant stream of Gulls lured behind the boat with popcorn and beef grease, the idea being that baiting these birds would bait in other, more specialized birds to investigate the Gull party. Sometimes no one else would show, and other times there would be a flurry of activity, like when a gorgeous Sabine's Gull cruised directly behind the boat for a minute while lifer Black-footed Albatross cut past the wake.

...and then nothing again, just the cool breeze nipping at the neck. If patience is a virtue then I left mine stuck somewhere in a vice. Pelagic birds can be patient. Pelagic birders--at least, greenhorns--are an excitable and jittery bunch. 

There are multiple ways to deal with the highs and lows, the triumphant feeling of a sharp observation and the crushing blow of a miss (diving Cassin's Auklet) as well as the lulls in between. Likewise there are different ways to deal with the chilly weather and the possibility of seasickness. Most people bird as much as they can, snack, socialize, and sometimes fall into a snoozy state of being at the aft of the boat. Some people also choose to play solitaire on their iPad for, like, the entire friggin' trip, even when sweet birds are being called out. They then put their email address on the list at the end of the day to share in all the eBird sightings of the group...Well birders often imitate their quarry (except for really sociable birds), and many the bird poaches without shame, as a South Polar Skua would readily admit.

Speaking of poachers, a brazen Pomarine Jaegar cutting right across the chum line probably won the 'best sighting of the day' accolade from Butler's Birds (though no doubt the Sabine's Gull was pretty sweet). Where exactly these slender, aggressive Skuas came from is still open to debate, with some sort of extensive hybridizing between Arctic and Great Skuas eventually resulting in a separate species being one of the leading theories.

By ancestry this bird may be a bit of a bastards, and by attitude it certainly is, but the Pomarine Jaegar is also a tough customer, a commander of respect, a dropper of jaws. The sighting lasted all of ten seconds, typical for a pelagic bird. Alas that our chum line held nothing of promise for the bird and he cruised on to pillage elsewhere. 

The passing of the Jaegar and distance of other predatory birds was better news for this Wilson's Storm Petrel, one of only two species and two total procellariiformes seen on the day. How these dainty little birds survive out on the open ocean is beyond me. I need to see more, lots more, and further ponder, but mostly appreciate. They look like they belong on a placid pond in suburbia, and yet flocks in the thousands have been seen on these trips before.

We had our fair share of non-avian lifeforms too. Common Dolphin, Elephant and Fur Seals, as well as Sealions were all recorded. Though we went without whales, the mola molas were abundant. These giant, stony, prehistoric, even extraterrestrial creatures would suspend themselves near the surface for Gulls to come and preen them of parasites, before they would seemingly release ballast and sink back into the deep. (I know that's the opposite of how ballast works, but with these fish all the usual physics seem inverted. They're so heavy and bony, the water is their floating atmosphere).

Additionally impressive to me, among the many other things we saw on this trip if not a large overall number of birds, was how tirelessly the baited gulls stuck with our boat. Of course I wouldn't swear to it, but some of the individuals were pretty recognizable and they seemed to stay with us from dock to dock, a good eleven hours or so, only landing to scoop up the occasional popcorn kernel. 

Photo courtesy of Jen Sanford

Obviously flying vast distances is part of the daily routine for most pelagic birds. banding and geolocators and nesting sites and myriad other tools, as well as data, amaze us with the feats of travel they record or deduce from pelagic birds. But reading and thinking about it is one thing. Seeing a bird exerting itself for that long, with so little respite (especially a bird like a Western Gull, which isn't built for the same sort of flying as a Tern or Albatross) is another.

At any rate, after all my whining and worrying about Western Gull being my 500th ABA bird, it seems only fitting to make peace and end on a conciliatory note. This fellow was handsome--in far nicer, fresher plumage than almost every other bird we saw--and he might well have stayed with the boat all day, patiently waiting while we sought the looks and attention of other, more specialized or rarer birds, and happily drawing our attention back when he was all we were left with. 

Where next and when and how?? Any coast, ASAP, by any means necessary--take a page out of the larus handbook.