On May 17, Kaitlin and I embarked upon my first ever pelagic boat trip. The purpose of a pelagic (def: of or relating to the open sea) is to venture far from land into deeper waters and open ocean to see birds that are virtually impossible to see from land unless you happen to be sailing past the remote pile of rocks on which they breed, which is pretty unlikely. Birds like shearwaters, boobies, petrels, albatrosses and skuas spend large parts of their lives riding the winds and skimming the jagged steel grey veneer of the world’s seas, every so often dipping their bill in to scoop up some krill (or popcorn in our case) or plunging into the depths to spear an unwary fish.
My excitement at the prospect of seeing a whole new suite of magical and mysterious birds was tempered by a checkered past of ocean upchucking. But I reasoned that if I can suffer through a gauntlet of pig feces, waist deep swamps and mosquito clouds doing bird surveys, then surely I could survive one day on a boat. Luckily Poseidon took pity on me and even a dyed-in-the-wool landlubber like me managed to keep his composure for 10 out of the 12 hours at sea (the other two involving sleeping and puking of the back of the boat), which I’m pretty proud of.
Here are some of the delicacies the ocean served up to us on this fine day (side note: this was my first attempt, with a new camera, of taking photos of constantly moving birds on a constantly rocking boat but I think the results are quite passable). Before embarking on the boat I did some research of some of the birds we might see and found that this is a good time of year to see South Polar Skua, a legendary pirate and predator of open seas and arctic wastelands (nesting in Antarctica and roaming the North Pacific during the southern winter). So here’s the crown jewel of the trip to start off. I was actually half asleep in mid-drool when somebody bellowed, ‘SOUTH POLAR SKUA’ and I was up like a shot, camera at the ready! Luckily this coal-black marauder made his one pass an epic one by flying right over the boat and giving us amazing views. A classic Skua with imposing build, hunchbacked appearance and white-based primaries. Definitely a bird that the drawings in the field guide just don’t do justice to.
Going back in time a little bit, as we left the harbor we immediately began chumming (tossing food into the ocean to attract gulls which ideally attract other birds) and picked up a merry band of ravenous raiders.
Kaitlin feeding a greedy Western Gull.
Adult Heermann’s Gull showing a few aberrant white primary coverts.
Sooty Shearwater in heavy flight feather molt.
Pink-footed Shearwater showing classic tubenose bill (may have to zoom in a bit). The tubes at the base of the bill are apparently used to smell food from long distances, in this case the ‘Buttery Flavoring’ on our chumming popcorn that was slowly meted out with a measuring cup from a bag of popcorn the size of Santa’s toy sack.
Laughing Gull, apparently a very rare bird 15 miles out at sea, as one of the guides who has been going out on pelagics off San Diego told me that in 40+ years this was only the second one he’s seen.
Black-footed Albatross eschewing its typical cuisine for some Orville Redenbacher.
Black-footed Albatross initiating take-off.
Another rarity, the Red-billed Tropicbird.
And the final victim of our irresistible popcorn onslaught, a magnificent breeding plumaged Pomarine Jaeger showing classic twisted spatula tail feather.
All things considered, a grand day on the high seas that has me already budgeting and schedule scheming the next journey into the briny deep!