This is the Buena Vista Audubon and Grande pelagic trip report for October 21, 2018.
Thirty-nine passengers and five leaders meet in front of H & M Landing, in San Diego Bay. We started off the day with a beautiful sunrise. I did the orientation in front of the Point Loma Seafoods Restaurant, and before I could finish, we were enveloped with fog. Where did that come from? The forecast for the day was sunny and warm with very light seas. Fortunately, the second part of that forecast was right. We boarded the Grande and headed out of the commercial basin and into the channel toward a huge glowing ball of sun magnified by the fog. We did have just enough visibility to pick up a few birds as we drove down the channel. Just a very few Elegant Terns were around, with a greater number of Royal Terns. The bait receivers held the usual pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and long-legged waders attracted there for the occasional unintentional handout.
Ballast Point was in particularly thick fog, but our sharp-eyed spotters picked out three Black Oystercatchers. Captain Alex maneuvered us back for a better, though somewhat fuzzy, look. Black Oystercatchers are uncommon but regular rocky shoreline shorebirds farther north. Few make it to Point Loma and they are at best rare here, though oddly more commonly seen on the Coronado Islands just across the Mexican border.
The trip out of the bay was still shrouded in fog but did open up a little. A couple of miles out we had a nice Parasitic Jaeger cross the bow. Oddly this was to be our one and only jaeger on the day.
We also popped some fairly inshore Cassin’s Auklets. This small drab alcid can be rather difficult bird for us to get on some tips – often due to their scarcity, and at times due to their propensity to leave as soon as they see a large boat come over their horizon. Today they would be among the more abundant seabirds we would find, with well over a hundred scattered at all distances.
We also got some good looks at phalaropes. We had both Red Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes; all now in the winter basic plumage and difficult to separate at a distance. Reds turned out to be in the minority for the day, but that will change as fall progresses and the Red-necks retreat farther south.
We were most of the way to the Nine-Mile Bank before we started to get the steady stream of Black-vented Shearwaters. These are our local inshore shearwaters. Small, fast moving, and not usual boat shy, it always seems the first few tantalize us with flash-by looks. Then, as is often the case, we find groups of dozens or even hundreds sitting on the water, or they make multiple passes through the gull flock in the stern for much better looks. Dark above and white below, they remind an east coast birder of their Manx Shearwaters. There was a time in the not too distance past that they were considered the same species. Black-vented Shearwater does have the dark under tail coverts their name implies. We do get a very few Manx Shearwater on the west coast in late winter to early spring. Monterey seems to see them in the fall. We, for whatever reason, do not. Perhaps they pass by us farther offshore or stop above us somewhere then filter south in the winter and into the early spring, when we have a chance to see them. Nevertheless, we look for Manx Shearwaters anytime we get masses of Black-vented Shearwater together.
The Nine-Mile Bank had some life today; in fact it was teeming with life. Our last few trips here this fall had produced little, so I’d planned to shoot on through to the west. The Nine-Mile Bank has been in off-colored water all summer. That off-colored water seemed to hold little sea life. Today the water was clean and clear and full of Black-vented Shearwaters and I could see more building up to our northwest. So, we made a right-hand turn and followed the shearwaters along the bank. They had found a number of spots of anchovy pushed to the surface in defensive balls against the ravenous small tuna attacking them. What a great show. Anchovies in dense masses trying for all their worth to get out of the water, with tuna churning the surface all around them, and the shearwaters feasting on anchovies that escaped the tuna. Just to add to the show, a pod of several dozen Pacific White-sided Dolphina appeared, and at least one Striped Marlin. Not a good day for anchovies. Along with the feeding Black-vented Shearwaters, many more were sitting in groups digesting their meals.
This area had our first Brown Booby of the day; a boldly marked adult female. The western Mexico race of Brown Booby is brewsteri and the adults are separable at a distance as the Males have a white frosted look to the head and neck. Brown Booby has become a locally regular bird since the late 1990’s and we feel slighted if we miss them. Today we had four, and that seems about the expected number.
I would like to say we found all kinds of other interesting seabird species on the Nine-Mile Bank, but the truth is that, except for the regular Western Gulls, a few California Gulls, and a Brandt’s Cormorant or two, this area was mostly a straight on mass of Black-vented Shearwaters. Missing were the Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, and most of all the Elegant Terns. A month or two back, Elegant Terns would have numbered in the hundreds or even thousands. Pink-footed Shearwaters would be in the dozens, if not hundreds. Both those species have mostly now moved out to the south and were seen in only single digit numbers today. Sooty Shearwaters never were in great numbers this summer and fall, perhaps passing well offshore from us s they moved south.
We finally gave in and moved out to the west across the San Diego Trough and to the south end of the Thirty-Mile Bank. This area usually turns up a steady stream of storm-petrels most years, even into late October. Not today; all we could scrape up was a few scattered stormies. One white-rumped bird was a certain Leach’s Storm-Petrel. but most were just too distance to be certain. Several folks thought they had a Black Storm-Petrel. That’s certainly possible as that would be the most likely storm-petrel in this area, but it seems that most have pulled out early this fall. Black Storm-Petrel numbers never were particularly strong this summer. Most of the birds I saw from the wheelhouse, as distant as they were, appeared to be dark-rumped Leach’s Storm-Petrels, though one might have passed as an Ashy Storm-Petrel. Nevertheless, a half dozen storm-petrels is very weak out here on the Thirty-Mile Bank. A few sharp-eyed photographers got a shot of our one land bird as it spun around the boat; a “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler. That bird was an awfully long way from land.
Fortunately, we did pick up a few birds on the Thirty-Mile Bank: a Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwaters, and a couple more Red Phalaropes. Oddly, we even had a few more Black-Vented Shearwaters all the way out here. Black-vents typically stay much more inshore.
Overall the Thirty-Mile Bank was a disappointment today, so we swung back toward the beach, aiming towards La Jolla and the extreme upper end of the Coronado Escarpment, and then rode south along that escarpment ridge. We gained little for birds, though adding many more Cassin’s Auklets, until we reached the north end of the Nine-Mile Bank, where we again were back in the birds. We saw much the same mix as before: Black-vented Shearwaters, Western Gulls, and now an occasional Pink-footed Shearwater. We had lots of activity, with many birds resting on the water. We did pick up a couple more Brown Boobies and some early Bonaparte’s Gulls, but little else to brag about. We did have a stop for a phantom rarity that turned out to be a false alarm – easy to do when a long day of birding is not producing. We returned to San Diego Bay and Grande’s dock. We left in the fog and returned home in the dark. A long day with lots of birds, but relatively few species.
Birds in San Diego Bay:
Great Blue Heron
Birds seen offshore:
Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma) sp.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Pacific White-sided Dolphin
California Sea Lion
Mola mola (Ocean Sunfish)
San Diego Pelagics
Buena Vista Audubon