This is the Buena Vista Audubon and Grande pelagic trip report for Sunday September 23rd, 2018. Fifty-seven passengers and six leaders met in front of H&M Landing on San Diego Bay, under overcast skies.
We did a brief orientation then headed down the dock to board Grande. We had a brief delay as two passengers had trouble finding parking. A friendly reminder that late summer and fall parking around the docks at the peak of the fishing season can be challenging. There is plenty of parking further away, but one needs to allow time for the search and the walk. All told the delay affected our departure by a few minutes. We try our best to get off on time each trip. I suggest an ample time cushion to allow for parking and getting checked in. Forty Five minutes at the minimum should do it. A safer and more relaxed hour time cushion is even better.
Captain Alex gave us the safety talk while we were underway, and we headed down the channel for the open ocean. The immediate area of the harbor entrance had some life – mostly Elegant Terns, Brown Pelicans, and a few Brandt’s Cormorants feeding on bait fish here. We did have nice, though somewhat distant, looks at a plunge diving Brown Booby. That species was once only rarely seen here, but is now somewhat expected as they breed on the nearby Coronado Islands. This adult female would be the first of five Brown Boobies seen today.
A call was made about a “V” of waterfowl high up under the overcast. Too distant to call by binoculars, the long lens photographers helped prove them to be a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese. This waterfowl species is an early migrant and these were at the early end of the fall calendar for San Diego County. Digital photography has certainly changed our ability to identify birds at sea, and elsewhere for that matter. Many distant species that would have been written off, or maybe guessed at to family or genus, can now be identified, often with amazing detail. We have now come to rely on these cameras to identify and even add new species to the trip compilations. I often get asked about photography on pelagics and my answer is an emphatic yes. That said, one must recognize the harsh environment and damage salt can do. I do not recommend tripods or the like. I would opt for smaller lenses, which are easier to hold and carry. Shoot first and often, and ask questions later. Always save pictures until you can get them on a bigger screen at home. More than once a mega rarity has been discovered after the trip on the home computer.
We opted to cross the Nine Mile Bank and to head directly to the Thirty-Mile Bank. Inshore areas this year have had warm waters but with a funky color the fishing captains have called “swamp water”. This band of colored water has extended from Central California to Central Baja. This off-colored water has some life in it, but most of the interesting birds have been outside in the slightly cooler cleaner waters.
The approach to the Nine-Mile Bank, the Bank itself, and the drop off on the west side did turn up a few birds. Most notable were multiple Black-vented Shearwaters. These are our local shearwaters; breeders from Mexican Islands some two hundred fifty miles below the border. Most Black-vented Shearwaters nest on one small island called Natividad. Their range at sea is northern Baja and coastal Southern California waters. This small fast moving shearwater, which is dark above and whitish below, is somewhat reminiscent of the east coast’s Manx Shearwater, to which it was once consider conspecific. Black-vented Shearwaters were present in good in numbers, and if we’d stayed inshore, the numbers would have mounted even higher, but we moved west and the Black-vented Shearwater sightings dwindled. Then the first Pink-footed Shearwater was seen. Very similar to the Black vented Shearwater in overall coloration but with a more relaxed fight style, a pink base to the bill, and bright pink feet.
We shortly encountered distant Black Storm-Petrels that let us know we’d reached the outer edge of the bank. We would get greater numbers and better looks at Black Storm-Petrels farther out.
The cry went up that there was a white bird on the water….”TROPICBIRD”! Close in to the starboard bow and still on the water. While we got the boat stopped, the bird got up and crossed the bow then flew down the port side. Lots of photos were taken, along with plenty of oohs and ahs! Rare but somewhat expected in the fall off San Diego, Red-billed Tropicbirds reach their northern limits in the southern Channel Islands. The last two years have been tough for Red-billed Tropicbirds locally. This was the first seen in sometime. Red-billed Tropicbirds are on most Southern California pelagic birders want list, and are always a crowd pleaser. We were happy to get such good looks at this bird and check it off the day’s list.
The 10-mile wide San Diego Trough is usually fairly quiet, and today was no exception, but the excitement of the tropicbird sighting carried us through the sparse areas. Approaching the Thirty-Mile Bank, life suddenly increased notably. A young Sabine’s Gull came up the wake. The majority of these handsome small gulls have already moved through, so it was nice to get this bird. While we were watching the Sabine’s Gull, two adult Long-tailed Jaegers came into the chummed flock. These are dainty buoyant jaegers with neat caps, pale gray uppers, white shafts limited to the outer two primaries, and a long streaming tail, but with no lack of jaeger attitude. They follow the small gulls and terns on the migration to the Southern Hemisphere. We were surprise to have five Long-tailed Jaegers today, as they usually move well offshore to the west of San Diego and are sometimes missed completely by pelagic trips inside the Channel Islands.
The area around the “182”, a high spot at the southern end of the Thirty-Mile Bank, had a little variety, with one of our two Sooty Shearwaters for the day. Three species of storm-petrels were also seen, with Black Storm-Petrel the most abundant. We also had the smaller, paler, Ashy Storm-Petrel, and the bounding erratic Leach’s Storm-Petrels. The Leach’s are the local chapmani subspecies, which often have smudgy white sides to the rump, but are highly variable. It is critical to learn the flight styles of all three species here: Black’s have a big winged look with a deep stroke, short glides, and gentile turns and rises; Ashies have shallow, quick wing strokes and rapid direct flight; and the narrow-winged Leach’s are erratic and nighthawk like, changing speed and direction constantly. Once learned, the otherwise difficult storm-petrel identification challenge can be made a little easier.
North of the “182” we stumbled on our first murrelets of the day. Though we did get the boat stopped, they were directly off the point of the bow, so it was difficult to get many birders on them before they flushed directly away. Photos again proved critical in showing these to be Craveri’s Murrelets. Fortunately, we did get stopped on a second pair in the afternoon and were able to get most everyone on those birds. Craveri’s Murrelets are the most southerly of the murrelets. They are very dark above, white below, and sit low in the water. The dark comes across the face and extends below the longish bill. Often, but not always, they hold their tails up “Ruddy Duck” style. In flight the dusk gray underwings are characteristic, as is the dark shoulder or collar mark at the side of the neck. Both of our other murrelets (Scripps’s and Guadalupe) have bright white wing linings in flight and show more white in the face. Both sit a little higher in the water, looking more like miniature Murres. It was nice to get that often sought-after San Diego specialty nailed down. They have been present in small numbers this summer. Today we had six, and with the light wind chop they are often hard to pick out.
The top of the Thirty-Mile Bank is a series of high spots often locally called the “Ridge”, running for miles northwest to southeast. We often find daytime rafts of storm-petrels along the Ridge, but sometimes nothing, other times a few dozen, once in a while hundreds, and rarely thousands. Today we scored! We got on a raft of perhaps seven or eight hundred storm-petrels. They were mostly Black Storm-Petrels, but with just enough Least Storm-Petrels that they were hard to miss, with maybe 100 – 150 Leasts in total. These tiny Storm-Petrels come off looking for all the world like miniature Black Storm-Petrels. They look all dark, big winged, short tailed, have that deep wing stroke, but unlike Blacks, they do not glide and change wing stroke speed. Least Storm-Petrels have a steady rapid wing beat that has been likened to that of a bat with a straight lined flight. The ocean has a way of distorting size, but once you see a Least Storm-Petrel next to a Black Storm-Petrel there is no question on size. Nice addition to the day’s list, and nice to see enough birds to be confident that all hands saw them.
We explored more of the Ridge to the northwest, without finding any additional gatherings of storm-petrels. After returning to the raft’s original area, we put down an oil slick and did a short drift. We didn’t get much of a response, but we rarely do. I’m not sure why these birds seem slow to pick-up on oil slicks. Perhaps the oil is not a strong enough attractant, or food is too abundant, or maybe it’s that these birds feed mostly at night and rest during the day. We may never know, but it’s clear that our storm-petrels respond differently than they do in other areas of the world.
So, a pretty successful trip! Three of the most sought after fall San Diego specialties were tagged, with all hands seeing them: Least Storm-Petrels, Red-billed Tropicbird, and Craveri’s Murrelets. Add in three species of shearwater, three other species of storm-petrels, multiple Brown Boobies, three species of jaegers, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, throw in a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, and what more could we want? Yes, I know, but let’s keep it real.
Well, we did get one more bonus bird – an immature white-bodied booby. Called out as a Masked/Nazca Booby, it came into the chummed gull flock near the Mexican Border on the return to the Nine-Mile Bank. It made a series of passes high and low and around and over the boat. This bird will require review but appears from photos to show the beginning of the bright orange and pink hues in the base of the bill. It also had the immature shading of the head, leaving a broad white collar, and white central the tail feathers, which are more often in Nazca than Masked Boobies. So this bird was likely a Nazca Booby. Crazy!
Great trip, with enough good birds to satisfy most birders.
Birds seen in San Diego Bay:
Pelagic Cormorant (seen at the end of the day on the H&M dock)
Birds seen at sea:
Greater White-fronted Goose
Leach’s Storm-Petrel chapmani
Nazca Booby (subject to review)
Small whale sp. (possible Minke Whale)
California Sea lion
San Diego Pelagics
Buena Vista Audubon
Photos ©Bruce Rideout