Sunday, October 13, 2013

California: The Pelagic Trip

Monday was the last day of our gathering and the day that I had chosen for the pelagic trip searching for birds.  There had been a trip on Sunday as well, and the reports from that trip were awesome as they enjoyed sunshine and calm waters out in the Pacific Ocean.  Monday dawned with a heavy fog which did not bode well for an ocean voyage of about 12 hours searching for birds on the high seas in a fairly small boat.  We also experienced some fairly heavy swells along with the fog, which was going to make photography tough.  I had read everything I could about how to attempt to prevent any seasickness and follow everything to a T as much as possible.  One of the tips was to focus on the horizon while on the boat.  Well, when it is foggy, there is no horizon to focus on and I was one of about 9 others that succumbed to a bout of sickness.  This really was a downer as I missed out on at least attempting photos of some of the great birds we saw.  I was fortunate enough to catch some brief glimpses of some of these birds as they were in flight over the water and all around us.  This was a first for me and birding in the open ocean is far different than birding on land.  The species to be found in the open waters is astonishing; many are flying constantly and many are sitting in the water occasionally diving or maybe just feeding on the surface of the water.  I added 12 new life birds during this pelagic trip, but as you will see, not nearly that many photos.  It is tough trying to focus on flying birds while the boat is rocking to the swells, so I simply attempted to get best that I could get of birds on the water.  That too is a bit difficult as they were swimming, diving and rocking with the swells as well, plus we were dealing with fog all day so lighting was not the best to work with.  I will say that had we not had 4 excellent guides on our boat, I would not have been able to identify many of these birds with the brief sightings that I had and not being familiar with most of these species.

As we left the harbor, (at a very slow speed by the way), the jetties that reached out of the harbor were covered with birds on just about every rock that could be found.  There were Brown Pelicans, Western, California, and Heerman's Gulls, Black Oystercatchers, Pelagic, Brant's and Double-crested Cormorants, Surfbirds and probably many more that I have already forgotten.  

One of the most common birds seen on the water was the Common Murre.  I had seen some from the beaches a couple of days earlier, but they were far out into the water.  Being on the boat we were able to get much closer and considering the conditions, this bird provided the best photos.  

Common Murre - diving

Common Murre

Common Murre

Common Murre

Early in the voyage, we found a Rhinoceros Auklet which coincidentally became my 400th life bird.  My photo left a lot to be desired, but it was much further from the boat than the Common Murre, and the fog is clearly visible.  Not a great photo by any means, but good enough for identification.  

Rhinoceros Auklet - #400

We also found a few Red-throated Loons and the boat got close enough and I got lucky enough to capture a couple of photos.  This was another new life bird for me.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

Can't say for sure exactly where we saw this next bird, the Red Phalarope, but it had to have been close to 20 miles out in the Pacific and it just struck me as such an odd thing to see this single small bird less than 9")
sitting and feeding on the surface of this HUGE body of water all by itself.  But I guess this is their normal range and habitat.  It is just amazing that nature has been able to offer us these marvelous creatures that survive in some of the most inhospitable habitats. (Yes, another new life bird for me.)

Red Phalarope

The last bird on the water that I was able to photograph was the Marbled Murrelet.  This is another very small bird and the guides had been searching for them all day.  When they spotted them in the distance as 2 small dark specks on the water, with my binoculars I struggled to see them well.  But once I was able to get my photos processed and cropped back home, there is no doubt what they are.  This is another one of those examples of having very knowledgeable guides for these trips.  I would never have seen these birds and identified them on my own.  (Yes, another new life bird for me.)

Marbled Murrelet

Time to move on to non-avian creatures.  While we were not fortunate enough to see any whales, we did encounter a few other cool sightings.  One of the coolest was a couple of Mola Mola that had come to the surface of the water and the boat was able to get fairly close to them.  They are more commonly known as Sunfish.  Here is my photo of one and it is hard to discern the uniqueness of this fish; this one was estimated at about 6' to 7' in size.  For more information and better images of this awesome fish, here is a link to them on Wikipedia: 

Mola Mola (Sunfish)

We also happened to come across a raft of California Seal Lions that probably numbered well over 200 individuals.  Quite noisy, but were also quite interested in our boat.  Even at close range, you can see the fog that we had to deal with most of the day.

California Sea Lions

California Sea Lions

At 2 different locations we also came across a couple of Northern Fur Seals and once again our guides were invaluable in sighting and then identifying these pinnipeds. 

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Fur Seal

Finally our voyage came to an end and we docked back at where we started and by now the sun had come out and it was at the dock that I was able to capture my first photo of a bird in the sunlight for the day; a Black-crowned night Heron in a tree near the dock in the waning moments of sunlight.

Black-crowned Night Heron

And for the record, this is a photo of the vessel that gave us a tour of the fog shrouded waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast from Half Moon Bay, CA.

New Captain Pete

Yes, this was a first and new adventure and will I do it again?  The rest of that day and the next, I said 'never again'.  But now that I have had time to reflect back on it, I think it deserves another chance and maybe with better weather conditions, it might turn out on a more positive note.



  1. I love it! This is how I imagine birding by boat...foggy, misty and full of amazing birds and critters:)

  2. Looks like a great trip! I was on a 18 hour pelagic this summer and I agree that immediately after I thought I would never again, but after you look at your photos and all the birds and other marine life you saw, the voyage looks a lot better :) I can't wait to find the time to do another

  3. Hi Gordon, great post! On a recent trip to Alaska this past summer, i also saw Rhinocerous Auklet, which, coincidentally, was my 400th life bird too! Not even joking!

    1. Cole,
      Congrats on a great bird for #400! Wonder what the odds are for 2 of us getting the same bird for #400?