Five-day trip spotting birds at sea offers different experience
Pelagic birding means getting into a boat and sailing out onto the ocean to look for birds … and that’s the hard part. Thirty-three of us, including a six man crew and four guides, boarded “The Searcher” out of San Diego to spend five days looking at distances of up to 200 miles from shore for the tremendous variety of seabirds that spend their entire lives on the ocean only coming ashore to breed.
Leaving the harbor we had good looks at both Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants and Caspian and Forster’s Terns. Some Elegant Terns sat on floating kelp. As we moved out we got to see the first truly seabirds, Sooty Shearwaters, little gray birds flying just above the swells. The big surprise of our first day was a blue whale that took an interest in our boat. He was about 20 feet shorter than our 95-foot boat and displaced 80 tons. We stopped while the whale eased under the boat, then surfaced and flipped his tail in our direction before departing. Even our crew was impressed with the close attention this magnificent mammal gave us while we wondered what would happen if he got angry.
During the first night of travel several of us succumbed to seasickness. As unpleasant as it was, we were fortunate that that was the only time. While the temperature ranged around the 50-degree mark the combination of wind and overcast conditions necessitated as many layers of clothing as a mountain trip.
One of our guides filled a tank with a foul smelling fish oil and a bushel of popped corn. He ladled out this mixture from the stern as we slowly motored along. Soon we were being followed by a collection of Western Gulls joined by four Black-footed Albatrosses contesting for the soggy popcorn. The albatrosses, with an 80-inch wingspan, can glide effortlessly just over the water. They spend most of their lives at sea, returning to Hawaii to breed.
At 3 a.m. on the third of four nights at sea we were awakened by an announcement that there was a Xantus’s Murrelet sitting on a railing. I laid on my bunk wondering about getting up to get a picture, thinking that the rest of the group would be disturbed if I started taking flash pictures, and so rationalized going back to sleep. Later, I heard that the chief guide was there with his camera taking flash pictures. We found some more of this species the next day floating on the sea.
During lunch a guide in the crow’s nest announced that there was a Red-billed Tropicbird in the water. The lunchroom emptied as everyone went outside to see this exotic white bird with black markings and a brilliant red bill. Most striking, though, when the bird flies are the streaming tail feathers, which are about twice the length of the 30-inch bird’s body.
Our last full day passed uneventfully as we looked unsuccessfully for Murphy’s Petrels, which ended up as our only missed species. At a seamount the crew broke out their fishing equipment and began to catch rockfish. After filleting them they tossed the carcasses into the sea. Shortly, Black and Leach’s Storm-petrels – agile little birds grabbing bits of fish – besieged us.
We cruised slowly back to port arriving just before 8 a.m. I was glad to return. Five days at sea where our only exercise was bracing ourselves against the rolling boat was enough for me. While seeing birds on the open sea is simple, direct and relatively effortless, I prefer my birding in the forest walking and listening.
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