22 June 2010

Monterey Bay Pelagic

On my recent trip to California, I was really hoping to be able to take a pelagic bird-watching trip. June is the best time of the year to see albatrosses off the coast of California, and an albatross (of any species) was at the top of my most-wanted list. Unfortunately, it's not a good time for rarer seabirds, so none of the well-known pelagic bird watching companies offer tours in June. It wasn't until we were wandering Fisherman's Wharf on Wednesday that I realized I was overlooking an obvious alternative: joining a whale-watching tour. I wouldn't expect the same level of attention to the birds, but if they were out there, I knew I'd see some, and after two other pelagic trips I figured I could identify most of what I saw.

Thursday morning we took off on one of the whale-watching tours in search of humpback whales, which can be found in Monterey Bay this time of year. The seas were rough, but some drug-store Dramamine did the trick well enough. Several other passengers were either not as well-prepared, or not as lucky. Not too far out, I saw my first lifer of the trip, and one of my most-wanted birds: a small flock of three Marbled Murrelets flushed ahead of us and skittered out of sight to the starboard side. It happened too fast to get a photo. It wasn't much longer before we started seeing Sooty Shearwaters, first one here and one there, and eventually flocks of up to several hundred.

Word came over the radio, which our captain relayed on the PA system, that another tour had found a Humpback Whale a few miles northwest of us. The boat picked up speed and in a few minutes, we had found the other boat, and the whale.

Shearwaters and albatrosses sometimes feed on the same foods as whales, and so where whales are found, seabirds are likely to be as well. This was no exception, and dozens of Sooty Shearwaters and several Black-footed Albatrosses were also cruising around the area. A close pass across the bow by a Black-footed Albatross was probably the highlight of my trip, despite the whale.

We were able to watch the whale as it surfaced twice to catch its breath, but ten or twenty minutes after we arrived, the captain told us that we had to turn back in order to end the three-hour tour on time. On the way back, we were moving with the waves, so the ride felt smoother. We picked up one new pelagic bird on the return trip, a species I have seen before, but not often: a Pink-footed Shearwater.

Although we didn't see as many pelagic bird species as we might have on a trip designed to search for birds, I still had a great time and saw some great birds. I'd recommend hitchhiking on a whale-watching trip as a decent alternative to a birding trip to any coastal visitor who can't adjust their schedule to match that of the few bird-watching trips.


jack enright said...

Its great to see these pix of birds with the water so blue. Ive heard that the Polynesians would follow birds to find new islands to colonize. I didn't know the albatross could be black like the one in your photo.

jack enright said...

I didnt know the albatroos could be black. Ive heard the Polynesians followed migrating birds to find new islands.