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.

20 June 2010

California Specialties

I just returned a week ago from a trip to California. The main purpose of the trip was for scuba diving, but I took some time to hunt down a few birds that are specialties to California.

The first lifer of my trip was a true California specialty, the Allen's Hummingbird. It ranges from southern Oregon to southern California during the summer. This species looks very similar to the Rufous Hummingbird, and an immature like this one couldn't be told apart based on a shot like this. You'd have to look at the shape of the spread tail feathers to be sure. However, during the breeding season range is a reliable indicator, and being found in central California this is certainly an Allen's.

Another species I went in search of was the Oak Titmouse. This is very closely related to the Juniper Titmouse, which is found in Utah, and used to be considered the same species and called the Plain Titmouse. This is the best shot I could manage of this active forager, and obscures the crest that helps distinguish this species from the similar Bushtit.

The California Towhee is found from Oregon to Baja California. It is often found in coastal chaparral and can be common there. This male was singing on his territory in a small city park in the town of Pacific Grove.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found from Alaska to California and from the coast to Montana, but they look different here at the southern end of their range, where their flanks tend toward gray instead of the dark rufous they have further north. For example, compare it to the chickadee in this post, from Seattle.

Several other species are widespread along the coast, but rarely or never make it to Utah. The Black Oystercatcher is a unique shorebird that specializes on mollusks in the intertidal from Alaska to Baja. The thick red bill is used to pry open oysters, mussels, and other goodies on the rocks.

Heerman's Gulls are also strictly coastal. They breed mostly around both coasts of Baja California, but wander north when they are not breeding, sometimes as far north as British Columbia. I think they are the most beautiful gull in North America.

Western Gulls also breed in Baja California but their breeding range continues north through California to Washington. In Washington, they hybridize regularly with Glaucous-winged Gulls, forming a hybrid known as an "Olympic Gull." It was neat to see them in an area where most individuals are probably "pure" Westerns, with little introgression of Glaucous-winged genes.

Coming soon: more from California, including herps and pelagic birds.