05 December 2015

Pelagic birding from a cruise ship, part 1: Los Angeles to Fort Bragg, California

You may call it the Promenade, but I call it the Birding Deck.  (Photo of the Ruby Princess cruise ship by Chris Favero, Creative Commons via Flickr.)

Earlier this week I went on my first cruise, but my experience was very different from that of most people on the boat.  This was a "repositioning cruise," a discounted (often shorter) trip that cruise companies offer when they need to get a boat from one place to another and don't want to lose money doing it.  For less than $200, I had three nights of lodging and three days of meals, plus access to lots of entertainment options like a casino, live shows, movies from a hot tub, etc.  But I took advantage of none of those entertainment options: I was there for the birds.

Repositioning cruises have become increasingly popular among dedicated birders in recent years.  Unlike most traditional pelagic birding trips, cruises spend most of their time in the really deep waters at or beyond the continental shelf.  Out there is the realm of a whole different suite of birds, especially the Pterodroma petrels.  These dynamic, acrobatic flyers are famous for zipping around in almost unbelievable arcs as they forage comfortably in turbulent winds.

I had been invited to join the cruise a couple of months earlier by my friends David and Lauren, and separately by Jason.  There was an informal group of birders forming around this cruise, because it would traverse the Pacific coast of the contiguous U.S. in a time of year when it was very hard to get out on the ocean, and when little was known about the birds present, but rarities were almost certain.  On top of that, this was a strong El Niño year, which further increases the chances for a rare seabird to wander to our coast in search of food.

Paul Lehman gives an introduction to the birders on the boat while we were still in the harbor in Los Angeles.

My cruise on the Ruby Princess started from Los Angeles on 30 November 2015.  Paul Lehman was with us, and he has led many birding trips on cruises for Wings so he offered to give a little introduction to the group about where we would be, where the nearest facilities were, when and where to eat to get the most birding time, and lots of other helpful tips.  I was hoping to get a bit of pelagic birding in on the first night, but the sun sets so early this time of year.  We were able to bird through the harbor on the way out as the sun set, and it was still light enough to bird as we passed the breakwater and headed into the ocean.  Several large flocks of Pacific Loons passed overhead against the sunlight.  Finally, when it was almost too dark to see, I spotted my first tubenose of the trip, a Black-vented Shearwater (a very common species in these inshore habitats).  We retired for the night when we couldn't squeeze any more birds out of the daylight.

Jason scans for birds as the sun sets behind Santa Catalina Island.

Passing the breakwater and heading out for two full days and three nights on the open ocean.

These Pacific Loons were part of several large flocks flying south as the sky got dark.

The first night was pretty rough.  I had heard that motion sickness was not an issue on cruise ships, and that's probably true most of the time.  But this night, we had long-period swells that rocked the boat quite a bit.  My cabin was as far towards the bow as you can get, and almost as high as you can get, so it moved more than most.  There were a few times at night where I felt I like I was lifting up off the bed to crash back down with the impact between our bow and the water reverberating all the way up the boat to my back.  The hangers in my closet woke me up a few times as they banged against the closet wall.  It was not a great night of sleep, but I was so excited for the birding in the morning that I felt ready to go when the alarm went off well before sunrise (1 December 2015).  After a solid breakfast ("a full stomach will not betray you," they say), I went down to Deck 7, the Promenade, where one has the best views of the water.  Because of the high swell, the bow section (which is actually on Deck 8, but a continuation of the Promenade) was closed, so we birded from the side instead.

When the bow was closed due to the high swell, we were confined to bird from the side of the boat.  This position is just under the orange life boats in the top photo.  Note that although the ocean looks relatively smooth, the waves crashing out from under us belie the long-period swell that made the ride feel rather rough.
In the first hour of birding, I got my first lifer of the trip, a Laysan Albatross.  This is a very distinctive bird, with excessively long black wings on a white body, and was easy to identify even given its distance.  It was my most likely lifer of the trip, and we did end up seeing several more by the end of the day.  We also saw a small group of about four beaked whales from the genus Mesoplodon, a group which is described as the most poorly known mammals in the world.  Several species were only recently described, and some are known only from specimens.  Unfortunately, we'll probably never know which species we saw because they can only be identified from careful study of the teeth.

An unidentified beaked whale of the genus Mesoplodon.

A little after 8:00, we were able to move up to the bow of the boat, where the view is a little higher but your odds of spotting birds are better because you can see both sides.  The birding was a bit slow, but there was a nearly steady trickle of common species including Red Phalaropes, Northern Fulmars, Cassin's Auklets, and gulls, with an occasional Laysan Albatross, Pomarine Jaeger, or other bird of interest.  The ride was a bit rougher up on the bow, so after another hour or so I moved back down to the side again.  I was feeling a bit sick from all the motion - not enough to be at risk of puking, but enough to be uncomfortable.  Also, it was cold on the bow: a bit of a head wind combined with the boat's 22 miles per hour made for significant wind chill.  I didn't spend long on the side before I decided my time would best be spent with a quick nap and some more food, to warm up and to rest from the motion.

I was relieved to hear when I returned to the bow at about 1:30 that despite being gone for almost three hours, I hadn't missed any really exciting birds.  I got there just in time, though, because about 20 minutes later my favorite bird of the trip was spotted, a Flesh-footed Shearwater!  This was another of the more likely lifers on this trip, but it's an ABA Code 3 bird (rare at the continental level) and one I had been looking forward to for a long time.  It is a southern hemisphere bird but is spotted in U.S. waters every year in small numbers.

Not much later, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon, an uncommon sight this far from land (about 40 miles out).  It was being chased by a gull, which seemed uncharacteristically brazen, but then we noticed what the gull was after.  The falcon had apparently plucked a Red Phalarope from the water, and was feeding on it while it flew!

We had a continuing trickle of birds, mostly the same common species as before, although we were already noticing some subtle shifts in the abundances (more California Gulls and fewer Red Phalaropes, for example).  We nearly ran over a Laysan Albatross that was very attached to a fish carcass it had found.  We lost sight of the bird under us on the bow, but others reported that the bird was seen flying around the stern shortly afterwards.  One of the rarer sightings came next when a group of three Black-vented Shearwaters were seen.  They are rare this far north, but even more surprising was that they were roughly 40 miles off shore, given that this species is usually only found in the shallower waters near shore.

This Laysan Albatross really wanted to stick with its dead fish, while the gulls and fulmars were smart enough to fly out of the way of the cruise ship before it got too close.
Before 5:00, it started getting dark.  I knew that rare birds can come any time, so I waited about as long as I thought was reasonable before abandoning my post at the bow.  When it was almost too dark for birds, and when I was among the last 10 or so of up to 40 birders left, I packed up my tripod and went in to get ready for dinner.  Of course, at dinner I heard that I had left just before the only Brown Booby of the trip flew right past the bow!  I didn't mind too much, since I had seen Brown Boobies in California before and I got my two most wanted (reasonable) birds of the trip already.  Plus, I had a whole day of birding ahead of me tomorrow. . . . .

View from the Promenade, Deck 8.  The ground is usually stable enough to use spotting scopes on tripods, and the wall and roof protect you from the wind and rain.  Although it can still get chilly, it's pretty comfortable as far as birding spots go.
Here is a complete list of species and numbers that I saw during the first full day (not counting the evening trip out of the harbor the night before).  No single birder will ever see every bird on a pelagic trip, so the trip total including all observers would be higher for most species.
Pacific Loon: 1
Laysan Albatross: 5
Black-footed Albatross: 2
Northern Fulmar: 75
Pink-footed Shearwater: 1
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 1
Sooty Shearwater: 5
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater: 1
Black-vented Shearwater: 4
Red Phalarope: 381
Pomarine Jaeger: 17
Unidentified jaeger: 4
Cassin's Auklet: 19
Unidentified alcid: 17
Bonaparte's Gull: 2
Western Gull: 1
California Gull: 139
Herring Gull: 6
Unidentified gull: 60
Peregrine Falcon: 2


Andrew Durso said...

Dang, Laysan Albatross, that's awesome! What a good idea to take a repositioning cruise, sounds like a great value. Can't wait for part II.

Chris Rohrer said...

Great report! Thanks!

Ryan O'Donnell said...

Thanks, guys! Yeah, totally worth it Andrew if you can swing the time and get to the spot. Much more bang for the buck than traditional pelagic birding trips, if you don't mind identifying your own birds or have some knowledgeable friends along with you!

Joshua Smith said...

Incredible! Aside from the excellent lifers you saw, the most amazing thing I learned about was the concept of a repo cruise! That has to be the most economical way to go on a pelagic. I look forward to your next posts.