07 December 2015

Pelagic birding from a cruise ship, part 2: Yachats, Oregon to Ocean Shores, Washington

On the second full day of this cruise (2 December 2015), we started about 40 miles off the coast near Yachats, Oregon.  (See Part 1 here.)  Today, the weather was much worse, which was better.  We had gotten into some rainy, stormy weather, which meant that the long swells had broken up into short rough waves.  Although the ocean looked much more turbulent, the ride was much smoother.  On top of that, the wind had shifted around behind us, so although it was blowing 20-40 knots, since we were moving over 20 knots it felt like the wind was rather calm.  The conditions were perfect for spotting seabirds!

I started my day by checking the boat for birds that might have landed on it at night.  In migration, it's not uncommon for birds to be attracted to the boat's lights, become disoriented, and rest on the ship.  Although we were well past the peak of migration, there was still a chance we could catch a late or wandering bird.  More intriguingly, a Brown Booby was checking out the boat at dusk the night before, so I thought it might have spent the night riding on our boat into Oregon waters.  However, a thorough check of all the railings, antennae, and decorative shrubs revealed no stowaways.

The ships lights sometimes attract confused birds at night, but I didn't find any birds on board as the sky lightened off the Oregon coast.
A persistent theme of our second day would be late-staying Buller's Shearwaters, and this distinctive shearwater was among our first birds of the day.  This is one of my favorite birds, subtle in tone but boldly patterned in all white below and grays and blacks on top.  Most of them have left U.S. waters to head back to New Zealand by December, but there were plenty still around on this trip, maybe due to the usually warm water temperature.  By the end of the day our tally was in the dozens.

Buller's Shearwater off the coast of Oregon.

It was neat to see the change in species between the two days, now that we were in more northern and cooler waters.  We noted increases in Herring Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels.  Conversely, Red Phalaropes and Black-vented Shearwaters were absent or nearly so.  One rare species from the day before made a "return" appearance (certainly a different individual): we had another Flesh-footed Shearwater about 53 miles off the coast of Lincoln County, Oregon.  I was excited to see this species again, but unfortunately our views were no better than they were the day before, and I had to be satisfied with an identification based mostly on flight style and body shape rather than really enjoying all the fine details of the bird.

There was a brief change in scenery a little after 10:00 when several of us spotted a flock of "something different" deep in the fog on the starboard side and heading in our direction.  After a few seconds they resolved enough to see that they were a flock of Brant.  It felt odd to see geese fifty miles from land, but this species is relatively pelagic and they make long ocean crossings as part of their regular migration.

Some barely-identifiable Brant flying south through the fog about 50 miles from the Oregon coast.

One of the mammal highlights of the day, for me at least, was a pod of Dall's Porpoises that approached the boat.  These tiny black-and-white whales are active, boldly patterned, and leave a distinctive "rooster tail" when they breathe.  I had seen them before, but it was a treat to see them again.

Two Dall's Porpoises throw rooster tails as they head out of sight down the starboard side of the boat off the coast of Oregon.

Mottled Petrel was one of the main targets of the trip, and would be a lifer for many in the group.  This is a boldly-patterned species that flies in dramatic arcs in high winds and is found rarely but regularly in U.S. waters, usually only far off shore and in the winter.  I had seen a couple of days of impressive flights from shore on St. Paul Island, Alaska, so the bird would not be a lifer for me.  I wasn't as bummed as many would have been when I returned from lunch to hear I had missed one, but it still felt like I patched a little hole in my list when I was able to see the second one of the trip just after we crossed into Washington State waters at about 1:00 PM.  By the end of the day we would have an impressive total of seven, of which I saw five.

I missed the first Mottled Petrel while I was eating lunch, and the second one was too far for a decent photo, but this one performed well for us, cutting back and forth in front of the bow for a little while before darting off into the fog.

Around 2:00 I took a quick bathroom break, rushing back to the bow as soon as I could so I wouldn't miss any exciting birds.  Just as I came out of the door onto the side deck, I spotted two alcids flushing from close on the side of the boat.  One immediately struck me as being different so I snapped a few photos before I even tried to think about what the bird was.  It was a Common Murre (with a Rhinoceros Auklet), and would end up being the only one of the trip.  This is a common species, including near the coast, so I'm sure no one lamented missing this bird.

In the evening a lot of us, including myself, stayed on the bow much later than the night before because many of us had missed that late fly-by Brown Booby.  However, the waning light was uneventful, and when it was truly too dark to bird we headed back to our cabins with no last-minute reward.  It was a great day, and I celebrated with some of the other Arizona birders that were on the boat with a fancier dinner than the buffet I went to the first two nights.  We had a great evening chatting about our sightings and telling jokes.  In the morning, we would wake up already docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Surf Scoters and Northwestern(ish) Crows all around, ready to scatter to our various landlocked homes.

Several of us stayed on the bow as long as possible in hopes of not missing another rare last-minute sighting like the previous night's Brown Booby.

Celebrating a great cruise with a fancy dinner.  Birding field conditions at their best!

Here is a complete list of species and numbers that I saw during the day, including birds in Oregon and Washington.  (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.)
Brant: 16
Pacific Loon: 2
Laysan Albatross: 2
Black-footed Albatross: 4
Northern Fulmar: 61
Mottled Petrel: 5
Pink-footed Shearwater: 7
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 1
Buller's Shearwater: 25
Sooty Shearwater: 36
Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater: 9
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel: 7
Pomarine Jaeger: 10
Common Murre: 1
Cassin's Auklet: 10
Rhinoceros Auklet: 29
Cassin's/Rhinoceros Auklet: 2
Black-legged Kittiwake: 32
California Gull: 35
Herring Gull: 23
Thayer's Gull: 5
Glaucous-winged Gull: 1
Unidentified gull (Larus sp.): 21

1 comment:

Andrew Durso said...

Dang, are you sure those aren't ghosts of Brant?