Shearwater Journeys Pelagic Birding Trip on Monterey Bay

I stood along the railing of a large fishing boat, a strong, cold wind blowing on my face.  The water of Monterey Bay was choppy and dark beneath a cloudy sky.  Thousands of sooty shearwaters flew by both sides of the boat in long lines, flapping hard and fast low over the ocean and then soaring up above the horizon in arcing, stiff-winged glides.  Two common murres flushed off the water in front of our boat, flying straight away from us over the waves.

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Sooty Shearwater taking off.

Going on a Shearwater Journeys pelagic birding trip in Monterey Bay had been a dream of mine ever since my dad read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik out loud to my brother and I a few years ago.  The Big Year is a goofy book that follows three birders competing in a North American Birding Big Year.  One of the characters in The Big Year, a very competitive and stubborn birder named Sandy Komito, decided to do a pelagic birding trip with Debbi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys.  Sandy Komito enjoyed the trip until he realized that the boat was “wasting” valuable birding time looking at whales when he could’ve been adding birds to his year list.  He went to the trips leader, Debbi Shearwater, and demanded that they keep moving.  She denied him.  He then went around the boat and asked every person whether they were there to see birds or whales.  He confronted Debi again, informing her that 47 out of the 50 people on the boat were there to see birds, not whales.  Debi — who did not move the boat for him — disliked his rude behavior so much that she gave a free trip to one of Sandy’s big year opponents.  My brother and I laughed our heads off at this exchange.

Although pelagic birds could theoretically be found almost anywhere over the ocean, they concentrate around spots with lots of food, like Monterey Bay.  Under the water of the Bay lies a huge submarine canyon which brings cold, nutrient rich water close to shore that forms the base of the Bay’s rich food web.  Tens of thousands of migratory seabirds use the bay as a staging location during their long migrations, and some species like tufted puffin and ashy storm-petrel breed on nearby islands.

So there we were, four years after I’d first heard about the wonders of Monterey’s seabirds, on a boat with Debi Shearwater herself.

After exiting the harbor we traveled along the edge of a kelp forest.  Flocks of elegant terns flew over, their rattling calls filling the foggy air.  Great egrets and great blue herons hunted from atop the kelp mats.  A peregrine falcon alighted on a tall cell tower just barely visible through the fog.  Parasitic jaegers harassed gulls into giving up their meals, periodically flying over the boat.

As we turned away from the kelp beds and headed out into open water, someone spotted a gigantic ocean sunfish drifting near the surface of the ocean.  The sunfish was bizarrely shaped, seemingly nothing but a large chunk of fish flesh with a weird fin that was feebly moving back and fourth above it.  The ocean sunfish or mola mola is the heaviest bony fish in the world, sometimes weighing more than a ton.  This one was several feet thick.  The boat pulled up for a closer look, and we saw that the sunfish was actually being torn apart by sea lions and western gulls.  The sea lions dove at the sunfish in a swirl of motion and emerged with their mouths full of chunks of bloody meat.  The western gulls picked off the bits and pieces that fell out of the sea lions’ mouths.  It was sad to see such an awesome creature being eaten — especially when it was apparently still alive — but it was fascinating to see all the feeding activity around it.  We soon saw a few more, much smaller but healthy sunfish.

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Western Gull with Pelagic Red Crab.  Photo by Theo Staengl.

Suddenly I heard Debi yelling something in an excited voice.  I looked around, worried that I was missing a bird.  She repeated herself, and I realized she was talking about the pelagic red crabs that a couple of western gulls were happily munching on.  One of the guides standing next to us remarked that “Debi can be a little excitable.”  Debi was saying that it was unusual to see such large numbers of the red crabs in the bay except during years with unusually warm water, when they move up the California coast.  I remembered seeing swarms of similar looking red crabs in the Channel Islands National Park near Los Angeles two years earlier, so this was interesting information.

A leader began throwing pieces of anchovies out of the boat, which soon attracted a hungry swarm of western gulls.  Northern fulmars flew past the boat, occasionally dropping into the wake for a piece of anchovy.  Someone yelled “pink footed shearwater!”  I ran to the back of the boat and looked behind us at a large, slow-flapping shearwater with a white belly speeding towards us on bowed wings.  At least one pink-footed shearwater followed the boat for the rest of the day, sometimes dropping so far behind us as to be barely visible, and then with a few flaps and subtle adjustments of its wings speeding up the wake to right behind the boat.

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Pink-footed Shearwater

We continued our progress out into the bay, carefully scanning the sooty shearwaters for other shearwater species.  We found a black-vented shearwater, slightly early in Monterey Bay.  This was one of the few pelagic birds I had already seen, as they were the abundant shearwater in the Channel Islands when I visited.  A Buller’s shearwater made a brief appearance in the in the chum slick, and I barely saw the bird’s bright white underside.  Unfortunately it was the only one we saw all day, so I never got a better look. Our boat flushed common murres and rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets every so often, as well as small flocks of red-necked and a few red phalaropes.

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Black-footed Albatross

I began to wonder if we would see albatrosses on the trip.  I was pretty sure they were still supposed to be reliable in early September, but I was getting worried since we hadn’t seen one yet.  I needn’t have feared.  A few minutes later, a large, dark seabird appeared on the horizon and began moving towards us.  The black-footed albatrosses flight was graceful and even seemingly effortless.  When one landed in the wake right behind the boat, we got a good size comparison with western gulls.  The black-footed albatross looked double the size, and many times the weight.  And they’re supposed to be a small species of albatross!

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Black-footed Albatross

We arrived back at the harbor around 3:00 pm, exhausted from the wind and motion of the boat but thrilled with the birding experience.  I got 12 life birds, which hasn’t happened in the United States for a long time.  I also learned a ton about west coast pelagic birds and their identification, and got to see some amazing birds like the black-footed albatross.  Debi Shearwater is retiring next year, so I would highly recommend anybody who’s interested to sign up for a trip with her while you still can.

 

 

The Blackbirds of Moonglow Dairy

We drove into Moonglow Dairy on a dusty dirt road, scanning for blackbird flocks.   We passed muddy cattle pens with little grass or other vegetation and looming heaps of compost.  Even the leaves of the distant eucalyptus grove were brown with dust.  Completing the picture, black phoebes hunted from the tops of leafless bushes.  When we stepped out of the car, our faces contorted as we smelled hundreds of cows at close range.  Cows stood in lines behind their food troughs, eating through piles and piles of slimy vegetables — which did not smell so great either.  Flies swarmed in thick clouds around the cows and their rotting food, doing nothing to improve the atmosphere.

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Cattle Pens at Moonglow Dairy.  Photo by Theo Staengl

We were at this stinky cow farm to see a bird, specifically the tricolored blackbird.  They have a fairly small range, mostly in California — making them an attractive target for birders from the east coast — although they also have scattered breeding colonies in Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Baja California.  Tricolored blackbirds breed in large communal colonies in fresh water cattail marshes, but they seem to gravitate to more artificial habitats for foraging, such as fields and cattle pens in their range.

Tricolored blackbirds look very similar to a much more widespread species, red-winged blackbirds. Males of both species are medium sized, glossy black and have a red patch on the shoulder bordered by a light-colored stripe.  Females are streaked brown and white.  The only field mark our field guide gave to separate males of the two species was that on tricolored blackbirds, the light line was supposed to be white, while on red-winged blackbirds it was supposed to be yellow.  The book did warn that the shoulder patches of freshly molted or molting male tricolored blackbirds could look more yellowish though.  Not much to go off, as we soon realized.

We got our birding stuff and braved the foul air and flies, walking slowly up the road.  We saw a few blackbirds, but they were mostly hidden from view by small hills.  Most of the ones we could see clearly were Brewer’s, although there were some with thick yellow stripes on their shoulders.  As far as we knew, tricolored blackbirds should have white next to the red on their shoulders, so we decided that the birds we saw with the thick, yellow stripe must be red-winged rather than tricolored.  Even so, I was pretty sure I had never seen a red-winged blackbird with this much yellow on the wing and so little red.  Could it be a plumage I didn’t see often, such as that of an immature male? Just as we were coming to this conclusion, a huge mass of blackbirds lifted off from behind a distant barn and descended into the cattle pen in front of us, totally swamping the few birds we had been struggling to see before.  Of the hundreds of birds now present, almost all had the thick yellow stripe, while a few had a massive red patch and almost no lighter color at all. Surely all these birds couldn’t be immature male redwings.  We decided that the tricolored and red-winged blackbirds must be distinguishable from each other based on the relative whiteness of the “yellow” stripe rather than on a clear categorical difference.

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A tiny portion of the huge flock of blackbirds.  Photo by Theo Staengl

At that point our search became farcical.  My brother Theo started pointing out birds with light colored stripes that he thought were whiter than those on the birds surrounding them.   Unfortunately, I could see no decisive difference between the birds he claimed were tricolored and the birds that looked exactly the same to me, that we agreed were red-wings, sitting right next to them.   He pointed out bird after bird with supposedly whiter wing stripes.  Even the act of finding his birds amidst the mass of feeding blackbirds was a struggle.  He would zoom our scope in to its maximum distance and attempt to convey the location of the bird he wanted me to look at with land marks as unpredictable as which way the fattest pigeon in the scope view was facing. Inevitably, just as I thought I had found the right bird, the entire scope field would be taken up by the curious head of a cow.

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Tricolored blackbirds, European starlings and rock pigeons feeding under a cow.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Theo grew impatient with my inability to see the birds with obviously whiter stripes and I grew more and more frustrated.  To make matters worse, my parents, who sometimes still cannot identify a bird as striking as a pelican in flight, chimed in that they too saw birds with whiter stripes than others.  What the heck was going on?  Was I suddenly color blind?  I didn’t think so, but it was hard to rule out the possibility.  I know it’s silly, but I particularly can’t stand my little brother getting a bird that I miss.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it hurts.  He saw a bananaquit in Florida, for instance, while I was scanning the wrong bush for it.  The bird spent half a second in the bush Theo was watching, and then disappeared, never to return.

We continued our search for the now seemingly mythical white stripe blackbirds for about three hours before we gave up and walked dejectedly down onto the trail that went around the nearby pond next to Elkhorn Slough.  A pectoral sandpiper and several semipalmated plovers foraged in what I thought looked suspiciously like watery decomposing cow manure.  A cinnamon teal flew by.

We ran into an older English birder who said he had been coming to Moonglow for years.  He said the tricolored blackbirds were molting, which was why the feathers looked yellow instead of white.  All the red-winged blackbirds he had seen at Moonglow had been of the California bicolored group, so they had almost no color other than red on their wings.  Therefore, they were even easier to distinguish from the tricolored blackbirds than the more eastern group of red-winged blackbirds would be.

The heavens opened and I heard the angelic chorus sing.

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Tricolored blackbird in a relaxed posture.  When these birds were feeding I hardly ever saw any red on the shoulder.

We got our life bird tricolored blackbird, but more importantly, I was able to leave feeling that I had learned and now understood the identification of North American Agelaius blackbirds at a deeper level.  Clearly, size of the light color on the shoulder is a much better field mark for separating male red-winged and tricolored blackbirds than color.  Even if the red-winged blackbirds at that particular location had been of the more eastern “tricolored” group, they still wouldn’t have had as thick a light stripe as the tricolored blackbirds did.  We did not escape Moonglow unscathed, however, our rental car — newly christened the Mobile Cow Pie — smelled like a dairy for the rest of our vacation, and when we returned it at the airport it was the dirtiest car in the garage by a large margin.  Oh well, some things are worth a little dirt.