Fall Pelagic Bird Watching Trip


Fall Pelagic Trip on the Grande – October 6, 2012

I had the opportunity to take a 13 hour pelagic bird watching trip out of San Diego on Saturday, October 6th, 2012.  I, along with 75 other passengers departed Point Loma at 6:00 AM and headed out of San Diego harbor to a beautiful pre-dawn red-orange sky heading to the 9 mile bank and 30 mile bank, mainly in San Diego waters.  Following are the details and photographic highlights for the day...

Inside the harbor were the usual species of birds including Black-crowned Night-Heron, Brandt’s Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Western Grebe, California Gull, Western Gull , and Heermann’s Gull.

Shortly after clearing the Point Loma lighthouse and into open waters Black-vented Shearwaters with a few Sooty Shearwaters could be seen gliding gracefully just above the swells and would be with us as well as the above mentioned gulls throughout most of the day.

The going was a bit rough for the first few hours of the trip as there appeared to be a couple of different swells coming from different directions giving us a bit of a rough, albeit still acceptable ride until we crossed over the 9 mile bank and started heading in a more northerly direction.  Some highlights as we headed toward the 9 mile bank (which by the way, gets its name from the size of the bank, not distance from shore, the bank is actually about 12 nautical miles from Point Loma but is about 9 miles in length).


Heermann's Gulls, in various plumages followed the boat along with the usual mixture of Western and California Gulls

Heermann's Gull

This Sooty Shearwater buzzed back and forth across the wake of the boat as we headed toward the nine mile bank

A nice sized raft of Black-vented Shearwaters was spotted near the eastern edge of the bank

And we started to see a smattering of Pink-footed Shearwaters as well...

Pink-footed Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwaters with a couple of Western Gulls looking on as they took off as the boat neared them

Pink-footed Shearwater

The graceful banking and turning of the Pink-footed Shearwater is amazing to watch...

A Sooty Shearwater was with a group of Black-vented Shearwater near the 9 mile bank.

A Pink-footed Shearwater (left) and two Black-vented Shearwaters, note the difference in size...

A pair of Black-vented Shearwater taking off

I have seem hundreds of Cassin's Auklets but have yet to get a good picture of one...  We saw many small flocks on this

trip as well but they do NOT allow close approach.  I hear someone say that the only way to get close is to find some that have

literally stuffed themselves so full of fish that they cannot fly and then you can get close to them, other than that, forget it!

Shearwaters, like this Black-vented are graceful flyers, preferring to stay low over the water while performing quick and sometime acrobatic banks and turns

Two Black-vented Shearwaters flying low over calm Pacific waters

We ran into several large pods of Common Dolphin, this group was chasing some small bait fish,

the Gulls and Shearwaters were taking full advantage of the situation and fighting over the few fish they were able to snag

You can barely see the Common Dolphin below this Western Gull coming in to try to grab a quick snack

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater taking off

This Black-vented Shearwater was battling it out with two Western Gulls for some bait fish that was being brought to the surface by a pod of feeding Common Dolphins

A close look at a Pink-footed Shearwater

We spotted three Red Phalaropes during the trip including one that allowed semi-close approach for a few moments before taking off

We also saw several Common Terns during the day including this one flying high and quickly south

Red-necked Phalaropes were commonly seen throughout the day

Pink-footed Shearwater in a graceful bank across the bow of the boat

As was the case on my last pelagic trip, the area between the 9 mile bank and the 30 mile bank was sort of an oceanic desert wasteland.  Hardly even a gull was seen for what seemed like an hour or more but finally, as we neared the 30 mile bank, life started to become more abundant again with Shearwaters being the first to be spotted.  As we continued to head north or north-west, a huge group of Storm-Petrels was spotted a great distance away.  They were quite nervous at first on our approach with large groups lifting off and fluttering around but we spotted a couple of very large rafts holding perhaps 1,500 to 3,000 birds and they seemed to be a little less flighty as we were able to approach them a few times and check out the mass of birds.   There was a mix of Black Storm-Petrels and Least Storm-Petrels along with a few Ashy Storm-Petrels,  with Least seeming to be the most abundant species in the mix.   As we continued to scan the large rafts someone spotted a lone Wilson's Storm-Petrel.  Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are one of the most numerous and common pelagic birds in the world but they are mainly an east coast species and only casual on the west coast so this was a good find.  The bird was actually easy to see once you were able to pick it up due to its bright white rump however photographing it was another story as I learned once returning home, picking out a lone bird among thousands with a telephoto lens proved to be a challenge that I did not overcome this day…

As we crossed over the L.A. County line at the 30 mile bank a huge roosting group of Storm-Petrels were spotted...

Size comparison of Least Storm-Petrel (2 in background) and Black Storm-Petrel (foreground)

Another shot showing the size difference between the Least and Black Storm-Petrel

Black Storm-Petrel

Storm-Petrels can appear to "walk on water" as they forage right on the surface as you can see in this and the following photos

Black Storm-Petrel

Black Storm-Petrel

After leaving the Storm-Petrels behind we basically retraced our path back the way we had come, and again, there was a large "dead zone" between the 30 mile bank and the 9 mile bank but (again), as we approached the 9 mile bank, the action picked up with numerous sightings of Pomarine Jaegers, Sabine's Gulls, Cassin's Auklets, the three Shearwater species, and we were in for one more cool surprise before the day was through! 


This Pomarine Jaeger decided to investigate the chum-line that we laid out continuously during the day and stayed behind the boat for quite some time.

Pomarine Jaeger

Jaegers are aggressive, opportunistic birds that basically harass other birds such as gulls to drop their catches so they can eat it...

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Another species of Jaeger, the Parasitic Jaeger was spotted on our way back toward Point Loma

We spotted several Sabine's Gulls during the day but all of them only provided distant and fleeting looks such as this one above.

As the day was winding down and the sun getting lower and lower on the western horizon, the sea gave up one last "goodie" as someone shouted "TROPICBIRD"... this got everyone's attention as people rushed toward the bow of the boat as directions were yelled out and folks strained to see this rarity in San Diego waters.  The looks were not great but good enough to know what it was, moving fast and low, a Red-billed Tropic bird buzzed westward at a good clip about 500 yards off the bow...

Only very distant but still definitive looks were had at this rare visitor to San Diego waters, the Red-billed Tropicbird.  We spotted

this bird about 12 nautical miles from Point Loma heading west quite quickly and flying low over the water.

And, last but not least...  This nice Rhinoceros Auklet was found not too far from Point Loma as we were heading back in for the day...


All in all, not a bad day on the water and a decent list for a day trip... Can't wait for the next one...  Thanks for looking!  - Brad

Trip List:

Bird species seen

Common Loon             

Eared Grebe             

Western Grebe (in SD bay only)           

Pink-footed Shearwater  

Sooty Shearwater        

Black-vented Shearwater 

Wilson's Storm-Petrel   

Least Storm-Petrel      

Black Storm-Petrel      

Ashy Storm-Petrel        

Red-billed Tropicbird   

Brown Pelican           

Double-crested Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant      

Pelagic Cormorant       

Great Blue Heron (in SD bay only)          

Black-crowned Night-Heron (in SD bay only)  

Mallard  (in SD bay only)                  

Peregrine Falcon (in SD bay only)          

Red-necked Phalarope    

Red Phalarope           

Heermann's Gull         

California Gull         

Western Gull            

Sabine's Gull           

Common Tern             

Royal Tern (in SD bay only)                 

Elegant Tern            

Black Skimmer  (in SD bay only)            

Pomarine Jaeger         

Parasitic Jaeger        

Cassin's Auklet         

Rhinoceros Auklet       

Palm Warbler            

Mammal species seen

Common Dolphin

Fin Whale

Minke Whale

Blue Whale

California Sea Lion

Harbor Seal


Additional species seen


Striped Marlin

Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish)

Flying Fish


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