San Diego Pelagic Trip Report

 

We had the opportunity to take a 13 hour pelagic bird watching excursion aboard the vessel Grande out of Point Loma, San Diego, California on May 19th of this year.  This trip, sponsored by the Buena Vista Audubon society was slated to target off-shore bird species and marine mammals commonly not seen from shore during spring migration.  The boat departed Point Loma shortly after 6:00 AM with about 70 people on board including the passengers, crew and trip leaders.

 

The weather was typical “May gray”, overcast with light winds, calm seas and comfortable temperatures.   We made our way out of San Diego bay and headed toward the nine-mile bank, 13 miles off the coast of San Diego (it’s called the nine-mile bank because that’s how long it is, not how far out it is).  We slowly motored past the bait receivers in San Diego bay used by the local sports fishing fleet seeing the usual suspects including a large number of California Sea Lions, Brown Pelicans, Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants, a Black-crowned Night Heron and a slew of Western and Hermann’s Gulls.

California Sea Lion, Brown Pelican and Brandt's Cormorant on the bait barge in San Diego Bay

California Sea Lions

Brandt's Cormorant

Brown Pelican

A few miles off shore we pulled up on our first Alcid of the day, a Common Murre.  Rather late in the season to see them off the coast of San Diego but apparently it was a good winter for them here according to one of our expert guides.   Murres are interesting in that they pursue their prey underwater “flying” after them and can dive to substantial depths (100-200 feet).  They use their wings to propel themselves underwater.  They are also fast flyers but not extremely agile birds.  Other Alcids include the Puffins and Auks/Auklets.

Common Murre

Not too long after we left the Murre we came upon one of the highlights of the trip, a pair of Xantu’s Murrelets with a chick.  This was interesting to observe, first because the chick was just a little, miniature black and white fuzz-ball following its parents around and second, it was quite clear that the parents would not leave their flightless chick unattended, swimming closely by it even as the boat approached.   Xantu’s Murrelets breed on the Coronado Islands just a few miles south of the US/Mexican border and are one of the “target species” for birders coming to San Diego to view pelagic species. They also breed on the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California and Guadalupe Island further south.  These birds are endangered, mostly due to environmental issues such as oil spills as well as the fact that they have a small breeding area as they are relegated to these few islands for reproduction.

Xantu's Murrelet

Xantu's Murrelet chick

Xantu's Murrelet

Xantu's Murrelet

Xantu's Murrelet with chick in tow..

Throughout the morning we had a constant, albeit small, flock of gulls following the boat with Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters darting in and out of the wake and zooming around the boat.  There were a lot of Pink-footed Shearwaters actually, more than I have seen on other trips.  I caught the one below as he was taking off after grabbing something in the chum line.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Cassin's Auklets

Just around 11:00 AM as we were making our way off the nine-mile bank and heading for the Thirty-mile Bank (which unlike the Nine-mile Bank is actually 30 miles off-shore) I watched as a rather husky, barrel-chested, brownish bird came cruising directly over the top of our boat, and past the stern at a good clip, probably no more than 25 feet above my head.  I was watching it thinking that it looked “odd” for a gull, just as the legendary Guy McCaskie yelled out “Skua” and everyone rushed on deck to see this magnificent, hunch-backed pelagic predator who was now a good 50 or more yards past the boat, start a long, wide arcing turn back towards us as the skipper cut the engines.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua

The bird was obviously interested in the scene as it repeatedly made wide, arching passes around the boat at close range.   The shutters were flying, thousands of images were taken by the folks carrying their heavy artillery (me included) as the bird just keep coming back around and around.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua

As the name implies, the South Polar Skua breeds along the Antarctic coastline in November/December and then makes it way northward toward the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans where it “winters”.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua

The gulls were obviously agitated and probably scared… Skuas are formidable piratic predators, eating mainly fish, scraps and carrion but also will attack and kill other birds and their chicks.  They are much larger and more powerful than their Jaeger cousins but not as nimble, relying more on brute force to overcome their prey.  They often follow flocks of feeding birds such as gulls, wait for them to catch a fish and then attack the gull until it is forced to drop or regurgitate its catch which the Skua will quickly grab up for a meal.

South Polar Skua

We were quite lucky as this young bird (some estimated it to be in its second year) stayed around our boat for a good ten minutes before finally taking off back on its northerly route.

South Polar Skua

In between short periods of excitement there were long lapses of waiting and nothing… Sort of like tuna fishing when you are trolling for a school of tuna.   I have been on fishing trips in the past where we had trolled for twelve straight hours without a single bite.  Now that’s a “boat ride”.  I took advantage of some of the dead time to play around with some camera settings, etc. and there were always gulls around the boat if you got really bored and wanted to photograph something.   This is a good study in two Western Gulls in different phases of their development.  The bright white and gray one is a “forth cycle” or adult gull, the bottom gull with the browner wings and black on the tip of its beak is probably a “second cycle” gull, both the same species but quite different in appearance.

 

Western Gulls


Western Gull

We also had a really good day regarding marine mammals.  This small school of Risso’s Dolphin stayed around just long enough for a few photographs including one of the young calves that the group was escorting.   Risso’s Dolphins are usually quite marked with scarring as you can see in the second image below.  They eat squid, which can get quite large and it is thought that some of the marking comes from the giant squid doing battle with them as they are feeding.  It is also thought that the younger dolphins may scratch each other during playful combat.

Risso's Dolphin

Risso's Dolphin

Things got REALLY slow after this…  We had a quick stop for a pair of Least Tern and a stop for a few Red-necked Phalarope but the area from the Nine-mile Bank to the Thirty-mile Bank was a dead zone, in fact we even lost our gulls after a while, finally the leaders decided to turn back toward the Nine-mile bank to see if we could get some afternoon action back down there.

Least Tern

Red-necked Phalarope

Just as we were getting back to the general area of the Nine-mile Bank, the animal life started to pick up again, first with an occasional shearwater and a few gulls or a distant Black Storm Petrel but it was obvious that we had returned from the “void”.  We spotted a couple rafts of birds floating on the water in the distance along with a couple schools of dolphin.   As we approached, I was amazed to see two large rafts of birds made up almost entirely of Pink-footed Shearwater. 

Raft of Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater take-off!

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

Someone with eagle eyes also spotted a lone Sabine’s Gull sitting on the water at great distance.  There was some miscommunication between leaders and we headed away from this off-shore specialty however after everyone got their communication straightened out, we turned around to “pursue” the gull.  We got close, probably a 150 yards or so away before it decided that enough was enough and took off.  I got one distant shot of this mostly pelagic gull.

Sabine's Gull

Sooty Shearwater

As we slowly made our way back toward Point Loma I was thinking that I had accomplished nearly all of my goals for this trip with two exceptions.  I didn’t have any decent pictures of Black-footed Albatross (which was a possibility for this trip) and I had zero pictures of Rhinoceros Auklet (which we had already seen but at too great of a distance, as usual, to photograph).  Well, as luck would have it, we drove right up on a lone Rhinoceros Auklet that was quite cooperative and photogenic.  Unfortunately the cloud cover had returned so the images are not as good as I would have liked but at least you can see the salient features of the Auklet including the “horn” which is where it gets its name from…

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

We were back at the entrance to San Diego Bay, being mobbed by the pelicans and gulls once more as we passed the Point Loma lighthouse around 6 PM with the light slowly fading on a great day on the water.  While the trip had several hours of slow action and we missed out on Albatross and any mega-rarities, the boat ride was pleasant, the crew was accommodating, and a superb effort by the volunteers from Buena Vista Audubon made the trip enjoyable and in my opinion, a success.

Brown Pelican

Point Loma Lighthouse

 

Species seen:

Birds

Pacific Loon        

Pink-footed Shearwater   

Sooty Shearwater         

Black Storm-Petrel       

Brown Pelican            

Double-crested Cormorant 

Brandt's Cormorant       

Great Blue Heron         

Great Egret              

Snowy Egret              

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Surf Scoter              

Red-necked Phalarope     

Heermann's Gull          

Western Gull             

Sabine's Gull            

Least Tern                            

Elegant Tern             

Black Skimmer            

South Polar Skua         

Pomarine Jaeger          

Common Murre             

Xantu’s Murrelet         

Cassin's Auklet          

Rhinoceros Auklet       

 

Mammals

 

California Sea Lion

Risso’s Dolphin

Short-beaked Common Dolphin

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin

 



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