Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trip results: Oregon Seabirds: October 22, 2011

Mild seas, but a bit of early drizzle, met birders on The Bird Guide, Inc.'s final trip of the year.

Highlights included two LAYSAN ALBATROSSES and over 130 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSSES--always a crowd-pleaser!

A kaleidoscope of NORTHERN FULMAR plumages was present among over 600 birds, including several light phase birds.

A couple NORTHERN FUR SEALS presented their classic "jug handle" pose--holding their extremely long hind flippers in their front paws, and looking something like a flower watering jug.

Full trip report is here, including Wayne Hoffman's diving BLUE WHALE photo.

My trip photos.

Plan your next trip to see Oregon seabirds.

Trip results: Perptua Bank: October 8, 2011

Highlights from the 10-hour trip off Newport to the canyon between Heceta and Perpetua Bank included nearly 100 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSSES and over 300 NORTHERN FULMARS.

FORK-TAILED STORM-PETRELS are always a treat--and we saw over 30. We were able to compare field marks of RED and RED-NECKED PHALAROPES.

POMARINE JAEGERS were common, with over a dozen seen. Two SOUTH POLAR SKUAS made passes near the boat.

The rarest bird was a vagrant male BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER about 20 miles to sea that followed our boat for a minute or two allowing decent photos!

Trip results are here, including a photo of the rare warbler by Jesse Hampton.

My photos from this trip.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trip results: Oregon Seabirds: September 24, 2011

We had a nice morning with clouds and wind in the afternoon. The full trip report is here.

Highlights included several South Polar Skuas and good looks at a couple of Tufted Puffins. About 600 Sooty Shearwaters were widely distributed and in near-constant view from a mile offshore to our chum stop 24 miles west of Newport, Oregon.

We spent 10 minutes with 3 Humpback Whales until they sounded.

Overall, typical species with no rarities--a good day!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hawaiian/Galapagos Petrel article

An article on Dark-rumped Petrel identification in North American Birds by Peter Pyle, Daniel L. Webster, and Robin W. Baird appears online.

"Notes on petrels of the Dark-rumped Petrel complex (Pterodroma phaeopygia/sandwichensis) in Hawaiian waters" appears in the Volume 65 (2011), No. 2 issue of North American Birds.

Interestingly, the authors present 2 birds from Hawaii that appear to be Galapagos Petrels. I couldn't determine whether this means these two birds really were from the Galapagos, or whether there is more variation in the appearance of Hawaiian Petrel than previously thought.

Birds appearing off the West Coast of North America, peaking about the 10th of August, have thought to have been Hawaiian Petrels, based on descriptions and photos. The Hawaiian Petrel has a very small population. Perhaps we're better off using the pre-split name, Dark-rumped Petrel, until the identification criteria and exact ranges are more positively defined.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Soaring albatross

Albatrosses use dynamic soaring as their main mode of flight, sweeping across the seas in graceful 'S'-shaped curves. They glide low along the waves until they are just ready to run out of flying speed. Then they wheel up to catch the winds (photo 1) and gain speed (photo 2), swooping down low (photo 3) along the water again, gliding just above the waves (photo 4).

These photos of Black-footed Albatross were taken 24 September 2011 about 24 miles off Newport, Oregon.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oregon bycatch: Short-tailed Albatross

Sad news from a recent announcement by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council as reported by the American Bird Conservancy.

An endangered Short-tailed Albatross was killed as bycatch off Oregon this past spring. Once numbering in the millions, they were hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century. Their numbers have built to nearly 3000 today.

"Bycatch" is the name for all the fish, dolphins, birds and other animals that were not the intended fishing target. These "accidental catch" can be hauled up in nets or caught on baited hooks, as this albatross apparently was.

I was previously unaware that any longline fishing was done off Oregon. In fact, I thought a ruling in October 2002 prohibited longline fishing off Washington, Oregon, and California. So this must be an experimental longlining hake fishery.

Of course, the albatross that was killed was probably an all-dark juvenile, not the white, gold, and black bird in the photo accompanying the ABC article. There are only 17 reports of Short-tailed Albatross in Oregon, though they are increasing in recent years and are probably offshore late fall through spring in small numbers when weather prevents many smaller vessels from going offshore to look.

I appreciated the remark by Robert Alverson, Executive Director of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle, Washington. He said, "Albatross bycatch benefits no one, and our fleets are very interested in minimizing any negative impact on seabirds."

Indeed, US fisheries have made significant progress in the past few years reducing seabird bycatch, especially in longline fisheries off Hawaii and Alaska.

For more information: Report on the Bycatch of Marine Mammals and Seabirds by the US West Coast Groundfish Fleet.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Identifying Cassin's Auklets

You will likely have to see hundreds of Cassin's Auklets before you see one this well. Photo 8 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.

On the water, Cassin’s Auklet is a pudgy, round, gray ball. It is similar in size, shape, and coloration to a tailless juvenile European Starling, or a dark gray rubber bathtub duck. The head rests on the front of the body with no visible neck. The bill is rather short and thick at the base. The breast is dark to the waterline, fading gradually along the sides to the pale under tail. The white eyes and eye crescents are surprisingly visible.

This is the view as shown in the field guides. Go ahead and look, but you'll never see one like this. Why? The bird above was photographed at 1/1000th of a second. Your eyes don't work that fast and these twitchy little birds don't hold still very long! Combine that with rough seas and a bouncing boat, add some wave splash and spray, magnify all that movement by 7 or 8 times (the magnification of your binoculars), and it's no wonder that even after several pelagic trips where Cassin's Auklets are recorded, many seabirders still haven't gotten a good look.

When The Crossley ID Guide was published earlier this year, I discovered that Richard Crossley created an entire book of photos I had been deleting! His book showed only a very few birds at close range and tack-sharp focus. Instead, he showed birds as they actually appeared in the field--at odd angles, flying away, half-hidden, far away, and blurry!

Pfft. I can do that!

So here is the identification description of Cassin's Auklet, edited from my never-to-be-published book, the working title of which is: Seabirds of Oregon: A Field Guide to the Tails of Fleeing Alcids. It is accompanied by several realistic photos of Cassin's Auklets--yes, at odd angles, flying away, half-hidden, far away, and blurry!

Cassin's Auklets are widely distributed from near shore to far offshore. Usually, though, the distribution is uneven. During a typical pelagic trip the boat may travel through “bands” of birds, when a dozen or more may be seen in a 10-minute period, separated by hours with none.

Cassin's Auklets spend much of their time diving underwater for krill. Like other alcids, these birds are skittish and flee the oncoming boat. Thus, look for birds taking off several hundred feet in front of the boat. If the birds were under water as you approached, they may pop up for a breath and dive back down, with only their head coming out of the water. All you may see is a splash and a brief instant of feet sticking out of the water.

Cassin's Auklets run on the water into the wind to take flight. Fleeing in front of the oncoming boat they flap their wings frantically, like oars rowing in the water, and run strenuously on stubby legs, creating an impressive long trail of splashes.

All this flailing effort does not necessarily lead to flight. They may just have gorged on food. They may be molting flight feathers. The water may be too rough. The boat may be gaining on them too quickly. Cassin’s Auklets often have trouble getting airborne. They may bounce off the water several times before gaining enough speed and elevation to rise up above the small wavelets that reach up to slap them down again. As the boat gains on them they often give up their doomed efforts at flight and dive under the water to safety.

If, by some miracle or accident, the bird does become airborne, the Cassin’s Auklet in flight is a flying potato. It is a tailless, headless blob. The whirring, small, rounded, Popsicle-stick wings are just a propeller-like blur. Flight is relatively slow and fairly low along the water, no higher than necessary to clear the wave crests.

A flying potato with whirring Popsicle-stick wings.

In low-angle morning or late afternoon sunlight the underparts can appear surprisingly white. In addition, a silvery sheen may show in the middle of the underwing panel if the observer is looking directly at the side of a well-lighted bird in flight. Under these conditions the bird may be mistaken with Ancient Murrelet. Pale feather-wear crescents behind the wings (where the folded wings lay) give the appearance of pale flank or rump patches on birds flying away.

Cassin’s Auklets, and alcids in general, are more visible on West Coast pelagic trips in late afternoon returning to port. Often the seas appear smoother traveling east with the wind and waves, and with the sun or bright skies to your back. At other times, it is easier to observe birds on the water between 20 and 45 degrees on either side of the reflected sun. The seas at that angle appear very pale and bright, and the dark alcids show up better there than at 180 degrees from the sun where the seas appear dark. So the place to look is in the smooth, bright water, but not directly into the sun.

The tails of fleeing alcids

If you want to try your luck onshore, alcids, and seabirds in general, approach nearer to shore at night and move offshore first thing in the morning. The best time to watch seabirds from shore is just after sunrise, with the sun to your back. Cassin's Auklets are especially numerous in September and October off the shores of the Pacific Northwest. Search for a slight headland near the water, such as at Boiler Bay, Oregon.

Trip results: Oregon Seabirds: September 10, 2011

The trip from Newport, Oregon, on Saturday, September 10, 2011, started foggy with fairly large swell, which made the first portion of the trip uncomfortable and relatively birdless. Early in the trip Tim Shelmerdine spotted a XANTUS’S MURRELET in the fog. CASSIN’S AUKLETS fled from the boat during this portion of the trip, and were seen nearly constantly the rest of the way.

The fog burned off about 10:30 AM and immediately albatrosses and fulmars found us and we began our chum stop in 200 fathoms of water about 25 miles due west of Yaquina Head.

We had two SOUTH POLAR SKUAS come right in to our chum and sit down for great photos. Two others were seen at a distance. All three JAEGERS visited us here, as well.

A cooperative TUFTED PUFFIN allowed prolonged views on the return, and two HUMPBACK WHALES were not too far, while others spouted in the distance. Smoother seas and sun comforted us on the return. Near shore the swell was high again and we had rather poor views of MARBLED MURRELETS. Much farther away, 5 ELEGANT TERNS were diving into the breakers near NYE Beach, about 3/4 of a mile distant from us, unfortunately.

A complete trip report is here.

More photos from the trip are here.

For more information, please see The Bird Guide pelagic site.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trip results: Oregon Shorebird Festival pelagic: August 27, 2011

It was a foggy and windy morning for this 5-hour pelagic trip from Charleston, Oregon, for the 25th annual Oregon Shorebird Festival.

Nevertheless, we 33 birders saw nearly all of the expected species for this time of year, albeit, most in low numbers. We also broke out of the sun about 9 miles offshore as the water warmed. This trip went out 12 miles where we stopped to chum in the albatrosses and fulmars to the boat.

I didn't even get out my camera, but passenger Lois Miller put together a nice photo journal of the trip.

August 27, 2011
Aboard Betty Kay of Betty Kay Charters
Captain Kathy, deck hand Bam-Bam

Guides: Tim Shelmerdine, Russ Namitz, Tim Rodenkirk, Greg Gillson

In Coos Bay (0700-0715 hours outgoing and 1145-1200 hours on the return) we recorded these species:

Harlequin Duck 1
Surf Scoter 15
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 1
Brandt's Cormorant 150
Double-crested Cormorant 5
Pelagic Cormorant 3
Brown Pelican 20
Osprey 2
Black Turnstone 10
Red-necked Phalarope 2
Heermann's Gull 30
Western Gull 40
California Gull 5
Common Murre 4
Pigeon Guillemot 8
Rhinoceros Auklet 1

From the bar crossing to 6 miles offshore (0715-0815 hours outgoing and 1045-1145 hours on the return) we recorded these birds:

Red-throated Loon 1
Northern Fulmar 2
Sooty Shearwater 20
Brandt's Cormorant 50
Brown Pelican 5
Red-necked Phalarope 5
Red Phalarope 5
Heermann's Gull 2
Western Gull 10
Arctic Tern 1
Common Murre 25
Pigeon Guillemot 2
Marbled Murrelet 2
Cassin's Auklet 50
Rhinoceros Auklet 8
Tufted Puffin 1

From 6-12 miles offshore (0815-1045 hours) we recorded these birds:

Black-footed Albatross 8
Northern Fulmar 50
Pink-footed Shearwater 15
Buller's Shearwater 3
Sooty Shearwater 5
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 15
Red-necked Phalarope 5
Red Phalarope 30
Sabine's Gull 10
Western Gull 2
Arctic Tern 4
South Polar Skua 1
Parasitic Jaeger 1
Long-tailed Jaeger 15
Cassin's Auklet 30
Rhinoceros Auklet 8

Central Oregon Coast Birding Guide

Are you visiting the central Oregon coast for a pelagic trip and want to know where to find other goods birds?

I have created the Central Oregon Coast Birding Guide just for you!

This guide builds upon the information in the Oregon Coast Birding Trail brochure. It is more in-depth and concentrates on the best areas. After the main listing of birding sites and regular birds, the guide is followed by a target species list with the best areas named with seasonal or habitat comments. It closes with a few comments on Oregon coast bird ID problems that often confuse visitors or beginners.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Oregon charter boats: fishers versus bird watchers

Recently I queried Janess Eilers about the number of charter fishing boats in Oregon. Eilers is the Registration Operations & Policy Analyst for the Oregon State Marine Board, who is responsible for licensing charter boats.

In March 2011 there were 243 licensed charter vessels in Oregon. Of these, 210 were "6 packs," smaller vessels carrying 6 or fewer people and not requiring Coast Guard inspection. That leaves 33 larger Coast Guard inspected vessels.

Birders use only 3 of the larger boats for pelagic birding on less than 10 days out of the year. That seems insignificant compared to the total number of boats available and the total number of trip days available on all those boats in a year.

According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation there were 30.0 million US anglers (age 16 or over, 75% male, 92% white) of which 5.3 million (17.7%) fished salt water from boats. These salt water boat fishers averaged over 11 days fishing at sea during the year.

Of the wildlife watchers in the US, 88% watched birds. Of these, 19.9 million watched birds more than 1 mile away from their homes (age 16 or over, 54% female, 93% white).

Locally, Oregon had 483,000 fishers (16% of population). If Oregon's average is the same as the US in total, then about 85,330 fished from a boat in the ocean. At an average of 11 trips per year, charter boats carried nearly 950,000 people fishing in Oregon in 2006.

Oregon also had 675,000 away-from-home wildlife watchers. If the US average of 88% of these being bird watchers applies to Oregon, then there were approximately 594,000 bird watchers in Oregon in 2006.

So many interesting things to say about these numbers....

But for now, I want to tie it to charter boats and fishers versus pelagic birders.

The number of bird watchers joining chartered birding boat trips at sea off Oregon is no more than 250 persons per year. That includes about 20 people who take 2-3 trips each year.

So, there are about 20% more bird watchers than fishers, yet in one year, fishers take just shy of a million ocean boat fishing trips in Oregon, while birders take 250.

Obviously, there is a tremendous difference in the participation rate of going to sea in boats between the two groups (3800:1).


Tuesday, August 16, 2011


There are several thousand times more fishers in boats at sea than pelagic birders (a topic for a future post). Yet birders seem much more vocal about their emetic experiences at sea.

It is very doubtful that birders are more susceptible to seasickness than fishers.

No one has studied seasickness more than the Department of the Army. The research concludes that anyone can be made motion sick with the right stimuli. A vertical motion of 0.2 Hertz produces the highest incidence of sickness. Guess what? That's one wave every 5 seconds--just what you might get traveling into a slow swell, or the frequency of wind waves that might be produced by 20 mile per hour winds.

An extensive study of navy sailors found that about 4% sometimes got seasick even in calm conditions. In moderate conditions 4-28% of sailors sometimes got sick. However, even in rough seas, 34% of sailors never felt ill. Women are more susceptible to motion sickness than men, by a 5:3 ration. (Benson, A.J. 2002. Motion sickness. In: Medical Aspects of Harsh Environments, Vol. 2. US Dept. of the Army. Washington DC.)

What does this mean for birders?

Well, be prepared. There are motion sickness medications available. Probably the best is the Scopolamine "patch" worn behind the ear and administered at least 8 hours before getting on the boat.

Stay amidships, in the fresh air, where you can see the horizon. Standing and riding the swells, keeping your head level, is better than sitting and rocking with the boat.

Those fishers probably keep going out and get used to the "motion of the ocean." Birders are more likely to give up after one bad experience. "Habituation offers the surest counter measure to motion sickness." (Golding, J.F. 2006. Motion sickness susceptibility. Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic & Clinical (129):67-76.)

So, don't give up. Try again!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Finding Wrentits

I finally got decent photos of Wrentit on July 30th. It was a bittersweet victory. The only reason I was there in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range was because high winds had forced the cancellation of our deep water pelagic trip scheduled for that day.

Pelagic trips can cancel any time of year. The best month, on average, for calm seas is July. But that didn't matter this day. Winds of 25 miles per hour were creating 6 foot wind waves, which would prevent our charter boat from making any headway and would make viewing conditions abominable. The winds were caused by a thermal low over northern California that creates strong north winds along the southern and central Oregon coast.

So here I was, checking out some onshore birding sites instead. It is my intention to create a small birding guide for just such occasions--where to go birding when your pelagic trip cancels (sad face).

View Larger Map

This location is found on the way to Drift Creek Falls, Site #54 on the Oregon Coast Birding Trail.

Head south from Lincoln City and turn E (left) on Drift Creek Rd 1.6 miles, then S (right) on South Drift Creek Rd 0.4 miles, then E (left) on Forest Service Road 17 and go 0.8 miles to the intersection with FS19. Walk this paved but mostly abandoned and unmaintained overgrown road to the southeast into the forest.

This is a great spot, May-August, for West Coast forest birds: Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Swainson's Thrush, and Varied Thrush among many others.

Wrentits are secretive birds that crawl and fly-hop from branch to branch in the dense evergreen tangles of salal bushes. Besides their descending accelerated whistle song, they give rattling little contact notes: "dt-dt-dt-dt-dt" that you may be able to imitate by blowing an unvoiced 'D' through the tip of your tongue (4-6 notes at the rate of about 10 notes per second). Birds respond to this rattle all year, coming close to take a look.

Friday, June 17, 2011

So you want to see a Murphy's Petrel?

The eBird map above shows the Oregon locations of observed Murphy's Petrels on 4 cruise ship trips in May 2009-2011. You can click the map above for a larger view. The yellow markers are sighting locations for the most recent trip (May 20, 2011) on which I went with 7 other Oregon birders.

It turns out that cruise ships make repositioning cruises at the exact season (late April to mid-May) and exact distance offshore (45-65 miles) from Oregon to regularly find these rare solitary seabirds.

Cruises departing San Francisco just after noon will have dawn just off the California/Oregon border, then spend all day off the Oregon coast. Ships arrive in Vancouver, British Columbia the next morning, a trip of just under 48 hours. Other cruises also depart for Vancouver from Long Beach, and spend an extra day at sea (but may not be off Oregon for all or any of the daylight hours).

Murphy's Petrels are not attracted to boats as are some seabirds. So a spotting scope is necessary to see these amazing aerialists in their rapid, bounding flight. ID is difficult, so you may wish for experienced seabirders to travel with. And this far to sea total bird numbers are often quite low--Leach's Storm-Petrel is the most common bird.

Murphy's Petrel numbers vary from year-to-year. And each trip is different, depending upon location at sunrise, observer effort, and weather conditions. Of the 5 cruises in spring 2011 with birders aboard, only two of the trips saw Murphy's Petrel off Oregon (though all trips saw Murphy's Petrels in either Oregon or California waters, or both).

Total numbers of Murphy's Petrels off Oregon on recent cruises documented in eBird:
33 on May 8, 2009
46 on May 1, 2010
none on April 22, 2011
5 on May 11, 2011
none on May 13, 2011
none on May 15, 2011
5 on May 20, 2011

There are dedicated deepwater pelagic birding trips out of Santa Barbara and San Diego (mulit-day trip) that find these birds occasionally. But, by far, the easiest way to see these birds is to board a luxury ocean liner for these spring repositioning cruises.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Repositioning Cruise, San Francisco to Vancouver: May 19-21, 2011

Crossing under San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge

Eight Oregon birders met in San Francisco to board the Coral Princess for its repositioning cruise to Vancouver, British Columbia. The ship departed in the afternoon of May 19th, and by dawn on the 20th was off Del Norte, County, California--that state's most northern county. We birders would spend the entire day traversing the entire Oregon coast, getting too dark to see birds just before crossing into Washington State waters.

Because of the shape of the Oregon coastline, the ship was about 35 miles off the southern Oregon coast, and 60 miles off the northern Oregon coast.

Cruise ships are the only reasonable way for birders to get to waters beyond 35 miles of shore--off the continental shelf. Pelagic birding trips using chartered fishing vessels barely reach 30 miles offshore and can only spend an hour or two before heading back to port. Thus, if you want to see deep water specialties (rarities), a cruise is the way to go.

Cruise birding is different from any other kind of birding you may do. It can be highly enjoyable and addicting, but disappointing if you do not know what to expect.

We started under sunny skies, with a bit of wind. Even with a later-than-scheduled departure, we were seeing albatrosses out the window by dinner time.

We awoke at dawn, had some breakfast, and made our way out on the Promenade Deck--Deck 7--which goes all the way around the ship. This particular ship did not have a covered deck on the bow as some ships do. This is an important feature for larger birding groups.

As you can see from the above photo, the birders were huddled out of the wind on the starboard side, amidships, under life boat #5. Water and air temperature were about 50F, wind in our face at 15-20 knots, and ship speed of 22 knots. That is about a 45 mile per hour breeze on the exposed parts of the ship! Nevertheless, the more experienced cruise birders noted that this was the most pleasant conditions of any previous spring trip! Brrr...

There also were fewer overall birds than on previous spring cruises, perhaps due to this later than usual cruise date. Oh, there were still birds aplenty, but many were quite distant. This proved to be a bit of detriment for me, as I will explain.

Cruise birding is far different than taking a pelagic birding trip on a chartered fishing boat. Of course, the ship is larger and you can use a scope on the calm decks. Food is included on your cruise price, with many dining rooms. But then, birders mostly want to stay on deck looking at birds during daylight hours, so knowing where the grill and pizza bar are located is important. And you can get a good night's sleep in your stateroom each night, rather than driving to the pelagic trip's port of departure in the predawn hours, as do many birders.

But the main difference between cruise ship birding and pelagic birding trips is how far you are from the birds. The pelagic trip is designed to go where the birds are and even chum them right up to the boat. Frankly, large ships scare birds. And watching from Deck 7, perhaps 40 feet above the water line, gives you about the same experience as a seawatch--watching birds from a coastal headland.

Cruise ship birding is done primarily with a spotting scope. Few birds are within 1/4 mile, or about the length of the ship. Many birds are spotted flying from the boat about 1/2 mile distant and are soon more than 2 miles distant. A scope, then, is essential. And some experience and study is needed to know what birds you are seeing--shape and flight style are essential, as lighting is often poor for picking up plumage colors and patterns.

The Pacific Loons above (one in breeding plumage and one not) were very close (for a cruise ship)--within 1/4 mile of the boat during our way out the San Francisco harbor.

This was of particular trouble for me, as I awoke on the 20th with a screaming headache--perhaps from dehydration during the previous busy travel day. For the first couple of hours it was difficult to even have my eyes open at all. Later, the headache went away, but I decided I would only use binoculars to bird--I didn't want that nauseating headache to return. Staring through my scope with one eye for an entire day, as water streamed constantly by, was a sure way to bring that headache back!

Using "binoculars only" meant that I was unable to identify shearwater-sized birds beyond about a mile and a quarter. I saw far fewer storm-petrels than the other birders (53 compared to 298). I identified no Cassin's Auklets, with about 19 seen by others throughout the day. Those birders using scopes could spot the storm-petrels and Cassin's Auklets out there a mile, and shearwaters out 3 or more miles.

There were numerous Long-tailed Jaegers seen, such as the bird above. This one was about 1/2 mile distant--about as close as they got to the ship.

But my headache didn't mean that I didn't see good birds--because I did!

While still in California waters, 2 Laysan Albatrosses flew by. Then Russ and I identified a Pterodroma by flight style, and a bit later my life Murphy's Petrel swooped up with the same flight style right alongside the boat! I observed 4 more in Oregon waters.

Only Owen Schmidt and Jeff Gilligan independently identified a single Ashy Storm-Petrel in Oregon waters. The light was bad, so they primarily had only flight style and shape to go by, but they did note the all-dark rump. There are about a half dozen sightings of this species in Oregon waters--unfortunately none seen well enough to pass a records committee yet. I think, for storm-petrels in general, a video showing it flying would be more helpful to a bird records committee to accept it than any but a very close series of photos.

Another rarity, a pair of Parakeet Auklets, were identified by Tim Shelmerdine, Russ Namitz, and David Smith. I got a glimpse in a borrowed scope, but couldn't make out any diagnostic field marks before they splashed back down in the water.

Entering Vancouver

Russ Namitz recorded overall numbers for the Oregon portion of the cruise, as follows (my personal sightings in parentheses):
Greater Scaup 1 (1)
Black-footed Albatross 19 (7)
Northern Fulmar 9 (10)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 1 (1)
Pink-footed Shearwater 2 (0)
Sooty Shearwater 1500+ (2336)
Leach's Storm-Petrel 186 (45)
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 142 (10)
Whimbrel 12 (14)
Red Phalarope 624 (310)
Sabine's Gull 10 (3)
California Gull 1 (0)
Arctic Tern 7 (4)
South Polar Skua 6 (7)
Parasitic Jaeger 1 (1)
Long-tailed Jaeger 67 (43)
Common Murre 1 (0)
Cassin's Auklet 19 (0)
Rhinoceros Auklet 81 (9)

We also saw Northern Fur Seals, Northern Elephant Seal (Russ only), Dall's Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Sei Whale, Pilot Whales, Orcas.

So, the trip had a long-desired life bird (Murphy's Petrel), a missed lifer (Parakeet Auklet), and a missed state bird (Ashy Storm-Petrel). These were my three target birds for this trip. Well, I'll get those others another time.

Related previous posts you may find interesting if you are planning such a cruise.

Repositioning cruises (general information):

Seabirds from boats (including cruise ship repositioning trips and costs):

Virtual seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon (viewing seabirds from a cruise ship is similar):

Trip results: Oregon Seabirds: May 15, 2011

Rarely do birders see Red Phalaropes in breeding plumage on the West Coast. The one notable exception is on May pelagic trips. In the photo above are both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes at sea off Newport, Oregon.

This was our new "Seabirds of Oregon" trip, an 8-hour trip from Newport. The first part of the trip heads over to the scenic Yaquina (ya-KWIN-a) Head lighthouse and seabird colony. This accounted for the majority of Brandt's Cormorants and Common Murres counted. Then we headed offshore, stopping when we encountered numerous seabirds about 22 miles offshore.

We traveled on the boat "Misty" with Captain Rob Waddell at the helm.

Brant 5 (bay)
Greater Scaup 20 (bay)
Harlequin Duck 2 (bay)
Surf Scoter 80
White-winged Scoter 1 (Russ only, crossing bar outgoing, distant)
Red-throated Loon 50
Pacific Loon 157
Common Loon 4
Red-necked Grebe 2 (bay)
Western Grebe 2
Clark's Grebe 1
Black-footed Albatross 62
Northern Fulmar 1
Pink-footed Shearwater 11
Sooty Shearwater 28
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel 3
Brandt's Cormorant 405
Double-crested Cormorant 33
Pelagic Cormorant 129
Turkey Vulture 2 (bay)
Osprey 1 (bay)
Semipalmated Plover 1 (Tim only, near Yaquina Head, distant)
Black Turnstone 1 (bay)
Dunlin 2 (bay)
Red-necked Phalarope 205
Red Phalarope 650
Sabine's Gull 20
Western Gull 161
California Gull 56
Glaucous-winged Gull 2
Long-tailed Jaeger 1
Common Murre 40,616
Pigeon Guillemot 203
Marbled Murrelet 11
Cassin's Auklet 24
Rhinoceros Auklet 53
Tufted Puffin 1 (Russ only, near Yaquina Head, distant)
American Crow 1 (bay)
Barn Swallow 2 (bay)
American Robin 1 (bay)

Harbor Seal 5 (bay)
California Sea Lion 1
Steller's Sea Lion 2 (Greg only, on harbor entrance buoy, distant)
Dall's Porpoise 29
Gray Whale 2
Humpback Whale 1

More photos from this trip

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Puerto Montt Storm-Petrel: Oregon birders discover new seabird!

Portland, Oregon birders Jeff Gilligan and Gerard Lillie wanted to see new birds when they took a Princess cruise around South America. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they'd discover a new species of bird off Chile. See the OregonLive article by Katy Muldoon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Short-tailed Albatross chick survives tsunami on Midway

With the tragic loss of life in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, it almost seems disrespectful to mention a single bird. However, the first chick Short-tailed Albatross ever to hatch in the wild away from the Japanese islands survived the tsunami at Midway, though tens-of-thousands of other birds apparently perished.

There are perhaps 2400 of these rare birds left, after five-million were killed in the feather trade a hundred years ago.

See the heartbreaking photos of wildlife devestation on Midway and more information at

Monday, February 28, 2011

Seabirds from boats

Marbled MurreletMarbled Murrelet, from a boat off Newport, Oregon on 21 February, 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Last week's post discussed a seawatch--viewing seabirds from shore. In it, I showed views of seabirds as they would appear using binoculars and spotting scopes.

In last week's post we "magnified" a pair of Red-necked Grebes about a half mile offshore. In the magnified view--a view as would be seen with a spotting scope--we discovered another small speck of a bird that I identified as a Marbled Murrelet in flight.

Over time, a dedicated seawatcher may see many of the Pacific Northwest's oceanic birds. However, many seabirds would be just specks--even with a spotting scope. Without closer-range experience, one would not be able to learn the distinctive flight characteristics that would help identify some birds. And many seabirds rarely come near land off the Pacific NW.

The only way to see these birds better, in the Pacific Northwest, is to board a boat.

Boats do present some logistic challenges: route, instability, expense, and mal de mar (seasickness).

Unless you own your own seaworthy craft, the only way to get the boat to go bird watching is to charter it. Chartering a vessel in the Pacific NW may cost $750 for a small boat ("six-pack," which carries 6 persons on a 20-30 foot boat) or a larger Coast Guard certified vessel that may carry 20-30 passengers on a boat 40-55 feet long for a rate of about $2500 per day. Sharing the cost among the participants is a way to make such a trip affordable--but usually can't be done on the spur of the moment.

In the Pacific Northwest, the only two regular providers of seabirds watching trips by boat, or "pelagic trips," are Westport Seabirds in Washington State and The Bird Guide in Oregon. Shearwater Journeys operates out of California (primarily Monterey area) with some trips in northern California. There are a couple other providers (often Audubon Societies and dedicated individuals) that offer pelagic trips from Monterey south to San Diego.

Only the larger boats are Coast Guard certified to travel beyond 20 miles of shore--out to the albatrosses and several other more oceanic species. Thus, a dedicated group pelagic trip on a large boat is the most direct way for an individual to view seabirds. A full-day trip may cost $150 per person.

On such a trip, many birds will still be distant. But unlike on a land-based seawatch, you can get closer with the boat. A chartered pelagic birding trip is designed to go where the birds are. During the day, chances are good that you will see thousands of seabirds, many at very close range. On your first such trip you are likely to add 15-20 life birds--species you've never seen before!

Because the boat bobs on the waves, a birder on a regular pelagic trip cannot use a scope and tripod--binoculars are required. Of course, bobbing up and down looking through binoculars is not easy on your equilibrium, leading to queasiness (or worse) for some people. Despite these challenges, a pelagic trip is the best way to see seabirds. They are timed for the best birding and led by expert seabird guides intent on showing you seabirds and helping you to identify them.


Happy birders encounter fishing vessels trailing thousands of seabirds (albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers, petrels, and other birds, not to mention whales and dolphins!) on a pelagic trip off Newport, Oregon on 31 May 2003 by Greg Gillson.


There are a few options besides a scheduled pelagic trip. These options are less certain than a pelagic trip--you may not see any birds worth mentioning. Or worse--you see lots of birds just a few hundred feet away but the boat won't travel toward them so you can identify them, because... it is not a birding trip. More important, you'll often have to identify the birds yourself.

1) Whale watching trip: From certain ports on the West Coast, specifically at Newport and Depoe Bay on the central Oregon coast, local fishing charters lead out trips to view Gray Whales at $20 per person. These trips will often be right along shore, though in winter they may go out 5 miles. These trips last an hour or two. Gray Whales and Marbled Murrelets feed on the sandy bottom and are often seen together. You might see a Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, or Northern Fulmar. You may see nothing, not even a whale.

2) Bottom or salmon fishing trip: "Deep sea fishing" is not done in the deep sea. Boats rarely go out more than 3 miles for bottom fishing, often less than one mile to "inner reefs." However, if you want to join fishing friends for 4 hours, you can often get a 1/2 fare for non-fishing passenger, or about $35. These won't see any more than on a whale watch trip, but are offered from more ports. Expect lots of cormorants, murres, and Pigeon Guillemots, and probably some Marbled Murrelets and maybe some other nearshore pelagic birds and harbor porpoises.

3) Halibut or tuna fishing trip: These trips go out 20-40 miles and take you into albatross waters. However, once there you are likely either to sit in one place or troll round and round in a small area. These trips are 12-18 hours, cost about $350 per person, and usually do not allow non-fishing passengers. If you like to fish, this can be a great trip. However, there may be hours at a time with no birds whatsoever. The best birds are often seen on the trip out and back, which may be at dawn and dusk. Halibut trips such as these are offered only May and August. The tuna trips are July to early September.

4) Cruise ship repositioning trips: Lasting 3-4 days, these trips on luxury ocean liners are surprisingly affordable ($200). They travel out at 60 miles, beyond large numbers of birds, including albatrosses--out where any bird could be a mega-rare petrel or other seabird. Great whales are often spotted. A 3-day cruise will cost you far less than 3 regular one-day pelagic trips (especially if you include travel, motel, and food for 3 days). You'll have to come up with a bus ($75) or rental car from Vancouver, British Columbia and a flight from either San Francisco ($170) or Long Beach, California. So, maybe $550 per person (from Portland, Oregon), double-occupancy, in a lower-class room. Advantages of a cruise ship include a bed if you get tired, food is included in the price, and you can set up your spotting scope on the deck. You usually bird from a covered deck on about the 7th floor of the bow. In many ways, this is like a seawatch. For the past several years small groups of birders have been arranging these trips--so you may find a trip with other expert seabirders to help spot and identify birds.

This post is co-published on the Pacific NW Birder blog.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Virtual seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon

What are these people doing? Looking for Gray Whales at Boiler Bay State Wayside near Depoe Bay, Oregon!

Good viewpoints for whales are positioned not too far above or away from the water. Not surprisingly, good places to view Gray Whales are also good places to view nearshore seabirds. And Boiler Bay is perhaps the best seawatch site on the West Coast.

But if you don't know what to expect, you may be disappointed.

On the rocks near the water you may find Black Oystercatchers, as in the photo below. Click the photo for a view that would approximate what you would see with binoculars. [I suggest you right-click and "open link in new window," so it doesn't take so long to reload the page using your "back" button.]

Time spent scanning for seabirds is called a "seawatch." Seawatches are not very successful with only binoculars. It usually requires a higher-powered (20-60x) spotting scope to bring the birds closer into view.

In fact, the photos presented here are all designed to show you what you would actually see with binoculars or a spotting scope on a seawatch. I took these photos in August 2009, just to see how bad photos of seabirds from shore would be (in general, bad, just as I surmised). Not magazine quality, are they? But they prove useful in teaching about seawatches.

Just beyond the first breakers you may see cormorants. In the photo below, a Pelagic Cormorant leads a Brandt's Cormorant. Click for a view such as you would see with binoculars.

You may also see Common Murres quite near shore. Such as in the photo below. Again, click to view the photo as it would appear with binoculars.

And here is a photo of a Pigeon Guillemot out about 1/4 mile. Click on the photo to make it appear as you would see it in binoculars.

On a seawatch, most of the birds are quite distant and views are usually no where near "field guide quality." It takes practice to identify seabirds and to learn what field marks you can see at a distance. By watching nearer, known-identity, birds fly away, you can learn flight shape and characteristics that will allow you to put a name on more distant birds.

Your binoculars aren't much use for birds more than a half mile distant. But with a spotting scope, you can identify birds 3 miles at sea or more.

For instance, take a look at this fishing boat about a mile offshore. Click the photo to give you a fairly accurate view of what you would see with binoculars.

Do you see the bird just behind the boat? If you watch the flap-and-glide progression of this long-winged bird, you could guess it was a shearwater. However, you need more optical magnification. So, click on the following photo to see what you might see with a 25x spotting scope.

You can see the long-winged bird flying right-to-left. The left wing is pointed right at us, so we can't see it. What we see is the underside of the right wing. The white underwing linings are clearly seen, identifying this bird as a Sooty Shearwater!

Here is another photo of a pair of Red-necked Grebes flying south about 1/2 mile out. Click the photo to see what view you would have of these birds with binoculars only.

Oh, that speck would be hard to identify with binoculars only, wouldn't it?

A lot of time on a seawatch is spent scanning with binoculars, then switching to the more powerful scope when you find something. Scanning with the scope has too small of a field of view--you'll miss more birds than you'll find if you scan with your scope. So find the birds with your bare eyes or with binoculars, then switch to higher power.

For instance, once you spot those flying "specks" in the above photo, get on it with your scope and you'll see something interesting. Click on the photo below to see what you would see with a spotting scope.

Now you can see the white face and white secondary wing patch identifying the two Red-necked Grebes in the lower left of the photo.

But notice what else appeared in our virtual spotting scope view? In the upper right of the photo is a bird flying left with pointed wings bent sharply at the wrist. The throat is pale and the head appears slightly raised on a short neck. Can you make it out? That's a Marbled Murrelet.

So, to answer your question... yes, seawatchers identify distant birds with only minimal pattern, shape, and flight style clues. Even with spotting scopes the views are not very good. But scopes do allow you to see small specks of birds about 3 miles offshore or farther, depending upon atmospheric conditions.

Here are some hints to make seawatching more successful.

1) Go at dawn. Seabirds are nearer shore first thing in the morning, then move off. By 2 hours after sunrise activity may be mostly over for the day. In May, that could mean that all the action is over by 8 a.m. On the West Coast, the sun comes up behind you, giving you the best light at dawn.

2) Scan with your naked eye or with binoculars. Only when you find something do you switch to your spotting scope.

3) Go seawatching during spring and fall migration, April-May and September-November.

4) Go during really nasty weather. Those big November windstorms often push seabirds near shore. Go between downpours. Dress warmly. Protect your optics. Head for a hot bowl of chowder afterward.

5) Practice, practice, practice! Identify close seabirds, then watch them as they fly away. What do you see as they get farther and farther away? Learn seabird patterns, shapes, and flight styles.

Andy Frank took some photos of Ancient Murrelets at Boiler Bay in December.

[This article is co-published on the Pacific NW Birder blog.]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Laysan Albatross search trip: March 12, 2011

The Bird Guide's annual Laysan Albatross search trip is scheduled for Saturday, March 12, 2011.

This first trip of the year is designed to get our pelagic season off to an exciting beginning. Besides these wonderful albatrosses, frequent birds include Ancient Murrelets, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Thayer's Gulls, and high numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets and Black-legged Kittiwakes!

As of January 31, 2011, the boat is about half-full--there are still about 15 spaces open. This trip will be sold out soon!

This 10-hour trip costs $150 per person from Newport, Oregon. Check on The Bird Guide's pelagic web pages for more information.

See last year's trip results.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Short-tailed Albatross feeding chick on Midway!

More info since the first announcement!

The first nesting of Short-tailed Albatross outside Japan. A pair of birds nested for the first time. Here is the video from January 28, 2011.

If I understand correctly, another nest on nearby Kure Atoll was evidently tended by two female Short-tailed Albatrosses and the infertile egg never hatched.

2011 ABA Pelagic Directory

The 2011 ABA Pelagic Directory is now available online as a pdf.

In years past this directory was published in the January Winging It newsletter, and mailed to all ABA members. However, for the past couple of years it has been online only.

This issue is very nice, listing 49 pelagic opportunities around North America--from Nova Scotia to Florida, and California to Alaska. It is "decorated" with some amazing seabird and marine mammal photos, along with a couple of boat photos.

One of the photos is the one above of a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel I took on September 11, 2010 off Newport, Oregon.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Banded albatrosses

Black-footed Albatross
Some of the 135 Black-footed Albatrosses, off Newport, Oregon on 11 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.

Thirty miles off the Oregon coast Black-footed Albatrosses gather every summer to feed in the rich California Current. They come from far away across the sea. Far, far, away.

Many of the Black-footed Albatrosses off the coast of the Pacific NW come from remote islands such as Laysan, Midway, and the French Frigate Shoals.

It is approximately 2500 miles SW from the Pacific NW coast to Honolulu, Hawaii. From there it is another 560 miles NW to Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals. This coral atoll is the worn down top of an ancient volcano. The waves wear down the volcano until the top is under the water. Coral grows up to the surface, detritus and flotsam get caught in the shallows and an island is formed,... barely. Because the waves tear it down again.

But there, 3000 miles from the cold and rainy Pacific NW, on warm sandy beaches, Black-footed Albatrosses come ashore to breed in December and January. There they raise their single chick until May, then they strike out eastward to the continental shelf of western North America to feed in the cold, productive waters.

Map of Tern Island

More on Tern Island

Even out in the middle of nowhere, there are biologists working on these remote islands to catalog the endangered wildlife. Thus, many of the albatrosses we see off the Pacific NW in summer and fall had been banded as chicks many years before. These carry a metal US Fish & Wildlife band and a larger plastic band with easier to read larger numbers.

On an offshore birding boat trip this fall we found one such banded bird. It wore a numbered plastic leg band. One of our passengers was able to get a photograph of it and sent it to me. I reported the number to the Bird Banding Laboratory and received the thank you acknowledgement below.

Then, going through my own photos, I found I unknowingly took a picture of another albatross with a different band number on it. This, also, I turned in, but have not yet heard back. If I had turned in the number on the stamped aluminum band I would have gotten an answer directly from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But the colored leg bands are only tracked by the research scientist. The researchers put both bands on, but the aluminum one is the official band, but harder to read. So, I haven't heard anything about the bird in the photo below, but expect it has the same story as that detailed in the acknowledgement above.

Black-footed Albatross
Black-footed Albatross with band A386, off Newport, Oregon on 11 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.

To report a color-marked or birds banded with aluminum band (except domestic pigeons), record the number and report the number on : this web site.

[This article first appeared in Pacific NW Birder on 11 October 2010.]