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.