Friday, March 21, 2014

Short-tailed Albatross off Oregon: February 22, 2014

[The following account of the sighting of a SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS off Oregon last month was written by Tom Snetsinger, one of our long-time seabird guides. Thanks, Tom!]

February 22, 2014 was an unusual day. It is an uncommon winter day when the seas are calm enough to head offshore in search of birds. It is rare when the date we put on the calendar months earlier coincides with one of those. During our brief orientation, we discussed a few of the rarer species we might encounter: Red-legged Kittiwake, Parakeet Auklet, Laysan Albatross. Guides and passengers bundled up, each day-dreaming of their own quarry, headed out to sea aboard Newport Tradewinds’ Misty.

Each pelagic trip has its own unique rhythm, and good numbers of Ancient Murrelets and Cassin’s Auklets flushing from the front of the boat set the pace for this trip as we worked our way offshore. While the ride was a little rough, and it was hard to pick out all of the features on individual birds, most were able to assemble a satisfactory experience from their collage of sightings. Working our way offshore we encountered few albatross. However, a Laysan Albatross did a fly by close to the boat allowing everyone good views, and this experience set the stage for bigger things yet to come. A couple of jaegers also put on a brief show as they chased a kittiwake, but these were merely the hors d'oeuvres preceding a main course that all of us hoped for but none of us really expected.

We continued west, stopping briefly to chum, which allowed us to brush-up on our gull ID skills and appreciate a couple of Thayer’s Gulls among the larids present, but without many birds, we decided to press on. A distant fishing boat to our southwest drew our attention and encouraged us to head that direction in search of other species. A distant flock of fulmars and the occasional albatross encouraged us onward. Then, cries from the bow erupted. Short-tailed Albatross. SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS! SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS!! LOOK AT THE BILL!! One could almost feel the boat shift as everyone onboard leapt to the starboard side to appreciate the grandeur of this magnificent bird as it sailed by and, turning into the midday sun, flashed its magnificent bubblegum pink bill like a beacon. Not to rest on its laurels, this gorgeous bird joined us a short while later at an impromptu chum stop, where it swam among a dozen Black-footed Albatrosses, dwarfing its chocolate-colored brethren. Reluctantly, we headed back to port, but enjoying the camaraderie of sharing our fresh memories of another 3-albatross day.

Birders live for these moments, and the image of the bird turning into the sun and flashing that bold, huge, improbable, and awesome bill in the midday sun will stick with me for a longtime. I think everyone aboard can appreciate the good fortune in sharing that experience.

[For another report and photos, see this page by passenger Bob Archer.]