Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pelagics Part 1

Rathtrevor Beach at sunrise

It was finally time. Four days that had been marked down on my calendar for months stood staring back at me. When the Wild Research Pelagic was announced, I think I was registered within 15 minutes; this was an integral part of my big year. I had at least 20 species on my "to see" list that are only possible by venturing far out into the open ocean. Additionally, I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a second Pelagic, organized by Russell Cannings. It was out of Tofino and on a smaller boat. This gave us the ability to chase some birds around, and granted me better odds of seeing some species, as only having one chance in a situation like this is a big gamble. If I didn't see a certain species on these two trips, it would likely stay off my Year list for good. 

Thursday after work it was straight to the Ferries. I took the Tsawwassen to Duke point ferry because, as rumour has it, it is the best ferry to see a rare Pelagic bird within the Georgia Straight. I did see a Storm Petrel, but it was too far from the vessel to get an I.D. I watched the small bird zoom into the sunset erratically. It was a sign I think, that this would be a killer weekend. 

I camped over in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park. In the morning, I had an hour to roam the incredible mudflats that stretched out to the horizon. I found pools filled with living Sand dollars, a creature I had never seen alive before. I picked one up and was mesmerized by its fur moving in unison. It was quite the trip.

Sand dollar

I birded my way up to Tofino, not finding anything particularly interesting, but enjoying the habitat. Englishmen River Estuary is a notorious site for rarities, but with the tide being out still, it left little in its wake. I moved on through the highway that cuts through Port Alberni, and then finally into Ucluelet. My next stop would be the Tofino Airport where I had seen reports of Pacific Golden Plover. On my way there, I ran into Daniele Mitchell. I recognized him from our meeting during the search for the Flammulated Owls in Penticton. Soon more birders showed up, including the Big C, Russel Cannings himself. We headed into the airport, but were soon cut off by workers who said we weren't allowed to be there. Well, this is was deja-vu all over again. Coincidentally, when I was at the Fort St. John Sewage Lagoons, I got kicked off before I got a good look at an American Golden Plover. Well, it turned out that Plover was a Pacific Golden Plover, so I decided I couldn't count it as either species since my glimpse was not enough to tell which one it was. And here I was being denied another opportunity to see the is my luck, I guess.

We spent the rest of the day scanning Combers Beach, where we had a good diversity of Gulls, including my first Heermann's Gull of the year. Far offshore, we could see Sooty Shearwaters cutting the air just above the water, like they were just waiting for us.

I stayed over in a campground in Ucluelet. I was surprised to see that I had chosen a spot next to Russell and his crew, including birder Daniel Cormier. Before bed we huddled around a picnic table by flashlight, going through the Sibley's Guide and discussing all the birds we had a chance to see the next morning. I felt like a kid on Christmas eve.

In the morning, we all drove to Tofino to the Whale Center. Since it was a small boat, we all had to put on these big life vest body suits. I had decided not to eat or drink in the morning because I didn't feel like having to pee at the back of the boat, and I was worried about getting seasick. Russell had told me that there was always one person who spent the whole trip unable to even look at birds on account of horrible seasickness. Well, this trip was no exception, but thankfully I wasn't that person.

When we finally got to the boat, I stepped on in, and sat down in the back: the air was cool, the sky overcast, and it had rained overnight, but at that moment, we were all relatively dry. The engines started and I felt my stomach lurch as we pulled out of the harbour, I closed my eyes and held on for dear life. "You can do this" I told myself. I had to, there was no other option.

The motor hummed in my ears and I had to keep reminding myself to open my eyes and look for birds. We buzzed by groups of Common Murres, Rhinocerous Aukletts, and California Gulls.
We slowed by a Kelp bed to see a Sea Otter, lying on its back. It sat up in the water, gave us a curious look and dove down. The further out we got, the calmer I began to feel as I grew used to the engines hum and the constant rocking from the waves.
Rhinocerous Auklet

We closed in on Cleland Island to check out the rocks, and were rewarded by a Wandering Tattler, some Turnstones, and a Surfbird. A large group of Stellar's Sea Lions were lazing about on the rocks, the males keeping their heads held high like kings.

 It was now time to head out into the open waters of the Pacific. But not before Devon Anderson, who was sitting next to me on the boat, yelled out "Puffin!". I jumped up excitedly, a lone Tufted Puffin sat in the water 100 feet away. I was startled to see it had already gone into winter plumage, as I had hoped they would still be in alternate, but I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. There were high fives all around, my first lifer of the day.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin
I would count my blessings that I ended up sitting next to Devon, as his sharp eye would point out a lot of great birds for me on this trip. We pushed on further and further until all sign of land had vanished, swallowed by the ocean moving into the horizon. A feeling of pure isolation crept up inside me, but I shook it off. Among the California Gulls, we caught sight of an unexpected Black-legged Kittiwake! That was a relief for me, saving me a winter trip back here.

Soon, the first sooty shearwaters began appearing, their dark bodies with silvery under wings cut across the waves in a frenzy. Moments later, Pink-footed Shearwaters began showing in numbers. They were dark gray on top with pale undersides, and of course pink feet.

Sooty Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Dominic Cormier interrupted my shearwater studies when he suddenly yelled out "Sabines Gull!". I turned to see several Gulls elegantly piercing the sky, their gorgeous "M" shaped wing pattern is the touchstone of identification. Another lifer!

Further out Russel yelled "Bullers!", and everyone stood up to see it. Sadly, being in the back meant I was in a bad position to see anything directly in front of the boat, and my heart sank as the shearwaters flew off before I could get a look. I was dismayed, Bullers Shearwater was a bird I hadn't even been counting on. Well, my sadness wouldn't last as we would see an egregious forty Buller's Shearwaters!!

Bullers Shearwater with Sooty behind him

As we moved on I noticed a very large, dark Gull-shaped bird flying slowly and low on the water. This being my first Pelagic, I had no idea what I was looking at, but yelled out "What's that big thing?" Everyone turned around and we had soon locked onto our first South Polar Skua! We would see six in all. The flocks of Shearwaters started to get bigger and bigger; Pink-footed started to become the more common of the species, and there seemed to be a Bullers or two in each flock. 

Northern Fulmars started to become common. It was a treat to see these guys after I had rescued one a year earlier, and seeing them clumsily fly about brought me back to that day I found Salty Pete at the Westport Jetty.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

Someone called out "Flesh Foot!" and through my binoculars I locked onto a large Shearwater with a laid back flight, quite like a Pink-Footed but very unlike the quick 3 beats of the Sooty. I was lucky enough to catch his barely pink bill and flesh coloured feet, as well as his pure dark undersides. 

Recounting this story a month later, I am sure I am missing things, or perhaps recounting incorrectly exactly when each new species occurred. I will mention now that we saw all three species of Jaegers. This is something I had not counted on, and it is not at all common. Our first was a big Pomarine Jaeger, flying high up slowly over the boat, we could all see his weird shovel turned tail.

A Long-tailed came in from the rear right up over the boat, his small black cap, and no breast band were the diagnostic identifiers for this bird, not to mention his small thin wings, and he was missing his long tail, which is common in Jaegers after breeding. Parasitics, were not common on the trip, and we only had one, surprisingly.

At one point the fog rolled in and we soon found ourselves inside a raft of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels. These birds are a marvel to see, they are like little bat-like doves that hover above the water. There had to have been five hundred to a thousand of them, numbers most people do not see. Sadly the birder that I am, I did miss a lot of photo opportunities on this trip.

It was in that fog that we first saw the silhouette of the bird I had been hoping for, Black-footed Albatross! I watched in awe as the monstrous bird slowly glided in and landed. There would be more, at least 50 of them, it was a magical moment for me. I saw them doing the famous albatross take off and landing. It was amazing to see them glide with total ease around the boat and to swim alongside. 
It was definitely the highlight of the trip.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

In the distance, we saw 3 large fishing vessells, and we all knew that that was where the action was. I looked through my binoculars and just saw a cloud of seabirds on the horizon. The captain booked it towards them. We spent about an hour cruising through flock after monstrous flock of Shearwaters, Albatross, and Fulmars. There was nothing rare in any of the flocks, but the sheer numbers of birds was awesome. Devon remarked to me, he didn't even know where to look there were just too many birds. 

Shearwaters Albatross and Fulmars

Sadly, it looked as though it was time to head back, but not before we found a large concentration of Cassin's Auklets. These little fatties were so round, they could barely fly out of the boats way. This was another bird I was nervous about not seeing, as they can be sporadic at best. 

Cassin's Auklet
On the way back we passed through a few flocks of Phalaropes, most of them appeared to be Red-necked, and there were a few Red Phalaropes up front but, sadly I could never manage to get a look at one. As the shore came into view, we again passed Cleland Island. This time, we had good looks at four Orcas. I have never seen them so close in the wild, a lovely way to end one of the best birding experiences of my life.

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross and Pink Footed Shearwater

Black-footed Albatross

The Albatross

Orcas off Cleland Island


Although I was sad to be off the boat, I can't say I wasn't happy to use the washroom and get a coffee. I will include a checklist of this Pelagic because, as someone who spent many hours researching what people ended up seeing on these kinds of Pelagics, I know that it will make a useful reference for anyone who is interested in doing a Pelagic.

1 Northern Pintail
2 Pacific Loon
50 Black-footed Albatross
200 Northern Fulmar
100 Pink-footed Shearwater
3 Flesh-footed Shearwater
40 Buller's Shearwater
1000 Sooty Shearwater
500 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
3 Western Sandpiper
10 Red-necked Phalarope
1 Black-legged Kittiwake
50 Sabine's Gull
1 Heermann's Gull
100 California Gull
5 South Polar Skua
2 Pomarine Jaeger
1 Parasitic Jaeger
1 Long-tailed Jaeger
300 Common Murre
20 Pigeon Guillemot
200 Cassin's Auklet
25 Rhinoceros Auklet
1 Tufted Puffin
2 American Pipit

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