Pelagic birdwatching in Monterey Bay, off California's Pacific coast
A pelagic adventure off California's Monterey coast
Published: July 1, 1995
|It's just getting light and the air smells like day-old fish. Five or six people are already clustered on the dock sipping coffee when we arrive at Sam's Pier in Monterey Bay, California. We've signed on for a pelagic birding trip, and the weather looks fine for a day at sea.|
Humans have always regarded the sea as a means to an end — a passageway between lands. But for pelagic birds — birds that spend most of their time at sea — the open waters are home, and land is often only a seasonal nesting site on a craggy cliff. Today, we enter that world ever so briefly, seeking encounters with shearwaters, auklets, murres, skuas, murrelets, puffins, and maybe an albatross.
The species that like open water but hover near shore are the first to greet us. Western Gulls "awk-awk-awk" as they careen slowly overhead, looking for handouts. A Common Loon dives silently, rises, and gulps its prey. Out here in the giant kelp forests of Monterey Bay, Elegant Terns keep company with sea otters. The sea lions "onk" and clap their flippers, hoping for treats. But not from this crowd; we're focused on the open seas ahead.
It's mid-November and the sun rises late, slowly glazing the water with a silver sheen. Birders assemble on the pier, holding backpacks, shopping bags, and coolers filled with a day's hefty provisions. Although this is a winter trip, the air is warm and it's tempting to think we won't need all our extra layers of clothing. But there's no doubt we'll need all the food we've brought; salt air is adrenaline for the appetite.
"Rhino Auklet just dove over here, by the pilings," an eager spotter reports. When it reappears, we can see the little horn on its bill, for which this large (14-inch) auklet was named. Amid the sea lion antics, we spy cormorants and pelicans — all with an eye out for the passing sardine. There are also Pigeon Guillemots, Red-necked Grebes, along with various gulls and terns. Before long, our trip leader, Debra Shearwater, appears with a clipboard and large bags of popcorn and we're invited to board the Pt. Sur Clipper, captained by Richard Ternullo. According to Shearwater, who's made a point of socializing with all the fishing captains and getting to know who is best and most dependable, Ternullo is an excellent captain.
"I rely on the skippers," she comments. "A good skipper is invaluable." This quickly becomes obvious. On previous trips, we've watched Ternullo coax his 60-foot boat right alongside a 10-inch Xantus' Murrelet without scaring it off! Ternullo monitors the ship-to-ship radio for information en route, and he and Shearwater adjust the course to quickly come upon feeding birds. When Shearwater first offered her Shearwater Journeys in 1978, she had difficulty getting a captain to take out a crowd of birders. "Skippers didn't want to go," she said. "It wasn't macho." This has all changed now; showing off the biological diversity of Monterey Bay has become profitable.
All pelagic birding trips begin with the leader's introductory talk: don't stand on the benches, no matter how excited you get; where the bathrooms are located; what to do if you get sick. The boat is referred to like a clock: the bow is twelve o'clock, the stern is six, and so on. This orientation is helpful when birds are announced in terms of their position, and you can point your binoculars in the right direction immediately. Birders are also urged to say whether a flying bird is above or below the horizon. Most important, everyone should call out birds, especially when you can't identify them — it gives people who might know the chance to see them and call a special bird to everyone's attention.
Other leaders are introduced, positioning themselves at different spots on the boat, and off we go. As we pull out of the harbor and pass alongside the jetty, the skipper talks to us over the loudspeaker. He points out the Brandt's Cormorants that stand like sentinels on the rocks. We get our first lesson of the trip: the Pelagic Cormorant is smaller and slimmer than the Brandt's. This is just the beginning of what we term "comparison birding." Since most seabirds lack bold coloring or markings, identifying birds over water is often a matter of comparing features, such as relative size, darker or lighter underparts, faster or slower wingbeat, and so on.
Also on the rocks of the jetty, picking at food, are wintering shorebirds — Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, Wandering Tattlers, and, for the very lucky, a Rock Sandpiper. Just beyond the jetty there's a flurry of excitement, "Clark's Grebe at nine o'clock." Clark's was split from the Western Grebe several years ago, and although it is most reliably found in eastern Colorado, a small population is resident here in Monterey as well. The best way to distinguish these grebes is to look at their heads. The black on the Western extends below the eyes, while on Clark's it stays above the eyes.
We settle into the rhythm of the boat, pitching and rolling gently with the waves as we move around the jetty and out along the shore. Monterey Bay is an extraordinary spot for pelagic birding. Only three miles offshore is the 6,000-foot-deep Monterey Canyon, where upwelling cold waters bring nutrients to the surface. At this same point, the California Current passes in its southward flow, contributing additional nutrients.
These rich waters support great algal growth, which in turn attracts fish and the seabirds and mammals that feed on them. This is why pelagic birding trips from Monterey yield an enormous variety of species in extraordinary numbers. The totals on Monterey Bay trips say it all: on average, 20 to 30 species of seabirds, some often in mind-boggling numbers.
For example, according to an article in the January 1991 issue of Winging It by Alan Baidridge, Debra Shearwater, and Brian Weed, mixed-species of storm-petrel flocks in the fall "may reach or exceed 10,000 birds in some years and may perhaps contain most of the world's population of the Ashy Storm-Petrel." They add that flocks of shearwaters have run as high as 600,000 birds. Rhinoceros Auklets "have exceeded 10,000 birds in some winters" and Cassin's Auklets "occur at times in the thousands."
A line of Surf Scoters passes by, black against the gray-blue sky; we can just pick out their white napes. A Pomarine Jaeger flies alongside the boat to check things out, but is gone before most people get their binoculars up. But there's no mistaking the huge orange bill of the Tufted Puffin that follows shortly behind. A big mola mola — ocean sunfish — floats along the water's surface.
It isn't long before a birder spots an Ancient Murrelet, but the bird is gone before most of us get our binoculars on it. Alas, that is the frustration of pelagic birding. At sea, the birds are often flybys, no trees to perch on or shrubs to dive into. But wait! The murrelet is sighted again, a stocky, plainly-marked bird with light slate-gray body upperparts, white underparts, and blackhead. It's probably the first time a solitary alcid has ever been sighted a second time in the middle of a vast stretch of ocean. The captain swings the boat around and we slowly approach the resting "sea sparrow" as it rises and falls with each wave crest. We all get fantastic looks at this murrelet, which is infrequently seen on these pelagic trips.
As we pass the Point Pinos lighthouse, we chum with anchovies and popcorn to attract more birds. Everyone takes a turn at the stern, cutting up fish and tossing it in the boat's wake to the excitement of the Heermann's, Mew, and Herring Gulls that follow us, suspended in air with their mouths wide open. The hubbub brings even more birds, honing in on the scent of fish oil. Shearwaters approach from the distance, then turn to fly alongside us, one wing dipped to the water's edge like a surgeon's scalpel poised for an incision. Cassin's Auklets bounce up to the surface like ping-pong balls. Common Murres, so tidy in their black-and-white tuxedos, strut by, then settle on the water and watch the action. On one winter pelagic trip we saw a Thick-billed Murre, but today we are visited by the more frequently seen Common Murres. Northern Fulmars in both light and dark phases come for a free meal. They're so close we can see the tubular nostrils above their bills.
Seeing shearwaters is one of our objectives on this trip. These large pelagic birds feed on fish along the water's surface, performing an aerial ballet of dips, glides, and sweeps. As Christopher Leahy comments in his book, The Birdwatcher's Companion, "the skill with which shearwaters can sail at the very edge of the waves even in the roughest weather is one of the wonders of birdlife and one of the joys of birdwatching."
In Monterey Bay, there is the possibility of seeing six species of shearwaters at various times during the year, although late summer through early winter are generally the best all-around times for this group of tubenoses. Unfortunately, the shearwaters can be difficult to tell apart, especially in the reflected glare of the water. Black-vented and Sooty Shearwaters have earned their names: the Black-vented's black undertail coverts are striking against its white underwing, and the Sooty is sooty-black on top with silver under the wing. The Short-tailed Shearwater appears almost identical to a Sooty, but has a shorter bill and grayer underwing linings.
We check all the Sooties for possible Pink-footed Shearwaters, since they can appear similar and are sometimes found together. Larger than the Sooty, the Pink-footed has a slower wingbeat mixed with more soaring. Sure enough — a Pink-footed Shearwater is spotted! At last, after culling the more numerous Sooties, we see the telltale signs of the pinkish feet and the paler underwing.
"For every hundred Sooties there are 10 Pink-footed. For every 10 Pink-footed, there's one Flesh-footed," we hear one of the leaders say. So this now becomes our goal: a Flesh-footed today or bust!
Scanning the horizon and squinting in the glare of the midday sun as it warms the air, we check every pair of wings that flies by. The flocks are full of Sooties, with a handful of Pink-footed scattered in. Black-venteds sail by, unconcerned. A jaeger creates a flurry of excitement — ¬there is hope for a Long-tailed, but it turns out to be another Pomarine. Though some birders have begun to break into their day's food supply, we settle for munching saltine crackers at the rail. From the pattern that has evolved today, most of the shearwaters seem to appear off either side of the bow, and coast along past the stern, so we position ourselves midship with a view of both.
"Flesh-footed Shearwater. Five o'clock." We charge to the stern. Where? All we see is a mass of gulls and popcorn bobbing in the wake.
"Oh, it's flown off now," we are told. "But keep looking, it might come back. After all, we got the murrelet again." That's little compensation for our efforts. Is that as close as we'll get to a new life bird? Nevertheless, we review the field marks: dark-tipped pale bill, and dark underwings. But we don't feel hopeful.
The sun is bright. There is no wind, and the water is calm. We've eaten an entire box of saltines. Suddenly we see a big brown bird approaching from the rear.
"Flesh-footed Shearwater, eight o'clock!" Yes! And we found it!
Averaging 16 to 18 inches long, the Flesh-footed is a blackish-brown shearwater a little larger than a Sooty and a little smaller than a Pink-footed. In addition to size, we look for the blackish underwings that distinguish it in a crowd. A rarity in the eastern Pacific, the Flesh-footed breeds on islands off New Zealand and Australia, and in the Indian Ocean.
We had signed on this trip with barely a thought of seeing the Flesh-footed Shearwater, but it is this type of surprise that makes seabirding so exciting. Trip leaders can be fairly sure certain birds will appear in favorite feeding areas at a particular time of the year, since even seabirds follow predictable behavior patterns. Tour leader Shearwater cautions, however, that "next to birding in a rain forest, seabirding is perhaps one of the most difficult types of birding a person could undertake." She warns against unrealistic goals or expectations — it's unlikely all the possible birds that could be seen in a given season will cross the bow on your chosen day.
However, a pelagic trip is usually not without sightings of marine mammals. A school of dolphins swims toward the boat, then plays in its path, diving and leaping with precision and grace. On our trip this day, we count nearly 1,000 northern right whale dolphins, many with calves, and several hundred Dall porpoises and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Like many birds we've seen today, these pelagic friends do not need land as we do. By mid-afternoon the boat heads back to shore. For most people, the trip added several new birds to their life list and enhanced their experience in identifying these graceful ocean wayfarers. For all of us, it was a brief glimpse into the sweet mystery that is the sea around us.
Debra Shearwater runs pelagic trips from Monterey at various times throughout the year. For information and a schedule, contact Shearwater Journeys, P.O. Box 1445, Soquel, California 95073, (408) 688-1990. Monterey Bay is usually not rough water, but if you are prone to sea sickness, we suggest taking medication one hour before the trip leaves. Monterey is a three¬- to four-hour drive south of San Francisco, Although there is a wide range of accommodations, Monterey is a popular tourist destination so it is best to book early.
Alice Geffen and Carole Berglie of Sea Cliff, New York, are the co-authors of Ecotours and Nature Getaways: A Guide to Environmental Vacations Around the World (Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York) and Walks and Rambles Around Long Island (Countryman Press, Vermont).||