Southern California Pelagic
Monday, this mid-October day for returning home had been presenting itself from not so bad to worse. Checking in at the San Diego airport was not too bad. Unlike at the Medford airport a few days ago, the TSA unit at the larger city did not arouse their excitement level from the multiple zippers on my cargo pants. Even so, I felt safe knowing both the TSA and my pants had me covered. My plane was late, but the gatekeeper said it would be available after repairing a minor mechanical problem. Later, actually much too later, the mechanical problem revealed itself as a major one, one that grounded the plane. A bus would transport people to Los Angeles. Three hours on a bus did not seem to be the best way to trek north, but it did for most of those waiting, especially a group of 15 or more needing connections to Paris. The option for a man trying to go to Moscow was staying in San Diego, receiving vouchers for meals, a motel and a chance to go home some other day. The delay was also a problem for a 40 something man from Algeria, who later revealed, upon me asking, that he had little difficulty with TSA. It was heartening to hear that, but I apparently fit some security gestalt that TSA frequently likes to assess extra thoroughly. Maybe I should shave my beard and never wear pants with zippers or pockets.
Eventually, a plane did whisk all five remaining passengers off the San Diego tarmac and to Los Angles. Four different people working at the Los Angeles airport directed me to four incorrect locations in the vast terminal. Once again, I had to run the gauntlet of TSA, but by now, I was so tired I forgot to remove the quart-sized bag of liquids and gels (sunscreen, deodorant, toothpaste) from my pack. No one caught the breach in security. No alarm, no extracurricular frisking or zipper checks required. Once again, I purchased a bottle of water priced six times higher than anywhere outside the inner sanctum of secured passengers.
The events of the journey, when grafted with time against pleasure show a bell-shaped curve, with the low parts measuring distressing air travel to and from home and a domed bell that symbolizes contentment. Right of the bell is a sharp curve. That peak is Linda and remains high, regardless of wearing pants.
What about the birding? Yes, I am getting ahead of myself. Friday is the beginning of the story that gradually rings to a classic bell curve full of pelagic birds.
12 October 2012
My home airport is a location that you cannot get there from here. Usually one, unless you are a bird, has to go north to finally get south or has to go south to arrive at a north destination. Airline routes east of Medford are nonexistent. Usually. Remarkably, my route today will be amazingly direct to my destination, San Diego, with a sizable layover only a few miles north in Los Angeles. As with most departures from the home location at Medford, Oregon, most flights are at the crack of dawn. Someone told me that the morning flights are especially early to satisfy airport security’s urge to pat down passengers. As it turns out, I get the full frisking, that, if carried out by Linda would have been a satisfying experience. My fully empty pockets of my beltless pants slip dangerously low. I take a chance, lower my hands and grab my pants to avoid the rest of the mystified passengers seeing what they should not. Finally, I am tested, according to an on looking agent, for explosives. Really? By now, I do feel like blowing up, but I defuse my emotions.
My flight to L.A. is uneventful, except the surprise that there is so little smog where air pollution ranks the worst in the country. Today, there are satisfactory views of the Hollywood sign, the fire swept San Gabriel Mountains and fully channelized Los Angeles River devoid of riparian vegetation or inspiration to a Ferde Grofe’s orchestration. Somewhere in the direction of the Hollywood sign is the Los Angeles County Museum. Maybe Kimball Garret is standing out front, looking up as I peer out the plane. Los Angeles is huge; it is the largest in the nation, with a population approaching 4 million and spilling out into Los Angeles County are 12 ½ million people. There are 7,000 souls per square mile! From the air, the city of angle’s sprawl is even more terrifying than I remember.
Following a long layover at LAX, I finally reach San Diego. The motel shuttle swoops up to the sidewalk where I stand outside the terminal. Being the only passenger, I talk to the driver. We pass a familiar and unpleasant site, the location of the Navy’s boot camp, which closed in 1997, and 30 year after my graduation there. The motel is across the street from the dock where the pelagic trip will begin tomorrow. It is early in the afternoon. Once checked in, and although tired from the early hour and the hassle of air travel, I tour the Point Loma Sportsfishing dock; locate the Grande, the boat that tomorrow will ferry birders hungry for murrelets, shearwaters and other sea-going creatures during the 48 hour pelagic birding cruise.
The 1963 built Grande is 85 X 24 feet, with 2007 engines built by John Deere, a company I knew of having served as a ranch hand and from work in pear orchards when by back was much younger. The boat is fully equipped; galley included and sleeps 48 “in two spacious bunkrooms.” The Grande is complete with a 600-gallon tank of fresh water and the ability to generate fresh water from the ocean. The engines will burn over 300 gallons of diesel a day and the pelagic trip lasts 48 hours. Where do they put all the liquids and still have room for us birders? Used principally for marine sports fishing, the Grande appears sturdy and seaworthy. At least that is what I tell myself. Beginning early tomorrow and the next day, I hope for new species, to not fall overboard or become seasick. I purchase a crab salad and on the way out of the restaurant meet two guys from Chicago who are cueing up for the pelagic tomorrow. A scrap of beach between the dock and another a few feet away hosts a hungry Willet taking advantage of habitat dwindling every day.
As for myself, I had been cueing up for a multi-day pelagic out of San Diego the moment I read about the southern California pelagic trips about four years ago. However, certain self-imposed impediments make a multi-day cruise seem impossible. First, my last offshore excursion was rife with throwing my insides overboard. That is no way to chum. Second, the possibility that my deep respect for water over my head might be important and rules I stay on terra firma. Does part of my apprehension of deep water have a wet relationship to my acrophobia? After all falling to solid ground through the air or through the water has some similarities. One is quick, with maybe just enough time to yell out “help” or “oh, phooey” or something similar, while the other might allow a few struggled words before gurgling under in the slow descent to the ground. Maybe getting older brings more caution. Third, overshadowing my instinctive fears are the seemingly constant reminders of sinking boats and ships, with details about lack of safety rules and captains freezing during times of danger.
Perhaps frequent reminders about dangers to dread, with daily cues that out there somewhere, a cougar is ready to pounce, Sasquatch is going to step on you, the water is too deep, too swift, extremely polluted, full of snakes, drunken boaters, alligators or crocodiles, that it is everywhere and not a drop to drink for a safe outcome. I might as well pack it in, never see a petrel storming across the waves, a bird shearing the water, ducking and diving and not allowing me this opportunity of punning. Even though it is the year a huge ocean liner runs aground off Italy and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, this is my year. What a perfect time. At least there are no icebergs off San Diego. Hurricanes are essentially an East Coast event, so far, and the odds for an earthquake-induced tsunami are low. Maybe I will live to tell the story.
After checking the likelihood of seeing certain species on the trips made since 2003, a 48 or 56-hour cruise in mid-October could potentially bolster my ABA list more than some other trip during other months into southern California waters. At least three species of storm-petrels sat on my wish list as well did any species of tropicbird, perhaps a Flesh-footed Shearwater and maybe a petrel, a South Polar Skua and a couple of species of murrelet. Craveri’s Murrelet is high on my hit list since it rarely is seen on any pelagic, especially one north of southern California. Next on the murrelet hit-list is Guadalupe Murrelet. Back in March this year, I submitted a formal proposal to the AOU Check-list Committee recommending the formerly recognized southern subspecies of Xantus’s Murrelet be elevated to species level. The committee later voted in favor of the proposal, with the southern population labeled Guadalupe Murrelet and the northern birds having the English moniker of Scripp’s Murrelet. Linda and I saw the northern species in 2005. Tomorrow or the next day, I will have a chance to see the newly recognized Guadalupe Murrelet. I also hope to have a look at some of the currently recognized subspecies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Ever since surveying several of Oregon’s coastal islands that sometimes meant sleeping in Leach’s Petrel colonies, and, ever since measuring hundreds of specimens of the petrel at the museum, I believed these enticing birds should draw more attention to researchers. Some of the different taxa are likely distinct species, but the need for more research is obvious. Nonetheless, some of these subspecies are good candidates for a growing escrow list.
In anticipation of the trip, I made photocopies of all the birds I might see and tied the nine pages of illustrations with twine. This field guide is black and white since color is not terribly important for identifying seabirds. I laminated the pages in the event of rain and rough seas, and it is small enough to fit into my jacket. With my little field guide, study and high anticipations, I am ready for maybe a very optimistic 10 new ABA species.
13 October 2011
Huddling at a corner of the wharf, we birders, at least 10 of us, chase away the 6 a.m. darkness with excitement of what truth might be out there. Hundreds of sports fishing folk hurry back and forth while crew members push heavy carts full of iced bait and beer to respective boats. A few yards away are cars inching through the gridlock of the parking lot as more anglers rush into the barely lit darkness to find their boats. It is too noisy for dawn, the cars, the jangling fishing gear, coughing, laughing, yelling, heavy carts rolling over the planks to the boats, with most of the boat engines throbbing as early morning Western Gulls look for food, maybe a tossed donut or unguarded bait. We birders wait. More binoculared people join the huddle and then someone announces to get aboard.
The final approach to the Grande is a floating dock, perhaps six feet wide. In the half-light, the weathered boards look narrow and I feel the dock pitch slightly. I hope I don’t get seasick. Preparation will surely pay. I am wearing gray elastic bands that have a plastic tab pressing into my inner wrist. These act as acupressure. To be on the safe side, two supposedly non-drowsy seasick pills dissolve in an otherwise mostly empty stomach. Nibbling saltines, I step on board. Paul Lehman is the chief guide. When not leading pelagics, his main claim to fame is racking up fall migrants of the Asian variety on St. Paul and St. Lawrence Islands in the Bering Sea. Paul introduces the other guides. The exact number of leaders, the experts who will spot and identify the birds is unclear in the bleary hour and excitement of shearwaters to come, but there seem to be several. I hear there are about 35 of us other birders and we should all choose a bunk before settling on the birding deck. There are two long lines walking into the belly of the boat. Each line enters a door and descends six or seven steps taking care not to slip on the steep ladder at the door. One door is to the right and one to the left. More properly, the ladders are forward and to the starboard and port hatches and the berths are below the dining area on the deck above. I step down the port ladder and end up with a berth at the same level as the floor. I toss my daypack into the dark spot, thus marking my territory. The line moves forward and crosses into the line of other birders at starboard and through another open hatch to the main deck. Still dazed by the early hour and newness of it all, my mind wanders as I begin to become aware that the bottom berth is my station for two nights. How I am going to get in and out of the berth? It will be like crawling under a bed when I was younger and much smaller. Of course, four berths up might be difficult to access, especially if the boat is moving. And, of course, it will be moving. In fact, it is moving now, slowly rumbling across the flat water of the bay. It is seven and the sun is barely over the eastern horizon.
Perhaps a hundred sea lions are sitting on a dock near the middle of the channel. They stink. To our right, starboard actually, is another dock also inaccessible to land. Hundreds of cormorants cover it. Most of them are Brandt’s, with a few Double-crested and I hear someone call out they spotted a Pelagic Cormorant among the mix. Perched on a mast of a nearby docked boat is a Snowy Egret. Two Black and one American Oystercatcher stand side by side, check us out as we slip through the smooth water. Early in my career while examining oystercatchers in the museum led to confront both species from the coast of northern Baja California. Among the specimens were hybrids of the two species. Discussing this with Dick Banks led me to my first correspondence with Joe Jehl that was the beginning of a friendship spawned from oystercatchers.
The engines quietly rumble, turning the propellers that lightly churn the flat waters of the bay. Heermann’s and ubiquities Western Gulls follow us as we slowly pass the south side of Point Loma. Only a week ago, a Yellow-green Vireo tarried on the point. My attention turns forward as the motors push the Grande faster past the end of the point. The sea is relatively calm, but it does cause the boat to rock enough that hanging onto something is prudent. Our initial course is south. I inch my way to the bow, careful not to trip or cause anyone more trouble standing than anyone is already experiencing. The rail is barely higher than my hip. Anyone with longer legs will have most of their weight above the rail. Pitching overboard is less likely for us shorter folks. The morning sun is blinding, but at first, I am stuck on the port side where the otherwise brown rail is white from a bygone pelican leaving its mark. The lack of sea legs and constant jostling soon thins out the crowd. About two miles from shore I realize the ocean is pitching the boat ever more slightly, but soon and with relief, it is easier to stand by bracing against the rail. So far so good on sea-sick symptoms and it is better yet on birds.
With a not so bad shorebird list behind me that includes Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, oystercatchers and Spotted Sandpiper, we motor away from Point Loma, leaving behind a Cooper’s Hawk I do not see and a couple of Eared Grebe that I do view. Two Elegant Terns go unseen, species I would have enjoyed and 50 Rock Pigeons that I could do without seeing. The three Coronada Islands of Mexico are to the southwest. Strangely, the international border dives southwest, not west, of the islands. Inquiries about the direction of the marine border led to nothing, and since not wishing to research international politics, I postponed knowing what is going for some other day. The Coronada Islands are a breeding site for Scripp’s Murrelet and host a recently established colony of Brown Booby. The course of the Grande is announced, but open-ocean to me has few if any reference points. Without benefit of even a compass, I rely on the sun, the captain to steer the boat and the guides to identify and count the birds. Our speed is seven knots, half the top speed of the Grande. Above Nine-Mile Bank, there is a Parasitic Jeager, a species I have seen very few times and even more unaccustomed to having in sight are hundreds of Black-vented Shearwaters, with some coursing close by for easy looks. Half as many Cassin’s Auklets, some too gorged to fly are all around the boat. The sky is clear as the boat slaps the water, but there is no need for rain suits from the spray. From the bridge, Paul announces the conditions of the sea. I think he said the wind is 5 to 6 miles per hour, with waves 1.2 feet per second moving WNW. Was that the direction of the wind or the waves? Another guide confirms there are 3 to 5 foot swells and wind is blowing at 10 knots. I cannot hold on to the rail and also be able to take down the particulars, besides this cruise is for seeing birds. There is little need to be on constant lookout for things avian since the vigilant eyes of the guides are sweeping the horizon, the swells and waves, the visible ocean. However, I continually do try to be on the lookout. It is not easy. Bracing or hanging on to the rail presents difficulties while holding binocs with one hand steady enough to see a bird as the boat pitches up and down. Most of the guides simply stand on the deck without holding onto anything solid. They ride the boat as I once could ride a horse; they let their inner ears direct which way to respond to the motion. Internal gyroscopes keep them on the bird and help maintain their balance. Paul and the other guides calling out sightings help offset my lack of sea legs. Thanks to them and their use of a loud-speaker, they relay current information to the rest of the birders. However, I soon discover the loud speaker on the starboard bow is missing and the one on the portside is dangling by a wire. This meant being alert to everything or otherwise miss certain observations. A foray back to the stern reveals the loudspeaker is working fine there, but nearly a half-dozen birders are asleep, probably becoming drowsy from their seasick medications. Others are taking it easy in camp chairs, watching one of the guides chumming a string of gulls with old buttered popcorn. He also has at the ready fatty chum for possible tubenoses.
Back at the bow, where the action is, I carefully find a standing spot on the starboard side and inches from Dave Pereksta, one of the leaders. Several Pink-footed Shearwaters appear. Among them is a pair of Red-necked Phalarope and a Sooty Shearwater. I kept hopeful that the shearwater might morph into a Flesh-footed Shearwater, a darker bird and a species needed on my ABA list. Three more Elegant Terns are reported, but I miss the species again. While traversing 30-Mile Bank from north to south, Black Storm-Petrels are spotted. They are flying north, I think. I barely see them and a smaller petrel with a white rump is with them. Is the white-rumped bird a Leach’s Storm Petrel? If it is, the white is definitely more expansive than any Leach’s Storm-Petrel I have ever seen. Curiously, no one mentions this bird except a birder from Wisconsin. Of course, there is the missing loud-speaker. Maybe Paul saw it since being in the bridge offers some advantage for seeing more than birders on the main deck. Perhaps someone got a photo. Most of the guides are wearing around their necks cameras with long lenses. Pelagic birders, those more serious and richer than me, realize that occasionally an otherwise impossible identification is possible to realize with a good photograph. My camera might get me closer, but there likely would be no cigar. In the case of bird photography, size can make a difference and my goal today is not to suffer from long lens envy.
We are now somewhere near or above 30-Mile Bank. A guide explains that the names of the banks have nothing to do with distance from shore. The mile number signifies the length of the geologic structure. Perhaps coincidentally, I had earlier found that 30 mile bank is about 30 miles from Point Loma and 40-Mile Bank is, closer than, 40 miles, as a Western Gull flies, from Point Loma. The guide goes on to say the ocean bottom west of southern California is a full of blocks and submerged valleys similar to the valleys and uplifts of Nevada.
A Mourning Dove flies past the boat. Where was it going? More Black Storm Petrels are flying low over the water. Six Least Storm-Petrels are tagging along, but I do not see them satisfactorily to count them. Eventually, the pelagicteers count 2500 Black Storm-Petrels in two nearby flocks. I hear the flocks were found at the same location as last year. A half-dozen Red Phalaropes dot the dark sea. Most are Black Storm-Petrels and a few, at last for my view, are Least Storm-Petrels. Almost five hours into the cruise and two new ABA species add to my total. Chances for Ashy Storm-Petrel should be good and there might be opportunities for any other petrel. What other petrels? Those other petrels are gadfly petrels, pelagic species usually with white bellies and wings usually bent and flying like acrobats. None of the ten birds visiting North American territory have the word gad in their English name. Will I add one of the ten to my list today or tomorrow? It is unlikely. Storm-petrels back in my early days were known also simply as petrels, such as Leach’s Petrel, Black Petrel and 12 other smallish and mostly dark species of storm-petrels found in ABA land. As of today, I have seen four of the storm-petrels found in North America.
While trying to avoid being a victim of the rocking boat and enjoying the flocks of storm-petrels, someone called out that a songbird was trying to catch up with the boat. However, it disappears, perhaps the victim of exhaustion or eaten by the Western and Heerman’s Gulls following the trail of popcorn chum. We keep moving. There are more flocks of mixed Black and at least 1,000 Least Storm-Petrels. A few minutes pass and a Pomarine Jeager crosses our wake. Cruising north, by mid-afternoon the only land in sight is San Clemente Island, the southern most of the Channel Islands (Santa Cruz Island is near the north end of the Channel Islands). Uninhabited San Clemente Island is 21 miles long. Its 56 square miles hosts several endemic taxa, including endangered subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and Sage Sparrow. Maximum elevation is nearly 2,000 feet, which seems tall, even at our distance, maybe 10 miles to the west.
While contemplating an island the U.S. Navy owns and continually batters its south end with powerful artillery and somewhere above the deep San Clemente Basin in Los Angeles County, a flock of Common Terns flutter above a churning mass of tuna. Tunas are predatory, and the small fry driven to the surface are prey for the tuna and the estimated 200 terns. A nearby guide captured several birds on his camera confirming the birds as Common Terns.
After we pass the terns, there is not much to see until someone spots a bird coming from the west. The 6 p.m. sun hides most of its presence until it is almost above the boat, but the bird continues to keep the sun to its back and in our eyes. Like a western gun fighter, it had the draw on us. All I can see is the silhouette, with a long streamer tail. Not one ounce of color reveals whether it is a Red-tailed or Red-billed Tropicbird. Soon, the tropicbird disappears back into the sunset. There is only time for taking a few pictures of the sun reflecting from clouds to the west. In quick minutes the dark Pacific horizon obscure the warming sun and rapidly dominates our last light.
A pelagic requires looking up and down.
As darkness fills the sky, white running lights around the Grande begin to brighten the chilling deck. Today has been good, with two storm-petrels and one unidentifiable tropicbird. I cannot check off which species, but mentally, I add tropicbird to my slowly growing list of new families. And, of course, there is always tomorrow that may bring more tropicbirds and no telling what else. In the meantime, the galley has our evening meal ready and I am starving. Roasted chicken with rice and a small salad is delicious. There are no oranges to stave off dreaded scurvy. A fellow from Calgary sits opposite me at a table for four. We talk about Mourning Warblers in Alberta, birding in southeastern Arizona and wonder if we will be able to sleep tonight. Everyone is tired. That should help.
Actually, going to sleep was easy. That is, once I sat on the floor, ease my head and shoulders in, then lift up my rump, twist it into the sleeping space, and finally, pull my legs in to the berth. The space is just a little wider than my shoulders, and, fortunately, the 6 foot and 3 inches is long enough that I am able to stretch and to sleep on my side. There are two thick dark curtains wide enough to shield me from the interior lights left on during the night. There is no need or likely any possibility of undressing. Besides, I might have to get up for a bathroom visit. Room for taking off my boots does not exist. Again, I think about the need for speed if my bladder calls me awake even though I try to be master of my bladder. My pack rests at one end, leaving little room for my head and a space to set my binoculars. I decide to leave the bincos around my neck, just in case a pelagic owl should come aboard. The drone of the engines, gentle motion of the boat and the small, tight berth engenders a feeling of comfort and safety of a womb. Mercifully, I never hear snoring or worse.
14 October 2012
No alarm clocks jangles. Even so, everyone seems to extricate themselves from bed a few minutes before sunrise. Luckily, not everyone is awake exactly at the same time, which prevents long lines at the urinal. Unlike the movies, everyone has the same early morning urges. I quickly cinch down my floppy hat and note I do not feel seasick. I hear someone comment that it looks as if I slept wearing binocs. Bleary brained, I nod and make my way to the head, what us mariners call the bathroom. Most everyone is smiling, especially the men coming out of the head. Some of the birders are talking. Two or three birders seem not fully awake and surprised they are on a boat pitching back and forth with the pulse of the open ocean. At least yesterday’s late evening sea of small white caps is much calmer this morning. Now, the absence of any white water makes it easier to spot movement on the dark water beyond. The galley is busy with birders looking for breakfast, something most everyone yesterday missed because of the early departure.
Food can wait and I find a spot on the bow of the 80 foot Grande, the boat that never fully stops as if a shark that might drown unless it keeps moving forward. At first light, four Pink-footed Shearwaters, 50 Red Phalarope and an occasional Western Gull show there are birds beyond the sight of land. According to the bridge, we are over Cherry Bank in Ventura County and heading toward Tanner Bank. This submerged mass is only 280 feet below, but water 4500 feet deep form its boundary. We are nearly 40 miles from San Clemente Island and only minutes after sunrise. A large bird appears from the east, again with the sun to its back. It is low over the water, not skimming the swells in shearwater fashion, but higher up, coursing the air like a giant gull. I think the guides know its name already, and when it flew out of the blinding beam of sunrise, I realize this is a bird I need to see. It is broad-winged, a big brown bull-dozer plowing the cool morning air. It is a skua. Going aft, as a sailor might say, the bird flies past the port side, parallel to the moving boat to the stern, where the skua turns and flies above the starboard side. As it passes the wheelhouse, I am standing on the starboard side of the bow looking up. The South Polar Skua is now close to 12 feet away and looking me right in the eye. Time almost stops. The white bars at the base of its primaries barely move as the broad wings take the skua past the bow. Those rounded wings span almost 4 ½ feet, holding up a hefty, muscular looking bird about 20 inches from it heavy bill to it short, but broad tail. Quietly, the South Polar Skua disappears. What an impressive bird and what a way to begin the day.
Owing to its size, I guess the skua is a female since, like many predatory birds; the species is subject to reverse sexual dimorphism. Simply put, females are larger and heavier than males. Perhaps my close encounter today biases my opinion, but the bird, appearing something near a gull on steroids, looks both curiously demur and powerfully brutal. The bird today emits a fierce beauty, a description conferred by John Kennedy for the Bald Eagle. The hooked claws of the skua may have helped it take down young Antarctic penguins and today, snag fish. Once getting over the stupendous chance to see a South Polar Skua, thoughts of George E. Watson reminded me that he had researched skuas and other Antarctic pelagics. I recall watching him examining specimens of skua at the museum. George is the first ornithologist I met at Smithsonian other than first accidently wandering into Alexander Wetmore’s office. That is a different story. George, who with John Aldrich formulated the U.S.-Japan Migratory Bird Treaty, was the consultant for the first edition of the Geographic field guide and made many other contributions. When I first met George, the bird collection was in the old part of the Natural History Museum. That was 1962. Five years later, the huge collection, with George’s expertise, was into the new east wing. George was the go-to person in the Division. If he did not have the answer, he most likely knew who would. He is one of my early mentors at the Division. His expertise in seabirds helped me appreciate all the storm-petrels I measured while assisting others, my plan to solve the taxonomy of Red-footed Boobies that, unfortunately could not be completed and other seabird endeavors, including later interest with Dick Banks on large, white-headed gulls. Oh yeah, possibly one factor that may have helped George’s studies of seabirds is that he was said to be color-blind. That works perfectly for a group of birds that are essentially black and white.
It is past 9 a.m. A fin whale swims next to the boat, which is heading east. Red Phalaropes dot the water at the edge of the seamounts, where cool and warmer water mix. Guides and birds favor these food rich regions. Two Pink-footed Shearwaters swing by. More Red Phalaropes dot the swells. A female Yellow-headed Blackbird, chasing the boat for a while finally makes a landing outside the bridge and a beautiful adult Sabine’s Gull follows the wake for several minutes. When announcing this species on the loud speakers, the person called out Sobbin’s Gull. Huh? Sounds interesting, I will have a look at some gull I never heard of until today. The wing pattern is remarkably striking, but the bird is a Sa-bean’s Gull. Well, perhaps. I ask a couple of birders if Sobbin’s is normal, and they cry out, yes.
To be on the side of caution, I take two non-drowsy seasick pills. Perhaps my acupressure bracelets are working, but there is too much at stake today. The rewards of the day continue when a dark Northern Fulmar follows our wake as the Grande motors past many more Pink-footed Shearwaters and Brown Pelicans. San Clemente is out of sight, but someone sees a passerine they say may be a Spizella sparrow. It tried to land before disappearing. Later, at 10:15, I see a small bird winging along the wake. It gradually gains, but veers from side to side, probably from fear of the people on the stern. It is a Red-breasted Nuthatch about 100 miles from shore. This fall is being dubbed a Red-breasted Nuthatch eruption year, but our little nuthatch is dangerously far from trees. It lands near the bridge. It appears unafraid of one of the guides sitting just outside the wheel house.
We motor to Cortes Ridge in Los Angeles County water. Some guides refer to the region as Cortes Bank. Whichever is correct is moot to my mostly terra firma birding. We are over 50 miles west-southwest of Clemente Island, which is about as far from the mainland. There is no land in view in any direction. Cancelling the feeling of not seeing familiar land are two Guadalupe Murrelets appearing off the starboard rail and showing off their white faces and white underwing as they fly. Everyone is jubilant. Minutes later, a Dark-eyed Junco circles the boat three times before perching topside. It seems strange to see one of the most abundant of my feeder birds so far from land. The guides identify two other distant murrelets as Guadalupe Murrelet. Although there seems plenty of white to contrast with the black, I cannot reach any conclusion about the birds and am happy the two earlier murrelets gave away their name.
Later, I am standing on the starboard bow, with several other anxious birders scanning the sea. Long minutes pass since seeing any birds. On the port side, I notice a couple talking to a whiskered man who is wearing a checkered flannel shirt that, in each two breast pockets, bulges with glass cases. His weathered face squints from the light while he does most of the talking. I begin to hear phrases such as “the best part was the planning, that was the most fun,” the name Attu and that he would do it again. Suddenly, I remember a picture I once saw on the web. The man with the bulging pockets and searching eyes looks familiar. I mention this to the fellow from Wisconsin, and he says the manifest of passengers is on a table in the galley. We hurry there, careful not to fall over-board, slam into the bulkhead or skid across the oily grill. The list is the one we all signed at the dock a dark morning ago. I am number one. Just call me anxious. There are checks by names for food eaten or water purchased. The cook will use this running tab to settle-up near the end of the voyage. Scanning down the list, about in the middle is the name I suspected. Sandy Komito, the best birder in the ABA territory, the man who saw more species in a year than anyone.
Back on the bow, the man with the flannel shirt stands alone. I walk up and introduce myself. He tells me he is Sandy Komito and I tell him his listing has had a positive impact on birders. He seems pleased and tells me he was not consulted about the movie “The Big Year.” Little else was said since Dave Pereksta began yelling “tropicbird, tropicbird!” As birding etiquette states, I think, if something really wonderful suddenly appears, it is not necessary to excuse oneself from a conversation. As for Sandy Komito, I do not see him again until after the evening meal.
The tropicbird is flying high above the horizon and straight toward the boat. It is 2:54 when the Red-billed Tropicbird sails close enough for us to see the white tail and red-bill. Wow. We are over the east end of the Cortez Ridge. Some people gathering in the bow cheer loudly and applaud the chance to see such a magnificent bird. At the height of the celebration, the female Yellow-headed Blackbird flies from its roosting nook on the bridge, circles and returns to the bridge. The tropicbird flies high over the boat, with quick short wing beats not unlike the flight of a falcon. Its long white streamer tail makes up half the length of this 40 plus inch long immaculate species. My short lens competes with those larger lenses pointing up at the tropicbird. The bird makes another pass, as if curious about all the commotion below. A few minutes later, someone spots two more Red-billed Tropicbirds that are perhaps a quarter of a miles away. It may have been closer or further. Judging distance on the liquid flat is, for me, more difficult than similar estimates on land. The two tropicbirds are close together and near the surface, maybe catching flying fish, species we were seeing jumping out of the brine in the wake of the boat.
After a smattering of what have now become the usual suspects, excitement on the boat dwindles with the failing sunlight. This time there are no reflective clouds and sunset is surprisingly sudden. The chill of the breeze, mostly produced by the Grande’s ever-forward movement, is cool from the mid-60 water surface temperature. At dinner my new acquaintance from Calgary, Hank Vanderpol, with his Dutch and Canadian accent, talks about chasing rare birds, the tropicbirds today and privately shares his thoughts about mid-night trips to the head, the lonely rocking deck and the prospect of falling overboard. No one would know. The exceptional star lit night would not notice. The boat would move on, our clothes would drag us under. A guide had mentioned depths of 2,000 fathoms. That is 12,000 feet, a long way to fall in smothering water too cold to maintain a healthy core temperature. Someone hearing the name VanderPol mentions John Vanderpoel, who, in 2011 fell one species short of beating Sandy Komito’s 1998 record, assuming his total was 745. It may have been 748, but that is open to discussion. Nonetheless, any number above 700 in a year is great. I am still proud of seeing 500 in one year, and that is without species in Alaska and the east coast.
As I approach my berth after dinner, I see that Sandy Komito is two berths up and one forward of my tiny space. He looks my way and states, “This is harder than I expected.” Too tired and probably too polite to ask him whether he meant sleeping on the boat or birding from the boat, or none of the above, I smile and shake in agreement. It has been a hard trip and it is difficult getting in the berth. With my best imitation of an inchworm, I manage to settle into bed. It is much warmer tonight. Luckily, my jacket is off. I unbutton my flannel shirt. I wonder why Sandy and I are the only birders wearing checkered flannel. Just before sleep overtakes me, I ask myself why Sandy Komito is on this trip. Surely, he had seen the southern murrelets when they were a subspecies of the former Xantus’s Murrelet. Most birders would count them if they had seen them as subspecies. Why not? I have several subspecies on my escrow list that likely will receive recognition as species someday. I once heard that some birders would not count subspecies that become recognized as species if they had not seen them within a year or some other self-imposed duration. The escrow list of subspecies cannot be too musty. I disagree. For example, I observed Bell’s Sparrow many years ago and it has been awhile since observing a Mangrove Yellow Warbler, but once elevated to species, they will fly from my escrow list to my main ABA list.
Before dinner, Paul announces the Grande will dock at 4 a.m., an hour earlier than scheduled. Slumber time is cut short as a crew member wakes everyone. Slowly, we assemble on the main deck. I hear a cross-section of talk ranging from grumbling to celebration of what we saw and happiness of surviving the cruise. It is true. It was a great trip and I did survive. In fact, my earlier trepidations were gone about within two hours from shore two days ago. The lights of San Diego come into view. The high Coronado Bay Bridge, outlined with bright electricity, brings memories of a white-knuckle drive across it in 2005. Soon I am stepping off the docked Grande, thanking the crew for a successful and safe journey and walking up to terra firma.
The news of the early docking is not thrilling since my plane homeward will not depart until around noon. Little did I know that the departure time on the plane ticket purchased in March had been rescheduled to depart San Diego at 6:30 a.m. At that time, after checking in a room at the same motel on Friday, I am getting myself back to normal land-lubbering activities. First, I need to evacuate what little food I had consumed in the last 48 hours. Judging from the lack of sitting males on the throne of the Grande, at least on the basis of my visits to the adjacent urinal, I was not the only person holding on to their solids. Of course, this is not healthy, but one does improve their chances seeing more birds when avoiding voiding. A shower and change of clothes followed by a large and hearty breakfast makes for a fly worthy individual. That breakfast makes me fatter, at the time not knowing about the rescheduled flight makes me dumb and the birds during the cruise make me happy. Among the Guadalupe Murrelets, the South Polar Skua, were 200 Pink-footed Shearwaters, 10 Sooty Shearwaters, and closer to shore, 1800 plus Black-vented Shearwaters. All those new Black and Least Storm-Petrels mostly made up for nine of the 10 Leach’s I missed. The Pomarine and Parasitic Jeagers were numerous enough that I almost have it down on identifying flying birds at a distance. Several blue and fin whales interspersed with dozens of dolphins add to the joy. Now, to get home, but I am getting ahead of myself. Or, am I?
Linda was waiting for me at the Medford Airport. It had rained, something my home region had not known for months. Everything, including Linda, looked fresh. Despite the long days behind me and the even longer day getting home, I felt good, except for one thing. When standing and sometimes while walking, I could feel movement. In Los Angeles, I was at first sure an earthquake or unheard explosion was shaking the terminal. I looked around. No one was reacting as if anything unusual was taking place. Security was not tightening up on harried passengers approaching the gates adjacent to my gate while waiting for a plane. Once on the plane to Los Angeles, the uneasy feeling of movement disappeared. It started again in the Los Angeles terminal and was gratefully gone on the flight to Medford, but returned seconds after landing in Medford.
For the next five days, I endured reverse seasickness or land sickness. My brain thought I am on the ocean, bouncing up and down and right to left while attempting to remain upright. Reverse seasickness is also known as mal de debarquement, and I am not making this up, it is also known as MDDS. Because of the seriousness of the syndrome, there is even a MDDS Foundation. While still under the influence of my motion disorder, I read some people are forever thinking they are in motion. I did not want to spend the rest of life wobbly balancing while getting rid of used tea or coffee. Some say it is an inner ear problem. Could a good smack on the head bring normalcy? Waiting works.
About a month after the pelagic, David Pereksta sent me a copy of ebird report of the mid-October pelagic. His notes, with times, places and birds and my notes of the trip vary slightly, but only slightly. Any discrepancies should be blamed on my marine newbieness, with definite lack of sea legs.