Ft. Bragg, CA – Leaving on a Jet Plane and Happy to Do So

There will be no celebratory hug from Debi Shearwater like she provided for Greg Miller in 1998 when he saw his 700th year-bird on one of her pelagic trips.  At least that’s what both the book  and movie “The Big Year” states and Debbie didn’t dispute the accuracy of that event when I asked her.  In fact the only thing she did dispute was that she never pulled a knife on anyone as the movie portraits.  The movie may or may not actually show her with a knife since I was told this by Todd McGrath. His wicked sense of humor may have prompted him to simply try to tweak Debi. We’ll find out Oct. 14 when the movie is released.

Hugs? No, far from it.  I didn’t add a single year-bird on any of the four Ft. Bragg trips.  Dubbed the “Mega-rarities” trip, this year at least they didn’t live up to their billing.  Actually, yesterday we had perfect conditions for Hawaiian Petrel.  Warm water had drifted eastward inside the bureaucratical 20 mile line that limited the maximum distance from shore which our boat was certified to travel.  So we headed straight out to warmer water and once we reached that warm water edge (around 59 Deg F to 60 Deg F), we worked the waters searching for feeding schools of Albacore Tuna and feeding flocks of seabirds.  We’d been unable to get here during the first three trips. Feeding flocks of Arctic Terns, Sabine’s Gulls and all three jaegers were all around us. The wind picked up in the afternoon, which is extremely helpful when searching for Pteredroma Petrels, so skilled in slicing their long narrow wings to through the winds that allow them to gain incredible speeds and ride the waves effortlessly for miles.  In fact Hawaiian Petrels leave their breeding islands and travel thousands of miles to the rich waters off of Northern California to gather fish which they will take back to feed their young. Remarkable!

So the conditions were perfect for finding our target. In the afternoon we laid out an oil slick where feeding birds were and drifted south for the next two hours.  Shearwaters and Storm-Petrels came in drawn by the smell of the fish oil, but no Hawaiian Petrels joined them.  We even stayed out an extra two hours which was appreciated by the five hard core birders who had been on all four of these trips.  Our group included James Huttington, who found the Ivory Gull on Gambell this May and will be joining us on Gambell in September.   Ron Howard from Arkansas who is trying to photograph 700 birds in the ABA area.  I doubt that Hawaiian Petrel will be one of them.  Ron will be on the Hyannis pelagic boat trip this weekend, weather permitting.  Also on board was Kirk Zufelt, who has a quest of his own – to see all of the seabirds of the world. Mike Danzanbaker, the photographer, also was on all four of the Ft. Bragg trips.   Ken Petersen would have been onboard as well, but he wisely decided to chase the Common Ringed Plover at the Davis Wetlands instead.  I hope he saw it.

Pomerine Jaeger out of Ft. Bragg (Photo by John Vanderpoel)
Pink-footed Shearwater (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

During the return trip to Noyoko Harbor, Debi entertained young Abe Borker and I with tales of the California birding scene including the infamous Greater Shearwater story.  I’d heard it before, but not from the source. Abe and I were both rolling in laughter.  In the middle of it a Laysan Albatross flew in next to the boat.  A coveted bird by some on board, it was now just another bird I’d already notched on my year-list.  I imagine that will become even more the norm in the months ahead.

Debi Shearwater with Wes Fritz (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Now Debi Shearwater knows what she’s doing. She’s been running pelagic trips out of Northern California for thirty-six years.  The list of rare seabirds seen on her boat trips is simply staggering, but trust me when I say that Hawaiian Petrel is far from a sure thing.  Weather, boat limitations and the birds themselves all conspire against you.  I for one won’t miss Ft. Bragg.  If I do return this year it will be for a land locked mega rarity.

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