I’d been waiting for this pelagic trip for quite a while. It would be 13-hours aboard the Grande, a sport fishing vessel capable of overnight trips, complete with a galley and prepared meals. The planned route was out of San Diego Harbor to Nine Mile Bank, and then west to the Thirty Mile Bank. The boat was pretty full, but there was still enough room for my brother, Tom, to get on. Loaded, packed and ready, we motored out of the San Diego Harbor in the predawn light that glowed with anticipation of the day to come.
Elegant Terns and multiple gull species were our early companions. We also found both Black and American (as well as a couple of hybrids) on the jetty riprap.
There must have been at least sixty people on the Grande. It was nice to see some old faces on board. Loch Kilpatrick was there with a couple of other Colorado birders, one who was rather sea sick and had not yet learned the basic rules of Sea Birding: plenty of sleep and no alcohol the night before. Tony Leukering and Bill Schmoker were on board as well, spending much of their time using their camera lenses to hammer the continuing procession of Pomerine Jaegers that were migrating south.
At times we’d have up to seven individuals around the boat at once. Barbara Carlson and Dan King (of the Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard adventure) were both there. Dan added three San Diego county life birds on this trip – Red-billed Tropicbird (we had three individuals), Ashy Storm-Petrel and Buller’s Shearwater. In fact Dan declared that I’m no longer a “Pelagic Trip Jinx”. But would that help me get Least Storm-Petrel? Time would tell.
There were some new faces as well. One was a Massachusetts birder who is close friends to Cathy, the Morgan le Fay, who has put Matt from Ohio under her siren spell and caused him to forget (temporarily?) about his “Big Year”.
For me there would be no enchantress. I was focused- locked in and ready to roll. My targets were Black-vented Shearwater and Least Storm-Petrel. Black-vented should be easy, but both Paul Lehman and Guy McCaskie (both trip leaders) were fairly pessimistic about Least Storm-Petrels actually being here this year. As you know this has been a cold-water year in California waters. Only one Least Storm-Petrel had been seen in California so far this year.
Black-vented Shearwater is an inshore pelagic bird and soon after leaving the shelter of the harbor, multiple birds were crossing the bow. I believe the days total settled around sixty individuals.
Storm-Petrels would not come as quickly. After sorting through flocks of shearwaters for several hours in the Nine Mile Bank, we headed across deeper water to the Thirty Mile Bank. After an hour of very slow birding, Paul Lehman, who was positioned on the intercom up top, yelled out “Storm-Petrel at 12:00 o’clock flying directly away…possible a Least”. When communicating whereabouts of seabirds, we use the boat as a clock. The front of the boat or bow is 12:00 o’clock. The rear of the boat or stern is 6:00 o’clock. Anyways I was able to find the storm-petrel quickly, but it was already 100 yards in front of the boat and flying directly away. I knew it was a smallish storm-petrel without the long winged look and deep wing beat of a Black Storm-Petrel, but honestly it could have been any one of three species. I’ve never seen a Least Storm-Petrel before so obviously no field experience. This look would not pass my criteria. If I missed another one, then I missed Least Storm-Petrel for the year.
However, such would not be the case. Eventually we began seeing more birds, first two flying across the bow. These two looked short-tailed compared with the thousands of Ashy Storm-Petrels I’ve seen this year in Northern California waters. Over the next hour we began seeing multiple Least and Black together. The Least Storm-Petrels were much smaller than the Blacks, with constant quick wingbeats. I believe the day’s final count of Least Storm-Petrels was over
The return trip to the harbor was fun and relaxed, but interrupted by a Sea Otter, which is apparently utterly amazing for San Diego waters.
So now I’m in San Diego until Tuesday (unless a Mega turns up somewhere). My year-list sits at 726 with two easy “low lying fruit” remaining. Then things will become a bit more challenging. Stay tuned