Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pelagic birding

pelagic birdingRed and Red-necked Phalaropes on glassy seas, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

This past weekend I led a pelagic birding trip from Newport, Oregon. The weather and birds were so good and the tour so delightful that I wanted to document it with more than just a simple trip report with list of birds and a photo of rarities.

We boarded the boat, "Misty," and were underway by 7:00 a.m. Numerous Pelagic Cormorants were nesting on the bridge supports and pilings. Seven Brant remained on the mudflats exposed at low tide. Several Pigeon Guillemots swam and flew by. A flock of Brown Pelicans winged their way north over the jetties. As we neared the end of the jetties we spotted a Wandering Tattler high on a rock silhouetted by the sky.

We crossed into the ocean and headed south. Pacific Loons were migrating by near shore, now in breeding plumage. We spotted the blow of a Gray Whale in the shallows near shore but did not pursue a closer look. After about 10 minutes we spotted our quarry--a pair of Marbled Murrelets. Soon another pair flew off the water, and we turned the boat to head offshore. It wasn't long and we were seeing Red-necked Phalaropes sitting on the water and flying around in hyperactive flocks. Our first Sooty Shearwaters appeared and glassing the horizon we could see these pelagic birds flapping and gliding far ahead.

pelagic birdsBrandt's Cormorant, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

By the time we had been on the boat an hour our birding tour had made its way offshore about 5 miles and began seeing a change in the bird life. Loons and cormorants ended, while other ocean birds appeared. Over the next two-and-a-half hours we saw Sooty Shearwaters continuously--we tallied 2500 in this section of our trip. We also had Red-necked Phalaropes, estimating at least 1000 here. We were soon picking out Cassin's Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets on the smooth waters ahead. About 15 miles offshore our Oregon nature tour came across three Humpback Whales splashing and rolling on the surface. The largest of the animals had a terrible wheezing breath, something the veterans on the trip had never heard before, and assume it indicates some kind of medical malady. Smartly-marked Sabine's Gulls flew over the waters. Tiny little Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels fluttered and darted low to the waves. About 20 miles offshore we came to the Stonewall Bank weather buoy. Our first Black-footed Albatrosses appeared here. Also in this area Red Phalaropes appeared and became more common the farther offshore we traveled, while the Red-necked Phalaropes decreased in abundance as we moved farther from land. A couple of Pink-footed Shearwaters were spotted.

Oregon birdsSabine's Gull, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

nature toursHumpback Whale, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

Smooth seas allowed us to easily spot seabirds a half mile to either side of the boat and far ahead--nothing was getting past us in a mile-wide swath as we motored on. A bird ahead on the water showed a large head and chunky body--some kind of alcid, probably a puffin. We slowed the boat and... Yes! A Horned Puffin! One of our target rarities for the day. The bird allowed us to circle the boat several times as we obtained numerous photos and great views. In almost 150 trips we have seen this species only five times. A mile farther we spotted our first Tufted Puffin of the day.

Oregon seabirdsHorned Puffin, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

It was 11:00 a.m. when we reached 30 nautical miles offshore. As we continued west bird numbers dropped. The sun came out from the marine layer, and we had sunny skies the remainder of the day. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels flitted around and Black-footed Albatrosses wheeled up and soared over to investigate us. A floating mat of bull kelp provided a resting place for two Arctic Terns and a couple of Sabine's Gulls. We spotted a few more Tufted Puffins, while Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets appeared at irregular intervals. Red Phalaropes outnumbered Red-necked, but neither were plentiful out here.

pelagic toursBlack-footed Albatross, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

About 12:30 p.m. we reached 45 miles offshore, where we stopped for a while and chummed. We attracted a half dozen Black-footed Albatrosses, a couple Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and a few California Gulls. A new pelagic bird, a Parasitic Jaeger, zoomed in to attack the Sabine's Gulls. We were hoping for additional deep water specialties, but none showed. We headed southeast for an hour, then back east toward shore, spending a total of 3-1/2 hours beyond 30 miles, and about 2 hours beyond 40 miles--not enough to pick up deep water rarities.

birding toursRed-necked Phalarope, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

Where did the sea birds go? Our return pelagic trip was quite slim on birds except for an occasional Rhinoceros Auklet or Cassin's Auklet sitting on the water, or a lone albatross soaring along. Finally, about 12 miles from shore birds picked up. We ran back into numerous Sooty Shearwaters and Red-necked Phalaropes again. Common Murres increased. A large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese were heading north over the ocean to Alaska.

pelagic birdingYaquina Head, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

The following seas with gentle swell aided our seabird cruise in returning to shore ahead of schedule. So we veered north toward the Yaquina Head lighthouse. Murres were abundant, and other birds were increasing. A pale loon deserved a second look, so we turned the boat around.Could it be? Yes! A Yellow-billed Loon--the first ever for our pelagic birding boat trips. It seemed unconcerned with our joy, diving down and coming up with fish. We found 4 more Marbled Murrelets near the jetty. A flock of Bonaparte's Gulls--new for the trip--migrated north near the beach.

pelagic tripsYellow-billed Loon, off Newport, Oregon on 5 May 2012 by Greg Gillson

We entered Yaquina Bay about 6:40 p.m. where we spotted 2 Wandering Tattlers on the jetties. There were several Red-necked Grebes. A couple of people picked out a drake Harlequin Duck against the jetty. The Brant were back where we saw them in the morning--though they must have moved elsewhere during high tide. We docked the boat and disembarked. What a fun day!

The Bird Guide, Inc. leads pelagic birding trips several times per year. Check our schedule to book your next exciting trip today!