Saturday, August 1, 2009


Howdy, Seabirders,

The "story" of the July 31 Shearwater Journeys' Monterey Bay seabirding trip really begins last May. After a fantastic Monterey Bay pelagic trip on May 10th I spoke with Todd McGrath. Todd is a veteran seabirder whose enthusiasm flows like molten lava from an active volcano! Quite a number of southern California pelagic trips with SoCal Birding had convinced us that this was going to be an extremely good year to be on as many pelagic trips as possible. Then, the July 25th Condor Express pelagic trip turned up a record-breaking 136 COOK'S PETRELS! This set the wheels turning in our heads.

Fast forward to the evening of July 30th. Todd called me to say that a meeting scheduled for July 31 was canceled. Did I have a space for him on the July 31 pelagic trip from Monterey? Of course. Coincidentally, Mike Force, who was on the NOAA research vessel, McArthur II, reported the following:

"As an addendum to the Cook's Petrels seen in the Southern California Bight, I was surprised to see a Cook's Petrel this afternoon 5 NM off Big Sur. More precisely, about 5 NM west of Ragged Point (south of Cape San Martin). I can't recall having seen one this close to shore. Maybe there'll be some in Monterey Bay when we get there tomorrow?"

Thinking about Mike's report while driving to the dock on the morning of July 31, I decided to take a chance. I laid out a firm plan in my head to head south, off Big Sur. I asked Chris, owner, of Chris' Fishing, whether we could stay out an extra hour, and head to Big Sur. Fishermen pay extra money for this long haul. Fuel is not an easy subject these days. Chris and I made a deal to split the cost between us. We were gambling that we could find one or two Cook's Petrels.

Certainly, we had the leadership on board to scout these enigmatic and ethereal seabirds, darlings of the Pterodromas. Scott Terrill, Linda Terrill, David Vander Pluym, Tristan McKee, Lauren Harter, Oscar Johnson, Matt Brady, Brian Sullivan, and myself were on board. And, of course, Todd McGrath, volcanic seabirder. It was Oscar's 21st birthday. Van Remsen from LSU was with us. All of us wanted something to celebrate.

The day started out ordinarily enough— with SOOTY and PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS as we rounded Point Pinos on our southward trek. The usual nearshore alcids made an appearance: PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, COMMON MURRES (some fathers with their chicks). A trickle of NORTHERN FULMARS here and there, along with tiny flocks of RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, as we zipped past HUMPBACK WHALES. Heading south off Cypress Point, BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS numbers increased, as well, the first SABINE'S GULLS, LONG-TAILED JAEGERS, and a sprinkling of CASSIN'S AUKLETS appeared. At some point, we lost nearly all of the shearwaters and albatrosses. That made me nervous. I hate to leave birds behind me.

About 13.3 miles offshore, the screams of COOK'S PETRELS !!! rang out. Multiple petrels were in view. However, at least for me, they appeared as tiny specks on the horizon. Some folks could not even see the specks. Todd confidently said, "We will see them closer." He was right about that! From the onset, I requested (demanded?) a count, as accurate as possible, of the petrels. It was unnerving, as we reached 50, 77, 100+, 135, and, finally 138. We broke Todd's record of 136 of the Condor July 25th trip. We judged our count to be "conservative."

We saw COOK'S PETRELS for several hours, as we followed the deep water contours. We were headed to a place the the local skippers have dubbed the "weinie"— for its shape. Oh, well. We laid out oil slicks with special pterodroma oil that Scott and Linda had left to them by Larry Spear, seabirder extraordinaire. Thank you, Larry. It brought the petrels closer for a much better view and photographs. At one point while I was in the cabin monitoring channel 16, I heard the captain of the McArthur II come over the radio. I asked the captain to relay a message to Mike Force that we had seen some 120 Cook's Petrels. Flocks and flocks of Long-tailed Jaegers either hovered over our heads, or were found sitting on the water. We now had petrels and jaegers coming out of our ears, in every direction, near, far, over the slicks! Surprisingly, the first BULLER'S SHEARWATER of the fall season flew into one of our slicks. The first SOUTH POLAR SKUAS of the fall season were also spotted. More SABINE'S GULLS, and a handfull of COMMON-ARCTIC TERNS were also spotted. Heck, it was beginning to feel more like a September trip, rather than a July 31 trip!

On the ride home, we were beginning to think about celebrating with dinner at Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing. The day was far from over, though. Suddenly, PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHINS were riding our bow! They were soon joined by a number of NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHINS, some with tiny calves. A tail lobbing HUMPBACK WHALE caused us to stop for a photo op. And, closer to Point Pinos, a small pod of RISSO'S DOLPHINS' fins broke the surface.

Near the end of our offshore time, I spoke with Mike Force over the radio. Our connection was not the best, but I was able to make out that he was reporting that he had seen many Cook's Petrels and a STEJNEGER'S PETREL — frosting on the cake!! Although we had searched as best as we could, we could not find any other petrels among the Cook's. It is now clear to us that there are hundreds of Cook's Petrels out there! So, we shall keep on searching. That's what seabirding is all about.

Folks on board the boat practically demanded a "chase" trip — and, soon. I organized a trip for tomorrow, August 2, which is nearly sold out. Finally, at the end of the day, in the parking lot, I heard a "chip, chip, chip" of a bird flying over head which I did not see. Scott Terrill said, "Red Crossbill"! Nice ending of a spectacular day on Monterey Bay. Off to Phil's for dinner.

I thank all of the folks who joined us on this historic trip from Monterey— some of my very best friends, and some folks who made their very first trip on Monterey Bay. Especially, I thank Mike Force for his encouragement and communication. "May the Force be with you" takes on new meaning!

All of this brought back many old memories for me. I think it was November 1978 or 79 when I organized the first offshore trips from Morro Bay to the Davidson Seamount to search for some Cook's Petrels that had been reported by an offshore research vessel. We went out on a dreadful overnight trip. At dawn the first morning, Guy McCaskie, bellowed out, "Cook's Petrel!" We saw a few. Not many. The birders on board practically demanded a chase trip. I ran two chase trips. All were successful. On one trip, we saw one Stejneger's Petrel. It remains the only one that I have ever seen.

The beauty of the 2009 Monterey petrels is that they are reachable in a single day's boat trip. Easy by our standards of decades ago. At the same time, this is probably a most unique situation— so, don't count on it for next year, or, maybe even, next week.

This July 31 pelagic trip, on at the very edge of fall seabird migration, was the beginning of my 35th year of offering pelagic trips from Monterey. That's a lot of water under—— my feet! There is always something new to discover out there. Join me in the discovery!

Pterodromas forever and ever,

Debra Shearwater
Shearwater Journeys, Inc.
PO Box 190
Hollister, CA 95024

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