FAITH & FOCUS
This is a trip report for Shearwater Journeys' pelagic trip departing from Sausalito for the Farallon Islands, August 5, 2012. It was a trip about having faith and remaining focused. On this annual trip our main focus is usually the charismatic TUFTED PUFFIN. The Farallon Islands represent the largest breeding seabird colony on the West Coast, south of Alaska. They are protected and are part of the National Marine Sanctuary system. Remarkably, a Northern Gannet was discovered at the islands several weeks ago. Although it was seen carrying nesting material in late June, it was not seen after July 8th. We had so hoped to find this bird on our August 5th trip to the islands. This might represent the first record of a Northern Gannet in the Pacific Ocean, and certainly the first record for the State of California. There was no question about the identification, as others had seen it and photographed it. Oddly enough, earlier this year, I visited the largest gannetry in the world, St. Kilda Island, Scotland. To learn more about the gannet and its range, click here. This is a completely remarkable seabird record. And, being a seabird person, I just had to see it— along with puffins, of course.
The stars were shining on us, as Gerry McChesney spotted the gannet on August 3rd at Arch Rock and flying around the island. Again, the stars dimmed, as Gerry reported to me that he did not see the gannet at all on August 4th due to heavy fog. Yikes! So it was with great anticipation we headed out to the islands with Captain Jimmy on the "Outer Limits.' The ride out to the islands is on the Continental Shelf. So, it is a straight shot out. We saw many HARBOR PORPOISES and COMMON MURRES. With the islands in sight, the first of many TUFTED PUFFINS appeared, below. This puffin was carrying food in its beak! So, it must be feeding young at the island. The seas were glassy, smooth.
Things lightened up a bit, but for most of the day, we experienced uniformly high overcast skies. These are perfect conditions for viewing wildlife because if the sun is out, one cannot look in that direction.
Approaching South Farallon Island, we saw more TUFTED PUFFINS swimming on the water.
Hundreds and hundreds of RED PHALAROPES were feeding in swirling movements on the water. They are in a plumage that is neither "red" nor "gray," as in winter. This individual still shows some red.
Large flocks of PIGEON GUILLEMOTS with white wing patches showing, formed rafts.
And, newly hatched PIGEON GUILLEMOTS were nearby. This plumage can be confused with a murre.
Finally, we made it to Arch Rock, where we looked and looked and looked— for that Northern Gannet without success!
Because it was so calm and so clear, we were able to go around South Farallon Island. I saw places I had never seen on previous trips. We looked and looked.
A very few RHINOCEROS AUKLETS popped up. We continued looking. A whale watching boat was also searching. NO gannet. A BLUE WHALE surfaced, pictured below.
After nearly two hours of searching, I was NOT giving up. Large concentrations of seabirds and whales were reported off the edge of the Continental Shelf, about 5 miles southwest of the islands. I decided the gannet surely had to be feeding and that we had as good a chance of finding it amongst the feeding seabirds as on the island.
So, Jim headed to the shelf edge. Sure enough, we were absolutely surrounded by whales— more than 45 HUMPBACK WHALES and at least 5 BLUE WHALES. Of course, as fun as that was, I remained focused on looking at seabirds and finding that gannet. Flocks of SOOTY SHEARWATERS were sitting on the water. Amongst them, I spotted a "skunk head," pictured above.
This leucistic Sooty Shearwater is not all that uncommon.
However, these individual shearwaters can cause a lot of head scratching when one only has a quick, flying away view!
The HUMPBACK WHALES put on quite a show, surfacing right next to our vessel.
This is the head, or rostrum of a Humpback Whale, side view.
Humpback tail flukes right next to us! Then, a call on the radio came from Gerry who was on the island— he had spotted the gannet, flying around Saddle Rock, below. "Quick, everyone sit down on the bow, we are taking off!" Twenty minutes later we arrived at the rock and Gerry was giving instructions on precisely where we should look for the gannet, as it had sat down.
There! was the NORTHERN GANNET, on the rock, just below the three Common Murres!
For at least half an hour, we did nothing but watch the gannet. It was an incredible day— perfect weather, extremely calm seas, loads of TUFTED PUFFINS and other seabirds, and loads of feeding whales, too— and, with the help of my friend, Gerry McChesney— the first sighting of the NORTHERN GANNET by a boat load of birders in weeks. What more could we ask for?
We enjoyed a lovely ride home, under the GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE.
The bridge is 75 years old this year.
So, of course, we could not resist taking photographs of it while floating along on a delightful "high."
Our helpful and very friendly first mate, Bob.
Our capable and experienced captain, Jimmy, below, who has seen the gannet more than just about anyone.
The complete species list for AUGUST 5, 2012 follows:
WESTERN/CLARK'S GREBE- 1
BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS- 1
PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER- 8
SOOTY SHEARWATER- 1025, including "skunk head"
*NORTHERN GANNET- 1, adult
BROWN PELICAN- +
BRANDT'S CORMORANT- +
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT- +
PELAGIC CORMORANT- 7
BLACK OYSTERCATCHER- 1
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE- 11
RED PHALAROPE- 1515
POMARINE JAEGER- 1
HEERMANN'S GULL- +
WESTERN GULL- +
ELEGANT TERN- 40
CASPIAN TERN- 5
COMMON MURRE- 1175, many father/chick pairs
PIGEON GUILLEMOT- 625
CASSIN'S AUKLET- 601
RHINOCEROS AUKLET- 12
TUFTED PUFFIN- 34, one individual carrying food
CALIFORNIA SEA LION- +
STELLER'S SEA LION- +
HARBOR SEAL- +
GRAY WHALE- 1
BLUE WHALE- 5
HUMPBACK WHALE- 45+
HARBOR PORPOISE- 27
Our next trip to the Farallon Islands is September 30th. It is SOLD OUT, but you can ask to be on the Wait List by emailing me. Folks, this is shaping up to be an outstanding fall season with loads of nearshore food. There could not be a better time to "get out there." Shearwater Journeys' schedule is current and up to date. Please book as soon as possible. You won't want to miss this fall!
All images by Debi Shearwater, copyright. Please ask permission to use.