Late Summer & Early Seabirding Pelagic Trips:
A SNAPSHOT IN TIME
Shearwater Journeys operated six pelagic trips during late summer (July 20 & 26 from Half Moon Bay) and early fall (August 1 & 8 Monterey Bay and August 2 Half Moon Bay) and a trip to the Farallon Islands on August 3. This is a recap of those trips, including trends that we noticed regarding warm water, food, locally breeding birds and meg-rare seabirds.
TERRAFIN CHART used by express permission.
Most years, I have noticed a surge of warm water from the south during July or mid-August. I've called it, The Great Southerly Push. Some years, it doesn't happen. This year, however, it happened in early July and was very strong. This lead many people to speculate about El Nino and its' arrival in our area and it bringing many incredible seabirds, but I was not one of them.
A larger ocean system, The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), the long term ocean fluctuation of the Pacific Ocean sort of overlays El Nino systems. PDO's run about 20 to 30 years long and we are in the midst of one, right now. The present PDO might last until about 2023. It seems that the PDO has muted most of any effects that might have happened had an full blown El Nino reached our area. The August 7 Alert by NOAA has reduced the likelihood of an event reaching California to 65% and predicted arrival time moved to August - October. Strength is predicted to be weak or moderate rather than strong. As Peter Pyle states, "In my long history looking at weather (my dad was a meteorologist), once conditions and forecasts begin to back off, they usually continue to do so. Hopefully we will at least get enough El Nino to bring us some rain this winter!"
Shearwater Journeys has nearly four decades of offering offshore pelagic birding trips. We've seen what small El Nino's look like, as well as what really big El Nino's look like, such as the 1982-83, or 1998 events. It is a big deal. We were not in a so-called "cold water regime" during those years. So, if Pleuroncodes planipes, Red Crabs, begin to show up on the shores as they did in 1982, you'll know we're in for a big one! For now, however, it appears that the dire El Nino forecasts that were put out earlier this year are not likely to materialize. This doesn't mean that we don't have some warm water offshore! We do, indeed. But not every seabird we see is related to warm water conditions.
If you've been on a pelagic trip with me, you've probably heard me say: "Food is not evenly distributed at sea. It is found in patches." This is why there are sometimes "dry spells" during a pelagic trip. Note: Dry spells are usually very, very short, if at all on central California trips, because these waters are some of the most productive on Earth! Food and the search for prey is what being a seabird is all about!
It comes as no surprise then, that thousands of SOOTY SHEARWATERS and 20-30 Humpback Whales have been gorging on a mass of anchovies near Moss Landing! Above, is the view on the fish finder of a school of anchovies off Point Pinos, Monterey on our August 8th pelagic trip. Thousands of Sooty Shearwaters were feeding over this school of anchovies. At this time of year such feeding flocks of shearwaters are almost 100% homogeneous— Sooty Shearwaters. This will change over the coming weeks as mixing of the seas brings in other species of shearwaters such as Buller's Shearwater. But, early in the season, these nearshore feeding flocks are comprised mostly of Sooty Shearwaters. Black-vented Shearwaters arrived earlier than usual (if they even come), from southern California. Since they are dwellers of the Continental Shelf, some have been seen in the feeding flocks, or from sea watches along the coastal points. Anchovies are the "stuff of life" for shearwaters! This is a reminder that farmed salmon are feed pellets made from harvested anchovies — yet one more reason why you should avoid farmed salmon!
If anchovies are the "stuff of life of shearwaters," squid is the "stuff of life" for albatrosses. Last fall and this fall, we are seeing good amounts of squid in both Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay. This has a double-edged effect. Peter Pyle noted on our July 20th Half Moon Bay trip that he has rarely seen BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSSES so close to shore. Indeed, albatrosses were in to the 30 fathom line, as well as being seen off Point Pinos, Monterey Peninsula. I suspect that it was the prospect of feeding on squid that brought them so close to shore. That, and the possibility that they were not finding enough food further offshore. This makes viewing albatrosses very nice for the seabirder. The down side is the squid fishing industry which almost certainly impacts the endangered MARBLED MURRELETS. Squid fishermen work at night, using lights to attract the squid to the surface, and nets to make the haul. It is well known that seabirds are attracted to lights at night. So, it is likely that these murrelets are being impacted by this fishery. Certainly, it makes them much more difficult to find on Half Moon Bay trips, the only place where we routinely see Marbled Murrelets. Once the fishing stopped last fall, the murrelets were easily found.
Tuna fishermen look for certain seabirds that indicate to them that ALBACORE might be around. These birds include BULLER'S SHEARWATERS and ARCTIC TERNS. Fishermen call them, "tuna birds." It was not terribly surprising to find a Buller's Shearwaters with these conditions. I always associate FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATERS with the Buller's Shearwaters. (They breed on the same island). So, FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER didn't surprise me, either. (There are records for every month of the year, although mid-September through November is the peak). Indeed, on our July 20th Half Moon Bay trip, we saw an albacore jump out of the water. That's called a "jumper." But, the albacore were not biting. And, we saw seabirds that I associate with albacore as well, especially the CRAVERI'S and SCRIPP'S MURRELETS. These birds prefer crystal, clear, deep dark aqua, or even, black seas. Since the July 20 and 26th Half Moon Bay trips, the seas have calmed and there are no "edges" where warmer water meets the colder water. However, just wait, this too will change. We might yet see biting albacore on the September 13th ALBACORE TRIP departing from Monterey. (We have found RED-TAILED TROPICBIRD on past albacore trips! We will be actively searching for warm water!)
CRAVERI'S MURRELET, above, appeared in central California for the first time in nearly a decade. The appearance of this species is definitely linked to the super warm water surge that began in July.
HAWAIIAN PETRELS are now known, from radio tagging, to be a part of our "regularly" occurring offshore species. However, intersecting with one is really a matter of luck and timing. July through September is about the best time to hope to see this rarity. We have found them on trips departing from Monterey, Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay, and Fort Bragg. On one Fort Bragg trip, we found three in one day and on another trip, we followed one for 17 minutes! These petrels are thought to use high pressure systems. And, we had one in place, offshore for a week prior to this sighting.
SALVIN'S ALBATROSS above and below, was a big surprise. There is only one other record for this species, Alaska. So, it is a first for the lower 48 and a state bird for California. The appearance of this southern albatross may or may not be related to warm water. July/August is the time of year when a number of southern seabirds have occurred. Most notable have been: GRAY-FACED/GREAT-WINGED PETREL, TASMANIAN SHY ALBATROSS, CHATHAM ALBATROSS, LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSS and there are two summer/fall records of WANDERING ALBATROSS.
Rare and mega-rare seabirds are not to be expected, of course. But, the list of rarities is quite long! It will be interesting to see how the mixing of the warm and cold water progresses. Today, I noticed a "bubble" of cold water on the SST chart for Monterey. Yes, temperature "fronts" do not necessarily run in straight or even crocked lines. I once followed a warm/cold water temperature break, and it took me around in a circle! That's a bubble! It all looks like water out there — there's a lot more to it!
BY-THE-WIND-SAILORS were quite prevalent in mid-July, but their numbers have been declining since then. Could be that they got blown around. This is the first time I've seen these darlings of the sea since 2005! I don't know if their appearance is related to warm water. I doubt it, though. In year's past, we typically saw rafts of them during spring.
A LEACH'S STORM-PETREL, above, was a surprise on our July 20th Half Moon Bay trip because they are usually found very far offshore, 50+ miles. There's no rhyme or reason for this, IMHO.
LAYSAN ALBATROSS showed up on our July 26 Half Moon Bay trip and our August 3 Farallon Island trip. I speculate that most of the Laysan albatrosses that we see during July and August are from the breeding colony in Mexico where some 400 pairs now breed. All of the leg bands that we have been able to read by digital images, have been of albatrosses from Mexico. They seem to be establishing a "regular" occurrence along the central California coast during July and August. Prior to the establishment of the Mexican colony in the mid-1980's, this species was very, very difficult to see in California.
The Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge are home to the largest breeding seabird colony south of Alaska on the West Coast. All of the breeding seabirds at the Farallon Islands seem to be having a good season. Earlier in the summer, quite a lot of krill was around which is a great food source, especially for CASSIN'S AUKLETS. Our main target bird of the August 3 trip was the TUFTED PUFFIN, pictured above, which are having a good season with 75 active sites!
It has been a terrific and inspiring beginning to our 39th year of pelagic seabirding trips! There's still a lot ahead — 27 more trips, in fact! Bring on the jaegers, storm-petrels and Arctic terns! Things are looking good.
Shearwater Journeys thanks all of the folks, from near and far, who joined us on these first six trips of the season. Folks hailed from Finland, England, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Sweden as well as many states in the USA. One look at the faces of the "Dads and Chicks" on our July 20th trip shows just how much FUN they had!
Leaders who were on board for these trips included: Peter Pyle, Todd McGrath, Scott Terrill, Linda Terrill, Steve Tucker, Abe Borker, Jim Holmes, Al De Martini, Nick Levendosky, Rick Fournier, Jennifer Green, and Debi Shearwater.
Remember this is just a "snapshot in time" and things change constantly!
The ocean is a dynamic and complex world. We hope you will join us!