Saturday, May 24, 2014

48 hours in Oregon

I spent last weekend in Oregon for a special deep water pelagic birding trip. It was a quick trip, to say the least. 9 am Saturday to 6:30 am Monday. Then right back to San Marcos for a full day of work.

Surprisingly, the time through the airport security check was speedy in both directions. In San Diego I had to take off coat and shoes and stand in position with arm raised, as per usual. Total time including a short line was only about 12 minutes. The check in Portland wasn't more than 2 minutes! Somehow I got in a special line because my ticket said: "TSA Pre-Check" on it--I don't know how, I've never applied or paid the fee. Put all items from pockets into carry-on bag and sent it through the X-ray machine. I walked through a low-tech metal detector with boots and coat on! That's it? I felt cheated. I had this urge to take off all my clothes and run back through the detectors! Fortunately for fellow passengers that impulse wasn't acted upon. This time.

Descending into Portland
The flight to Portland descended from the early morning sun at 40,000 feet into the bright white cloud tops at about 5000 feet, then gray, then really dark gray, then broke out and then I involuntarily thought to myself the words every Northwesterner hears from visiting Californians: "Man, it's really green here!" Not even 8 months and I've already forgotten? Well the 50 degrees and scattered showers for both days reminded me quickly why I moved to San Diego. After all, I had just come from 3 unseasonably warm days of 100 degree temperatures. It's back down to a normal high of 72 degrees for the rest of this week--I think I'll keep it.

I birded with Tim Shelmerdine Saturday, as we birded our way from Portland to Tillamook and then down the coast to Newport. Sunday we rose early to get on the boat by 6:00 a.m. and headed out to sea. Even though I moved to San Diego, I am still actively working the pelagic trips--web site, signup, and banking. But I passed deposits, chum preparation (yay!), and trip leadership on to Tim.

This trip motored on quickly to deep water, more than 60 miles offshore. Our trip goal was to spend as much time as possible searching for rare birds in deep water. Thus, we ignored the common seabirds near shore or, at least, did not stop for them. We kept splashing on. And on.

Pelagic trip.
We finally reached more than 60 miles offshore. This was at, or even beyond, the path the luxury cruise liners travel on their repositioning cruises and where rare Pterodroma petrels are seen in spring (primarily Murphy's Petrels). Even on these cruises it can be hours between rare bird sightings. But we spent almost 5 hours in the deep waters where these rare birds are sometimes found. No luck. Additionally, since this was out farther than most seabirds live, total numbers of birds were boringly low--expected on this particular trip, but a bit disappointing, even so. We headed slowly back up on the Continental Shelf after spending as much time as we could over the Abyss.

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm Petrel. 45 miles W of Newport, Oregon. May 18, 2014. Greg Gillson.
From waters a mile and a half deep we came up on the slope to about the 600 fathom line (3600 feet deep--still more than a half mile deep about 45 miles offshore). We passed a flock of 20 or so Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels sitting on the water, so stopped to chum to bring them closer to the boat. A few Black-footed Albatrosses joined them. After about a half hour it was time to motor back to shore. We made one more pass through the flock of seabirds in our chum line (beef fat and fish oil). Wait! Confused shouting from the bow. Leach's Storm-Petrel, did I hear being called out? No, the calls all started agreeing--Ashy Storm-Petrel! I ran inside to tell the captain to please wait as we had a rare bird, then I ran out on the deck and spotted this dark storm-petrel flitting about among the paler gray Fork-taileds.

Ashy Storm-Petrel (3rd Oregon record). 45 miles W of Newport, Oregon. May 18, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Now Ashy Storm-Petrel was on our list of possible rarities. And this will be only the 3rd accepted record for Oregon--and the best documented. Nevertheless, Ashys breed and are fairly common in California, while Murphy's Petrels are exceedingly rare in North American waters, and likely only on the cruise liner repositioning trips. But how can one complain?

A few more photos from this trip are here.