Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pelagic birding trip from San Diego: What's it like?

San Diego pelagic trip
Sunrise: Pelagic birding trip aboard Grande out of San Diego, California. September 21, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I've spent nearly 200 days at sea watching birds. I've organized and led over 150 pelagic trips--ocean bird watching boat trips--from Oregon during the past 21 years. I've taken another twenty pelagic trips in North America and Mexico, including some multi-day trips, and 3 cruises on luxury liners.

I enjoy watching birds at sea. I enjoy being at sea.

On September 21 I was privileged to be one of the guides on a pelagic trip from San Diego, sponsored by the Buena Vista Audubon Society. The trip was aboard the 88 foot Grande. Though not as large as the 95 foot Searcher, also out of San Diego, it is much larger than the 45-55 foot charter fishing boats available for these purposes off Oregon. Even with 50 birders aboard it was not crowded.

San Diego pelagic trip
Passing Point Loma and entering the Pacific Ocean.
This is the third time I've traveled on Grande--all as a guide. The first time was a double-overnight trip in 2008. Then I went out last October on a single-day 12 hour trip to 30 Mile Bank. The trip just completed was another 12 hour trip over 9 Mile Bank to 30 Mile Bank and back.

The double-overnight trip in 2008 was what some might call "roughing it." Biggest problem for me was there was only one head (marine toilet) each for men and for women. I had to get up before the crack of dawn to make sure, well... if you are older you know. If not, then you don't want to. There were no showers available for those three days. Sleeping was in bunks--stacked 4 high. There is a left and right aisle with bunks on left, center, and right of the boat. The center bunks shared a common wall between their neighbor on the opposite aisle. The "wall" was just a canvas divider. The 45 passengers slept in their clothes. It was not a luxury liner. On the other hand, I've gone overnight in a small fishing boat sitting on the floor with my back against the oven and my feet down the stairwell, almost, but not quite, falling asleep.

Not everything was primitive, though, this boat has a galley and chef to provide meals. As far as I know, no other pelagic trips in North America have this available (except Searcher, also from San Diego, California). I had purchased and brought along a Subway sandwich to eat during the day, but took advantage of the galley to have a breakfast burrito.

San Diego pelagic trip
A view from the stern.
This trip started pretty much as all pelagic trips--looking for a parking space before dawn. Even the pay lot was full when I arrived at 5:30 am (the consequences of an insanely great, and badly needed, bluefin tuna fishing season). I found street parking 4 blocks away. The charter was busy. As a guide I didn't have to go to the office to check in, rather just sign the passenger manifest on the clipboard handed around. Then I helped load chum onto the boat and set up some deck chairs.

Passengers were loaded and an orientation speech by the trip leader began. The captain discussed boat safety as we departed.

Most West Coast pelagic trips are damp and cool to cold. However, on this September date it was nearly 70 degrees as dawn approached. I left my hooded coat in the car and only brought my light weight rain jacket/wind breaker. But I never put it on. It was a shirt-sleeve trip from start to finish. Even if cloudy, one can be sunburned. I always tell everyone to put on sun block, but didn't take my own advice. Even though I work outside all day, the left half of my face is now peeling.

San Diego pelagic trip
The Coronado Islands on the horizon are in Mexico, 15 miles from the San Diego harbor.
The bird watching trip ran out the bay, past the bait barges with hundreds of attendant Brant's Cormorants and some egrets, pausing near Ballast Point to view several Black Oystercatchers and a hybrid Black x American Oystercatcher on the cobble beach. Brown Pelicans and Royal and Elegant terns flew overhead. The boat then passed the tip of Point Loma and entered the ocean.

It's a bit confusing until you get used to it, but the mouth of San Diego Bay faces due south, not west. So our trip went south, straight out the bay heading along shore in the direction of the Coronado Islands off Tijuana, Mexico. Brown Boobies nest there, and we saw 3 along this section of our trip. Black-vented Shearwaters are regular here, and there were many Red-necked Phalaropes flying about. When we neared the Mexican border we turned around and headed northwest to Nine Mile Bank, an underwater mountain range about (yes) 9 miles offshore.

San Diego pelagic trip
In Oregon these backpacks would be drenched with wave splash! But not here.
Birds dropped in number as we moved farther offshore. We were hoping for the numerous Craveri's Murrelets seen a couple of weeks earlier, but were not here this day. We did pick up Cassin's Auklets and the first of several Common Terns. Trip leaders took turns chumming popcorn all day and had a burlap sack of fish scraps hanging over the stern rail, dripping into the water. Western Gulls were present the entire trip, Heermann's Gulls were common, more so near shore, and we had a few California Gulls.

Birds were nearly absent between Nine Mile Bank and Thirty Mile Bank. We did spot a couple Pink-footed Shearwaters and barely discernible Black Storm-Petrels flitted about at about a quarter mile distant, but didn't approach the boat more closely. A Blue Whale spouted several times and finally sounded. I didn't get a photo--I was too entranced by the sight of this huge animal!

For "county listers," those concerned with keeping lists of birds in each individual county, we left San Diego County and entered into Los Angeles County. Now Orange County is between the two on the mainland, but ocean birding follows the "closest point of land" rule. We had been traveling from Point Loma, San Diego County (the nearest point of land), toward San Clemente Island, which was officially owned by Los Angeles County. When we reached half way, over Thirty Mile Bank (yes again, about 30 miles from San Diego Bay), we crossed into the new county, skipping over Orange County, which owns none of the southern California islands.

San Diego pelagic trip
Returning to San Diego Bay in late afternoon.
We finally had a couple of Craveri's Murrelets--requiring photos to make sure. And we added Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers.

Was this a disappointing trip for passengers? I'm not sure. In Oregon we always have the big Black-footed Albatrosses (always a crowd-pleaser) and at least 3-5 species of shearwaters, as well as 3-5 species of alcids: murrelets, auklets, puffins. But these birds are not common in southern California waters. Instead, storm-petrels are the draw. But we only had very distant Black Storm-Petrels, no big rafts, nor anything unexpectedly rare.

Personally, I added 10 species of new birds for the year in San Diego County: Black Oystercatcher, Brown Booby, Pomarine Jaeger, Cassin's Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm-Petrel, Common Tern, Sabine's Gull, Common Murre, and Craveri's Murrelet. In fact, Brown Booby was a first for me in all of California. Additionally, the Sabine's Gull and Common Murre were new birds for me in San Diego County.

I've got another trip scheduled for next weekend. So, if it doesn't get weathered-out by rough seas, I'll have lots of seabird photos to share over the next few weeks. I'm not a guide this time, and had to pay my way aboard. But I probably won't do anything less than I've done the last 20 years--point out, teach, and explain about pelagic birds, fishes, and marine mammals; sharing my excitement with whoever is nearby.

San Diego pelagic trip
Returning to the marina at sunset.