Saturday, October 3, 2015


Western Gull at sunrise
I had been looking forward to this one and only pelagic this year off the coast of California with Magill. This ten hour journey was intense but VERY worthwhile.

We, along with 88 other people(can't even get away from the people offshore!), went with Pacific Nature Tours to find lots of great birds.  The ocean weather was hot and I.....overdressed:) My mission?  To study jaegers, shearwaters, storm petrels and auklets. 

Sooty Shearwater
Surprisingly, I was able to move around the boat without too many people getting in the way.  The hierarchy of birders was also evident. I think we had everyone from beginners to the pros on this trip.  Our ebird reports certainly show the depth of reporting that had occurred!

Pacific Nature Tours
Pelagic photography is some of the hardest thanks in part to a moving boat, rocky waves, overcast(or bright) conditions and lightning fast birds.  And of course....maneuvering around people when a rare bird was seen:)

Pomarine Jaeger
Jaeger fest was a success!  We had all 3 Jaegers show up around our vessel.  I really had a great time studying the VERY slight differences between the three species. I now know some of the field marks, and hopefully I should be able to ID these jaegers down the road by myself.  Well in theory:)

The Pomarine Jaeger is a bulky tank with wings.  The Long-tailed Jaeger(below) is as elegant as it is beautiful.  But why isn't this a Parasitic Jaeger?  Well it's duller in color, but that's not a good field mark to go by. The best field mark? We were able to see the tail which was flat and not pointed.  This bird is also more tern-like in flight. It has a flight pattern similar to that of an Elegant Tern....slow with deep wing flaps. Observing the behavior was key here.  The Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers can be difficult species to separate when they are in their basic plumage. 

2nd Year Long-tailed Jaeger
Also along for the ride were many Common Terns and a few Arctic ones as well.

Common Tern
During the course of the day, we saw many of the very brown Parasitic Jaegers.  At one point, one chased a Common Tern!  Very exciting. 

Parasitic Jaeger chasing a Common Tern
The Parasitic Jaeger did not get the tern.  But the flight for life action happened for a good couple minutes. 

There were a few birders on board who have seen most of the birds in the U.S. and only needed ONE special bird to complete that goofy artificially created American ABA list. They were looking for the endangered and rare, for the U.S. at least, Craveri's Murrelet.  Our adventure would take a "tern" for the worse as a birder lost his balance and hit his head on a metal rail. He went out like a light! And I could hear groans from both sides as he went down....literally. 

The guy on the right is one of the several lead ebirders on board recording accurate distance and taking bird counts. We were not to submit our own reports as this company would do it for all.  No complaints here and THANK YOU!  That let us really bird.  And the ebird reports were stunning!
Unfortunately, according to the rumblings, this man did not plan well for the pelagic journey and forgot to take his diabetic medication. People went to help him and he did recover.  The Coast Guard was called and we were ordered to return back to port.  For the birders searching for the elusive Craveri's Murrelet, they lost their chance. There were a lot of angry birders.  Some vocal.  Some not.  Who was more selfish? The birder who didn't plan well?  Or the birders who paid good money to find a rare bird?  I'll let you all be the judge.  It is the price we pay when we all bird together in large groups.  If it's one thing I've learned this year from Mexico and now this pelagic, it's that I prefer to bird with a small group of friends or alone.  But sometimes you can't avoid the crowds...especially on a pelagic. 

Black-vented Shearwater
Eventually my eyes blurred from the intense sun and blue ocean.  I began to get a headache from straining my eyes into the distant horizon.  There were smaller birds like the Cassin's Auklet. 

Photo by Justyn Stahl
The world is such a complex place. I visibly see things changing.  Our planet is changing.  And global warming is real.  We read or hear about it in the news.  But I actually see it!  I don't know how I feel about it all.  I am just an observer in this short lifetime. 

My action shots of this relatively small bird:)
Some birds are taking advantage of this climate change while others face extinction due in part to their food source disappearing or moving to another area.  This year alone, the Pacific coastline has seen a massive die off of the Cassin's Auklet and other sea birds. 

I am constantly in deep thought about this planet. Eventually my brain shuts down and my eyes give out. And so I just focused on the moment and art of the Western Gull.  Lifebirds are challenging.  When there aren't new birds to find, I just relax and enjoy the moment. That's when my art can happen. 

I'm watching this beautiful dolphin jump and then am startled to find a microphone up my backside! I mean....let's have a drink first buddy! Geez! A very large man hung his body over the side of the boat to capture their sounds and crunched me into a tight space where I almost lost my balance.  SO RUDE!  I left.  If I could swim, I would have jumped in with these dolphins to get away from some of these goofy people. 
We found so many species of dolphin and whale.  On our trek we had migrating Blue and Humpback whales. 

When all was said and done, we got back into our rental car and were glad to go back to our open spaces in Arizona.  

I'm naturally claustrophobic but on our trek into California, I was reminded why I moved away from this state so many years ago.  There were TOO MANY people. Everywhere. 

Eventually someday, I will have to bird areas with even higher concentrations of people.  I'm thinking Japan here.  I'm a giant and I know how crammed their country can be:)  Birding does not come without challenges.  But again, that's what is exciting about it all. 

It's fun getting old and cranky:)  Life is good.  This pelagic trek netted me several more life birds.  I am now 4 short of 700. Where will the life bird adventure lead us now?  Stay tuned for more.   


  1. The return to port must have been tough to deal with after planning such a neat trip. Glad you got several Lifers - photos are great!

  2. Fascinating bird boat tour! Sadly cut short by someone who should have planned better....sadly too crowded by some people who should have been on a separate boat, apparently! :( Sorry about the negatives, but there were some great positives, too, and I loved your photos! I didn't ID any of my gulls and pelicans on our cruise because I didn't get a lot of different species, plus know so little about them. The dark grey gull was my favorite, and I am not sure I even caught him in a shot. Overall, it wasn't a birding excursion, anyway. Back to good old Tucson for us both! :-)

  3. Regardless of the situation, you did see some gorgeous birds.. Wow!!!!

    I too prefer small groups --and HATE being somewhere that is crowded...

    Sorry about the birder with the problem on board. I see both sides of that story. BUT--I really fault the one who got hurt. Cannot believe that anyone would head out to sea on a boat and not take their medications... Didn't the literature explain what to take and what to expect????


  4. An awesome opportunity even with the ill-prepared birder. Crowds are not my thing in nature.

  5. Great photos and an interesting description of your pelagic trip. Too many people send me off in the other direction - btw - I am sure there are a lot of birds you still need to see out in this part of the world!! :-)

  6. Hello Chris!:) Congrats on getting some more lifers, and on your shots of them. I am not well up on sea birds, but I enjoyed what you showed of your trip,... only sorry it was cut short.

  7. Superb adventure Chris and great photos. Have always wanted to go on a pelagic trip but have to admit that I prefer birding in small groups or even better alone! Such a shame you had to return to port due to the ill-prepared birder - can just imagine some of the glum faces among the people on board! Well done by the way on the number of birds you've seen - a really impressive total!

  8. Minus the frustrations you're encountering I think you are living the dream - your dream, discovering new views, new birds and new adventures. I love that first picture, the close up of the gull, it's like it's dangling in front of your lens.

  9. Wonderful that you got more lifers. Great images and trip apart from it being cut short.

  10. Large groups are challenges for many activities. Looks like you saw a lot of nice creatures though. Never thought about birding at sea. Makes sense.

  11. Haha! 'A tern for the worse' :) I loved everyone single shot here Chris. You did an excellent job despite the crowds, the rocking of the boat AND all the other distractions :)

  12. I have not had the stomach for a pelagic trip yet - if you see what I mean. There are some the run a bout 4 hours away from here - but they book out months in advance.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  13. Chris, I am so glad you were able to do this and look how far you have come since we first met! you will get to 1000 before you know it while I creek along trying to get to 500! Great photos! Sorry about the mishap and having to turn back to port. That guy should have taken his meds!

  14. There is something special about Pelagics, I've been on very few (UK mainly and 1 from Madeira) but the anticipation of seeing birds so often only witnessed as small dots makes them extra special.

    Some great photos and an interesting tale, shame the birder fell, for them and you.


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