Phil Jeffrey:: California Pelagics, September 2013 trip report


California Pelagics Birding Trip, September 6th - 10th 2013

Despite considerable dithering, or perhaps because of it, I ended up arranging a last minute trip to the north-central California coast for a pair of pelagics out of Half Moon Bay and Monterey run by Debi Shearwater. Half Moon Bay is the deeper water and longer trip of the two, with Monterey a more inshore type that is restricted more to the bay. I literally decided on the Tuesday, express-mailed the check to Debi Shearwater on the Wednesday, booked the flight with frequent flier miles that Wednesday and flew outbound on the Friday afternoon for a net flight cost of $80 plus 25,000 miles. Still quite amazed I pulled that off. Despite the fact I'm quite dissatisfied with my experiences with United over recent years, I have quite a lot of miles with them and they run multiple flights between Newark and San Francisco each day. They did a fairly decent job this time.

Because of the "decide Tuesday, fly Friday" aspect of the trip I had little or no advanced planning on where to find species, and the Bay Area is not somewhere I'm familiar with for birding. I know the approximate layout but it's been over a decade since I'd been there for any reason. The trip's main purpose was obviously California pelagics, and since I'd done a Westport WA pelagic in June 2011 the number of life birds I was expecting was limited: Ashy Storm-Petrel, Black Storm-Petrel, Buller's Shearwater being the most likely. I also needed Black-vented Shearwater but that seemed not to stray that far north during mid-Sept and was restricted to the LA/Santa Barbara area. I need very few passerines now, but the recent split of Sage Sparrow into Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrow gave me a new species to look for, and I still needed Island Scrub-Jay. To get the latter I would have to drive all the way south nearly to LA, and hop on yet another boat to the Channel Islands. Black-vented Shearwater is more reliable in winter in the LA area, it seems, to perhaps an alternate trip beckons to Southern CA to start off 2014.

Friday Sept 6th - travel day

United from EWR to SFO on Friday afternoon went smoothly, modulo the fact that United's in-flight entertainment system was kaput (there's always something with these guys). The sky was mostly clear en route, and I watched the transition from the plains to the high plains to the Rockies (around Pueblo CO), heading through the red rock region north of the Grand Canyon, and finally starting the descent in the Central Valley - filled diagnostically with smog. They got into SFO a little early, despite detouring around a storm system in the mountains east of Fresno. The EWR-SFO flight appeared to go by the southern route (OK, CO, NV) but the SFO-EWR flight seemed to take the northern route (Great Lakes), presumably to avoid or take advantage of the jet stream. I think - but am not certain - that the inbound route into SFO took us just north of Yosemite Valley, but I can't be certain - it was certainly a western valley into the Sierras.

It being a Friday night, I had to deal with quite a bit of San Francisco traffic to finally exit the peninsula and make my way up to Vallejo, the transit stop for the night.

Saturday Sept 7th - interior hills

North out of Vallejo to the hills west of Winters in search of Bell's (ex-Sage) Sparrow based on a single recent sighting. I hiked into Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a University of California property. Those boisterous Northern Californians were out in numbers hiking and running the trails too. En route I saw Mourning Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow and Barn Swallow. No Grackles, with the Crows taking their place as widespread scavenger in this less arid terrain. Headed up the canyon carved by the Putah River I saw Acorn Woodpeckers and three Yellow-billed Magpies. At the preserve itself, birding in the oak forest and chaparral was relatively slow. Oak Titmice were easy to find, as were Western Scrub-Jays which had been all over the place all morning - a far cry from their elusive counterparts in the interior west. Other birds in smaller numbers were Wrentit, Bushtit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Bewick's Wren, California Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, a female Black-throated Gray Warbler, Oriole sp (probably Bullock's), Turkey Vultures but the only sparrows I saw were two shy Rufous-crowned Sparrows. On the descent I saw a California Thrasher - completing the USA thrasher Grand Slam for 2013 (all breeding USA species) - and Anna's Hummingbird was in the stream bed. Not quite as active as I had hoped but a decent selection of oak chaparral species. A Peregrine was nesting on the cliffs up toward the dam, with Canada Geese in the stream below it, but the reservoir itself held nothing.

Back down the Putah River canyon I turned south onto Pleasants Valley Road for 7 miles or so - a road lightly trafficked and popular with bicyclists - I headed up the short and twisty Mix Canyon in search of sparrows but only saw more Scrub-Jays, Gnatcatchers and Turkey Vultures. Timing was likely a factor here as it was already late morning, and fall is certainly a more difficult time to find them than late spring. A California Quail zoomed across the road as I was exiting the canyon.

Grabbed lunch in Vacaville and then battled some Bay Area traffic as I navigated down the East side of the bay to the San Leandro marina where interesting shorebirds has been reported. Alas this place was swarming with people on a Saturday afternoon. Present were Ring-billed and California Gulls, Forster's Terns and one Caspian, (Western) Willets, Western Grebe, Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer's Blackbird, House Finch. The icterids were in heavy molt, making the ID a little more interesting. A nice bonus were more Bushtits and two Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the park.

My birding aspirations on the Saturday were limited, so after the marina I headed across the San Mateo Bridge ($5) where I had Brown Pelican, and checked into the motel for the night (Motel 6 in Belmont, not especially recommended). Black Phoebe and Brewer's Blackbirds were in the motel parking lot. I headed out to do a dry run to the marina at El Dorado on Half Moon Bay prior to Sunday's pelagic trip. Traffic was bad both ways along CA-92 so I gave up chugging through more of it at Half Moon Bay and did shopping for the following day's pelagic before turning around and heading back to San Mateo. CA-92 is very picturesque but apparently Half Moon Bay is a very popular place on weekends.

By 7:30, with some light still left in the sky, I'd retreated to the motel to set up and rest for the following days first centerpiece of the trip, a Half Moon Bay pelagic. I tend to be very conservative on pelagic prep - not least of all because on my last pelagic, a NC one, I ended up chumming over the stern.

Sunday Sept 8th - Half Moon Bay Pelagic

Sunday was the first of two pelagics. It was much cooler on the coast than it had been in the interior on the previous day, but the weather forecast held and the day dawned clear over San Mateo and largely windless. At the coast it was overcast the entire day, but the winds remained light. Frankly I like it to be a mill pond over anything more challenging. Before boarding I spied Western and Heerman's Gulls along with Sanderlings on the beach. The boat was less than full which made for a better experience and this particular party boat lacked seating along the boat sides - this means people tended to cluster in the back and a full boat would make for a more difficult time. Entirely randomly, I bumped into another Central Park birder on this pelagic, to the surprise of both of us.

Scanning the jetties on the way out there were all three species of Cormorant (Double-crested, Brandt's, Pelagic), many Brown Pelicans, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone and Surfbird (a new Lower 48 species and I had only seen one before). Inshore, Common Murres, Red-necked Phalaropes were fairly numerous, with a fly-by Parasitic Jaeger and then Sooty Shearwaters turned up as we headed offshore. No luck on the Marbled Murrelets inshore but as we headed out we found Rhinoceros Auklets, Cassin's Auklets and then a series of Scripps's Murrelets (formerly Xantu's; USA 692). Both Auklets put in a strong showing during the trip, and Cassin's has apparently had a bountiful breeding year. Pink-footed Shearwater numbers started to pick up and then we also added both Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers. Fairly soon I also saw the first of several Buller's Shearwaters (USA 693) and with the second grouping of those there was a Great Shearwater - a rare bird on the West Coast but not even a year bird for me. The vast majority of the shearwaters were Sooty and Pink-footed, with perhaps more of the latter offshore. Black-footed Albatross were present at low numbers without any flocks of them being found. A large flock of shearwaters accompanied a large group of Pacific White-sided Dolphins but contained nothing rare, just Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters with one or two Buller's.

Scripps's Murrelet, Half Moon Bay pelagic
Scripps's Murrelet, Half Moon Bay pelagic

Storm-Petrel numbers were starting to build, however, initially being solely the blackish Ashy Storm-Petrel (USA 694) which only look anything other than black at relatively close range (or perhaps in better light - it was overcast the entire day). We then encountered flocks of hundreds of Storm-Petrels which again were mainly Ashy but also contained a number of Black Storm-Petrels (USA 695) whose larger size and nighthawk-like flight style (cf. Leach's) made it easy to spot them, and a smaller number of Wilson's Storm-Petrels in the flock. Black Storm-Petrel isn't that much larger than Ashy, but it is longer-winged so the size difference and flight style made it straightforward to pick out this species with the naked eye. Nothing rarer was pulled out and at this point it was mid-afternoon so I believe the turn for home was made. On the way back a flock of Pink-footed Shearwaters yielded a Flesh-footed Shearwater (USA 696) giving brief but definitive views with the Pink-footed-like flight style, pink bill but a sooty-like overall color. A little further on two Tufted Puffins were present, with more Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets dotted around. More Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers on the way back and a Whimbrel at the harbor mouth to close out the day.

Monday Sept 9th

This was nominally a post-pelagic rest day but there were prospects for one to three life birds. For three life birds I had to pull the fairly psychotic Ventura round trip, and since I woke up at 5am feeling less than perky that was never going to happen. Instead I focused on finding Bell's Sparrow - part of the newly split Sage Sparrow pair - in the place it had been most frequently recently reported.

So there was an early morning 0520 departure to head down to Carrizo Plain NM for Bell's Sparrow. About 2 hours down US-101 to Santa Margarita whence a winding CA-58 into the hills before dropping down into the valley that held the NM. In the early pre-dawn going agricultural workers were getting a very early start to the day in the fields outside Salinas. There was a fair amount of fog, even in the Salinas Valley itself, which only started to clear up after sunrise. The broad agricultural valley narrows progressively as US-101 follows the Salinas River. Santa Margarita is probably still in the headwaters of the Salinas River but it has long since ceased as a discernable valley. US-58 winds through the coastal ranges east of Santa Margarita into the small agricultural valley east of the coast but still west of California's large Central Valley.

The east edge of the valley that Carrizo Plain lies within lines up with the San Andreas fault but I felt no tremors while I was birding. En route Western Scrub-Jay, Yellow-billed Magpie and Western Bluebird CA-58 took a winding route through the hills. The upper valley was quite agricultural so American Kestrel, Common Raven replacing the American Crows, Western Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike, one Prairie Falcon with recent catch. At the south end of Soda Lake (itself dry) there were Bell's Sparrows, nominally of the canescens race but showing a fairly weakly-streaked back and strong malar. See this discussion about (pre-split) Sage Sparrow subspecies. I saw perhaps five Bell's Sparrows, plus another Loggerhead Shrike and a Northern Harrier.

Panorama of Soda Lake at Carrizo Plain National Monument
Soda Lake Panorama, Carrizo Plain National Monument

By 10am the valley was into the 80's and headed for the 90's so I went back west to Santa Margarita and north on US-101 to Salinas and then to Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Refuge. The Estuarine Research Reserve was closed (Mon-Tues) but at Kirby Park I had Red-necked Phalarope, Black-necked Stilt, (Western) Willet, Least and Western Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlew. On the land bird side I saw Song Sparrow, Black Phoebe, Western Scrub-Jay and heard Common Yellowthroat.

Red-necked Phalarope juvenile, Elkhorn Slough estuary
Red-necked Phalarope juvenile, Elkhorn Slough estuary

Down at Moss Landing jetty/harbor there were more Willets and Marbled Godwits and a few Curlews, with Sea Otters massing within the inner harbor area, a couple of seals, Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants. At the adjacent wildlife viewing area to the east of Route 1 (adjacent to Moss Landing State Wildlife Area) there were also American White Pelicans to add to the numerous Browns, Western and Least Sandpiper, Great and Snowy Egrets. Western Gulls and a few Heermann's were around. Lacking any more shorebird action I retreated to Monterey and I spent the evening rustling up items for the next day's pelagic and resting up. Predictably, it was foggy in the coastal areas after a day of brilliant sunshine in the interior valleys.

Tuesday Sept 10th

The Monterey pelagic was on a similar-sized boat, but with about 50% more people, yet it was still easy enough to get on birds (being 6 foot 2 probably helps here). Two leaders from the Half Moon Bay trip were on this boat as well although ironically there were less leaders for more people on this trip (weekday vs weekend ? Monterey vs Half Moon ?). All three Cormorants were in the harbor area, Red-necked Phalarope was within 20 yards of the boat when Debi was doing her intro, Surfbird and Black Turnstone were on the jetty walls but in much smaller numbers compared to Half Moon Bay. Pigeon Guillemot was seen in small numbers on the way out, when we paralleled the shore. And of course the Sooty Shearwaters started early, since they're typically visible from shore. Pink-footed Shearwaters showed up not long afterwards and on the initial steam out we'd pulled out a fair number of gulls - Western, Heermann's and a few California - so for a while we had a good wake filled with gulls, two common Shearwater species, a Buller's Shearwater and and at one point a Black-footed Albatross. A few Pomarine Jaegers showed up as singles. Rhinoceros Auklets were in good numbers, with only moderate numbers of Common Murres, but there were no Cassin's Auklets (two were seen on the trip, and I missed both). No Murrelets were seen. Given that this was a Santa Cruz County birding trip it was uncanny just how the activity dropped off almost the moment we crossed the Monterey Co/Santa Cruz Co line, and it was quiet for a while, with the odd Sooty Shearwater and often not even any gulls in the wake. It was difficult to keep track of which route we ran, since it was overcast with fog onshore, so there were no landmarks.

One of the highlights of the outer reaches of the trip was encountering a Blue Whale, which gave good looks. Eventually we re-acquired shearwater numbers, which were mostly Pink-footed with Sooty Shearwater as a close second and a two or three more Buller's, and we also had a small number of cooperative Black-footed Albatrosses. What was conspicuous was a total lack of Storm-Petrels on this trip - originally I had assumed that this would be the better of the two trips for Storm-Petrels. Heading back towards shore, we started to encounter Humpback Whales, and then more Humpback Whales, and then truly remarkable numbers of them - something in the 65-85 total count, feeding in groups, with a few breaching out of the water. In some instances a flock of Sea Lions and whales formed a churning mass of predators as they chased down the bait fish in the bay. Certainly the wildlife highlight of the day - and there were a few birds, notably the expected Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, the latter now quite close to shore. The whales were the star of this particular show, and a good way to cap off a pelagic that otherwise had lower numbers and diversity than the Half Moon Bay version - about the only thing there were more of were Sabine's Gulls, although these were still in the single digits overall.

The onshore fog was sufficiently dense that it wasn't worth heading up to the SFO area via the more scenic coast road and instead I headed in via San Jose to overnight south of the airport in Belmont. The flight out left at dawn on Weds so there was no other birding.

Trip List

Heavily biased towards the two pelagics and the chase I did for the Bell's Sparrow, so very little passerine diversity and short overall trip list. Five shearwater sp, five alcid sp, one albatross, all three jaegers. Half Moon Bay was by far the most productive pelagic, but I'm not sure if this is a general trend. It's also viable for a late day flight out of SFO (El Granada to SFO being 40 mins in good traffic). Year birds in italics, life birds in bold.

Pacific Loon Half Moon Bay
Pied-billed Grebe
Western Grebe
Black-footed Albatross both pelagics
Great Shearwater Half Moon Bay - California rarity
Buller's Shearwater both pelagics in small numbers
Pink-footed Shearwater numerous on both pelagics
Flesh-footed Shearwater Half Moon Bay
Sooty Shearwater numerous on both pelagics
Wilson's Storm-Petrel Half Moon Bay
Ashy Storm-Petrel Half Moon Bay
Black Storm-Petrel Half Moon Bay
American White Pelican Moss Landing
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Brandt's Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night Heron Monterey
Canada Goose
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
California Quail Mix canyon
Black-bellied Plover Half Moon Bay
Black Oystercatcher Half Moon Bay
Black-necked Stilt Elkhorn Slough
Greater Yellowlegs
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Black Turnstone
Surfbird Half Moon Bay
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Red Phalarope Half Moon Bay
Red-necked Phalarope Half Moon Bay
Long-tailed Jaeger Half Moon Bay
Parasitic Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger
California Gull
Western Gull
Heermann's Gull
Sabine's Gull small numbers on both pelagics
Elegant Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Common Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Scripps's Murrelet Half Moon Bay
Cassin's Auklet Half Moon Bay
Rhinoceros Auklet
Tufted Puffin Half Moon Bay
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Rock Pigeon
Greater Roadrunner
Anna's Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Acorn Woodpecker
Black Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
Western Scrub-Jay
Yellow-billed Magpie
Common Raven
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Oak Titmouse
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Bewick's Wren
Wrentit Stebbins Cold Cyn Preserve
Western Bluebird
American Robin
California Thrasher
European Starling
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Yellow Warbler
California Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Bell's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Western Meadowlark
Brown-headed Cowbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch

One that got away: Bullock's Oriole likely seen near the river at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.