Phil Jeffrey:: California Pelagics, September 2013 trip report
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
|Pacific Loon||Half Moon Bay|
|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|
|Great Blue Heron|
|Black-crowned Night Heron||Monterey|
|California Quail||Mix canyon|
|Black-bellied Plover||Half Moon Bay|
|Black Oystercatcher||Half Moon Bay|
|Black-necked Stilt||Elkhorn Slough|
|Surfbird||Half Moon Bay|
|Red Phalarope||Half Moon Bay|
|Red-necked Phalarope||Half Moon Bay|
|Long-tailed Jaeger||Half Moon Bay|
|Sabine's Gull||small numbers on both pelagics|
|Scripps's Murrelet||Half Moon Bay|
|Cassin's Auklet||Half Moon Bay|
|Tufted Puffin||Half Moon Bay|
|Wrentit||Stebbins Cold Cyn Preserve|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler|
One that got away: Bullock's Oriole likely seen near the river at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.