San Diego Bird Festival Pelagic Trip

Black-footed Albatross - San Diego Bird Festival pelagic

Black-footed Albatross – San Diego Bird Festival pelagic

Recently, Optics4Birding participated as a vender in the annual San Diego Bird Festival. On Sunday, after three days of talking with people about binoculars and spotting scopes, it was great to revert to merely being a birder. At the gracious invitation of Swarovski, I joined the Islas Coronados Pelagic Trip. I have been on a few of these festival pelagics in the last decade, but this was my first in some time. Over the years, the trip has undergone some important changes, and I am happy to report that while it was always good, it is even better now! Years ago, it was just a 4-hour jaunt to the Coronado Islands of Mexico with the major target being Brown Booby, which occasionally roosted on the cliffs of Middle Island. On a good day, you maybe saw two of them. In recent years, the festival has switched operators, and now the boats are run by SoCal Birding. Now in addition to the shorter Coronado Islands trip, there is an 8-hour venture that also visits the 9-Mile Bank, a vast underwater seamount with precipitous drop-off to deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters that lure in a host of pelagic life forms to this point just 14 miles offshore. It is worth noting that the leadership on these trips is truly world class. Some of them have literally written the book; others just know enough that they could have! Kudos also goes to Swarovski Optik, who has generously subsidized the trip, holding down the cost so participants can get a great trip at an amazingly good price.

As the bus left Marina Village, the weather was gray and threatening, and rain streaked the windows, but the mood was upbeat as we boarded the boat during a dry spell. Swarovski, as is their custom, was handing out binoculars to anyone bold enough to take them. I brought the review pair of 10×42 EL Swarovision binoculars from Optics4Birding so on my way onto the boat, I clarified with them the important difference between loaned (theirs) and “stolen” (ours!). Conventional wisdom says you don’t take 10x bins onto a boat since they’re harder to hold steady, and frankly there are enough impediments to steadiness on a pelagic trip. You wouldn’t know it by me! The waters were relatively calm, with the waves seldom exceeding 5 feet and only minimal wind. I had cracking crisp views all day, and the extra “reach” of the 10x was particularly useful on some of the more distant birds and mammals.

Brown pelican in flight

Brown pelican in flight

On our way out of the harbor, we saw all the expected species, starting with Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants, a number of dark-bellied Brant and a Herring Gull along with the more common Western and Heermann’s Gulls. A wintering Long-tailed Duck mixed in with the Surf Scoters and a sub-adult Glaucous-winged Gull to provided spice to the mix. At the bait barges, there was a frightful crush of cormorants, herons, egrets and pelicans, but several Black Turnstones lent the place a bit more dignity. Common, Pacific and Red-throated Loons were all in evidence as we left the channel and headed out to the 9-Mile Bank. A Parasitic Jaeger was chasing gulls and terns at the tip of the headland. Shortly thereafter, the first Rhinoceros Auklets appeared, looking like stubby shoeboxes with wings. Rhinos are probably closer to puffins than other auklets, and this was evident in those that allowed us closer approach. Soon Cassin’s Auklets, barely 1/5 the size of the Rhinos, were zinging away at our approach, looking like tennis balls in flight. Our last alcid of the day was Xantus’ Murrelet, which almost invariably appeared in pairs. These were birds of the locally-breeding scrippsi sub-species, sporting prominent white eye crescents, but lacking the large white cheek patch of the more northerly-breeding hypoleucos sub-species.

Common Dolphin porpoising

Common Dolphin porpoising

No less exciting than the birds were the mammals. We saw several pods of Risso’s Dolphins with their characteristic scarring of the head and upper body, and their large dorsal fins. Risso’s Dolphins feed primarily on squid, who take vigorous exception to the process, leaving the dolphins looking like they’ve been decorated by Jackson Pollack. The trip also yielded some close encounters with multiple Finback Whales. California Sea Lions were everywhere, and on the rocks of the Coronados, we saw Harbor and Southern Elephant Seals. The last two mammals were Pacific White-sided Dolphins and the Short-beaked form of the Common Dolphin, recently separated from the Long-beaked form. Evidently, the splitters hold sway among the mammologists too!

We also had scattered tubenoses, beginning with another local breeder, Black-vented Shearwater. Their small size and rapid wingbeats made them fairly easy to distinguish from the larger shearwaters we would see. By contrast, the much larger Pink-footed Shearwaters have a more languid wingbeat and frequently glide for long distances. Intermediate between them was a single Sooty Shearwater, unique among these three species in having an all-dark belly and silvery rather than clearly white underwing linings. One additional shearwater still being discussed was a putative Short-tailed. But the best was still to come.

Black-footed Albatross - takeoff

Black-footed Albatross – takeoff

First, a Black-footed Albatross was found and lured to the crowd of gulls among the chum at the back. A constant dribble of cod liver oil kept it following us for quite some time, and afforded all great looks at this spectacular ocean wanderer. Then a Northern Fulmar brought everyone to the railing, and showed nicely with its blunt, bull-headed look, emphasized by the steep forehead. Right on its tail came the unexpected gem of the trip: a gorgeous Laysan Albatross. This bird nearly caused participants to capsize the boat when it cut sharply across the bow, and everyone raced to that side. Okay, not really, but the pandemonium was impressive!

Flying Brown Booby

Flying Brown Booby

When we got closer to the Coronados, we began seeing Brown Boobies in flight, and soon we were at the nesting/roosting cliffs at Middle Island. We saw them in good numbers, logging between 25 and 30 individuals. Our trip around the South Island netted us a Wandering Tattler or two, a few Black Oystercatchers, and then a very interesting American x Black Oystercatcher hybrid. We see such birds fairly frequently in southern California, but this one was particularly pretty. Eventually, we headed north to return to San Diego. A Black-footed albatross taunted us on the way, coming in behind the boat and hanging with us for quite a while before veering away west and out of sight within a half mile of the U.S. border. But then it, or another like it, returned shortly after we crossed the border, followed by a second individual.

Double-cresting Cormorant in full alternate plumage

Double-cresting Cormorant in full alternate plumage

Not to be outdone, a Brown Booby showed up in flight fairly close to the channel mouth. Immediately after that, a Parasitic Jaeger was seen hounding an Elegant Tern. While we were docking, this fantastic Double-crested Cormorant showed up in all his nuptial splendor. You seldom get to see them looking this fine, a fitting end to a great trip!

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