Monterey Bay Pelagic

Posted by ardeidae on April 18, 2006

Last month, I attended the 2006 Audubon California Assembly in Pacific Grove, California. When I saw that the schedule of field trips included a pelagic out of Monterey Bay led by the veteran sea birder Todd McGrath, I knew I needed to go. I'd seen and heard about the pelagic trips out of Southern California (mostly led by Todd along with Kimball Garrett, Jon Feenstra, and/or David Pereksta), but had never actually gone out in the Pacific waters to see the birds I'd heard about. And what a place to break in my birding sea legs; Monterey Bay is world renowned for its pelagic birds and marine mammals. Just offshore lies Monterey Canyon, a deep submarine canyon with depths of 6000 feet and more. Picture the Grand Canyon—only under water. This deep feature creates cold-water upswells that bring up nutrients used by a variety of birds and cetaceans.

Harlequin Ducks
While we were waiting to take off, a curious sea lion dropped by, poked his head up, and quickly disappeared under the boat. We departed promptly at 7:30am. On our way out, we saw a pair of Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) made their way around the other boats in the port, displaying their artistic features. Common Loons (Gavia immer) were also swimming about. Brandt's Cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) were hanging around the jetty among the sunning pinnipeds.

Black-footed Albatross
As we headed out past Cannery Row, we were headed into the wind, and the swells of the Pacific Ocean started growing. Gulls were following us and Pelagic Cormorants flew past. It wasn't long until Todd yelled out one of our target birds: the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It's often hard to get good looks at a lot of pelagic birds with the sways of the boat, but these are quite unmistakable with their long, slim wings. Jon Feenstra was along for this trip, and his expertise helped us to locate and identify the many birds that were starting to come around.

Crowd of Gulls
Shortly after, Jon broke into a giant bag of popcorn. It wasn't the kind of popcorn that you'd want to share during a movie, but the trailing gulls didn't seem to mind it. In fact, they were knocking each other around just to get to the pieces in the water. The birds continued to come in for closer looks. Whenever our captain, Tinker, or Todd spotted groups of birds in the air or on the water, we'd head over to see what was going on. The nutritious swells often attract a variety of life.

Gray Whale
In addition to all the birds, there were also three species of dolphins as well as Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). When a Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was spotted, we were able to pace it for about 20 minutes, watching it as it came up for a new breath every few minutes. What an awesome creature! It's amazing to think that this 40-ton animal and sea birds eat the same thing. Krill, not popcorn.

Western Gull
After seeing so many things, I took a little breather in the cabin to check out some of the birds in the guide. Of course, this would be the point where I miss something. It was. A couple minutes after looking at birds on paper, I heard a commotion outside. "we gotta get it off the boat!" What could it be...a giant squid that had come from the deep down depths to feast on us birders? Someone rushed in and grabbed a towel. As I staggered outside, Jon was holding in the towel a Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) that had landed on the boat (and subsequently regurgitated on someone's shoes). Definitely not something you see every day. It wasn't long before Jon had the bird back in the air.

Brandt's Cormorant
We pulled back into port around 2:30pm, but not before getting some more good looks at the Brandt's Cormorant sitting on the jetty. This time the lighting was much better, allowing that bright blue skin under their bill they have during mating season to really show up. What a great first pelagic trip! I look forward to the next one. If you're ever in the area, be sure to check out Monterey Seabirds or Shearwater Journeys for a pelagic tour of the amazing waters around Monterey Bay!

Special thanks go to Ron Cyger of Pasadena Audubon for compiling the list of birds seen on the trip:
Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), Common Loon (Gavia immer), Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus), Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus), Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas), Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus), Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), Surfbird (Aphriza virgata), Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus), Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni), California Gull (Larus californicus), Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens), Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus), Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), Common Murre (Uria aalge), Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba), Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata)

Sounds like an excellent trip, both from a bird and fish perspective. I’ll have to check it out sometime.

Posted by Rob Miller  on  04/28  at  09:44 AM

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