Monterey Seabirds
Sept. 15, 2006 Seabird Cruise Trip Report
The Wind and the Swede

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Friday September 15, 2006

I went online to get a last minute weather check before leaving for the dock in Monterey. The NOAA weather map of central and northern California coastline and offshore waters was plum-colored, indicating small craft advisory for high winds. Closer inspection revealed a small white area defining the Monterey Bay.

Getting in my car to meet the carpool from Soquel I turned on my cell phone and saw I had two messages. Both of these were from birders coming from parts north and east who were wondering if the trip was going to be cancelled. The calls came in from the night before and I called back to tell them we were on for the seabird trip today. It is very rare for weather to cancel a trip on the Monterey Bay.

The flags at the end of the wharf were moving but not too violently. As I put my stuff on board the Pt. Sur Clipper I felt the swell lift and drop the boat. Forecast is for 6-8 foot swell. This is going to be interesting.

I confer with Richard Ternullo who, like the other captains, pays little heed to weather forecasts. "We'll just go out and see what it's like. I spoke with Nick and he said there was a lot of bird activity off Cypress Point."

I express a desire on my part and many of our visiting birders to get over to the other side of the bay and see if we can locate the storm-petrel flock. "We'll try," Richard says. "But it is going to be a lot of work to find them in these conditions."

Before every trip I hand out checklists. This way I can greet everyone personally and get a sense of who is going to be on board. First timers are usually pretty easy to spot, largely due to their enthusiasm and sometimes from the optics they have around their necks. Today there is one individual I have pegged as a beginner. He's a stout guy with a biker type of beard. He looks more biker than birder; he looks like the kind of guy who ends up with a nickname like Tiny.

Off we go. We find the requisite PIGEON GUILLEMOT and COMMON MURRE as we motor along Cannery Row. Our first POMARINE JAEGER flies by and I'm trying to give everyone directions of where to look when right over the cabin flies a basic plumaged loon. I get it in my bins briefly but am puzzled. It looks like the first Common Loon of the year and I see the bill is yellow. The bird keeps going at a rapid clip away from the boat. Maybe it's because I'm distracted or that I'm birding by the calendar or just plain dumb but I fail to make the connection. Richard Ternullo calls out a RHINOCEROS AUKLET over the P.A. and I make sure everyone is seeing it. The loon is gone.

With the wind from the west we find SOOTY SHEARWATERS zipping by as we round Pt. Pinos. All the shearwaters seem to thrive in this wind; we find only a few sitting on the water for the duration of the day. On days like this you realize these are birds of the wind. PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS appear and are soon joined by BULLER'S.

South Polar Skua, photo by Jeff PoklenWe seem to be having a special on SOUTH POLAR SKUAS and before the day is over we will have amassed seven.

Birding proves difficult with the swell and wind and I'm trying out a new pair of binoculars. I've used Canon Image Stabilized 10X on the boat for the last four years. Problem is they aren't waterproof and after so many days at sea they getting foggy on the inside. Even so, for $300 I think they were a bargain. So I got to thinking, if 10X are good then what would 12X image stabilized be like at sea?

I did a bit of surfing on the web and came across the new Canon 10X waterproof image stabilized bins but the price put me off ($1300). Then I ran across the Nikon 12X StabilEyes Marine Binoculars for $800. I made sure there was a satisfaction guarantee in case I didn't like them. I'll tell you right now that these bins in these conditions were unbelievable! I was trading them with others on the boat so they could try mine and looking though other's 10x was challenging with the swell, engine vibration and wind in addition to shaking hands.

The bins are big and a bit heavy but I don't have to walk anywhere today. The 12x magnification is fantastic. It is a bit harder getting on the bird but when you do you see them extremely well and from quite a distance.

Tiny ends up at the stern where I'm standing and I see he's wearing a pair of minis but they are of the finest German quality. He is doing a bang-up job of spotting birds and seems to have an excellent grip on identifying jaegers. He notices my large bins and inquires about them so I let him give them a try. While we're chatting I ask him where he's from. Sweden he says.

"These are nice for a little boat like this. I'm used to being on much bigger boats where you are much higher off the water."

"What kind of boats?" I ask.

"Ice breakers in the Arctic." Tiny is an ace seabirder. He's got a jacket on that says Polar Research Team Sweden or something similar. So much for first impressions.

Black-footed Albatross, photo by Jeff PoklenThanks to the persistent chumming by Phil Brown we see many BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS as he keeps a cloud of gulls at the stern all day.

The winds begin to lie down and we decide to make a run for Davenport and the spot the storm-petrel flock has favored for the last couple of years. The wind doesn't let up completely and the swell remains. We manage to find a few stray ASHY STORM-PETRELS here and there but the flock remains illusive. The conditions simply are not conducive to finding them.

A single SABINE'S GULL makes a brief appearance at the stern as does a PARASITIC JAEGER. We find a few HUMPBACK WHALES and a pod of RISSO'S DOLPHINS.

We are also visited by several NORTHERN FULMARS in a variety of color morphs.

We arrive back at the dock and after everyone has left I get my stuff off the boat and find the Swede. He's been going over his checklist and has discovered that YELLOW-BILLED LOON is highlighted as rare.

"That loon was a YELLOW-BILLED you know."

Now I make the connection as the heel of my hand pounds into my forehead.

"Well, you would know better than I do," I reply knowing he must have seen many over the years in the far north.

"I've seen hundreds," he says, "and that was a Yellow-billed."

For additional photos, see Jeff Poklen's photo gallery for this trip.

Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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Last updated September 22, 2006