West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue

December 11, 2017

December 1, 2017

The second night on the boat passed smoothly. Exhaustion the previous day knocked me out quickly, and my alarm was the first recollection of waking in the dark. We went through the same morning routine as the previous day. Got ready, went to breakfast and then returned to our cabin to grab our gear. Only today there was a letter from the captain at our room. Reading the long form letter, the captain informed the passengers that the ship had not been able to travel at typical speed the previous day, and therefore we would be arriving in port 9 hours late!!!

Now for us, this wasn't an issue. Chris was taking a bus back to Seattle on Sunday, and Dorian and I had flights on Monday. But many a passenger likely had daytime flights on Saturday, and the letter said anything before 7:00 pm Saturday would likely be missed. A couple hours later they updated their assessment and let us know they were able to speed up overnight and given current conditions, we would only be 3 hours late. We hear stories of others who had contacted their airlines and changed flights, booked hotels, and paid various fees etc, only to find out that in most cases it would be unnecessary. It seems the letter was premature, and while it must take some work to print several 1,000, this minor inconvenience likely ruined the trip for some passengers. For us, it was a blip on the radar.

Emerging on the starboard side in very low light it became apparent that this morning there was far more action on the water than the previous day. Shearwaters, fulmars, gulls, and alcids could be made out by their shapes as they seemed to be flying all over the place. It was hard to make out details on most but there was certainly lots of activity. Perhaps most exciting thing was that there were already both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS flying near the boat.

Black-footed Albatross making a pass

I don't remember the exact time, but I remember there were only about 10 of us on the side of the boat when it happened. Most of the birders on board had migrated to the bow but a small contingent stuck to the side. As we scoped the water I heard a voice scream out, "SHORT_TAILED ALBATROSS!!!". It was Nick Lethaby and he had spotted our first target bird of the trip. Finding the bird in the distance wasn't too difficult--it's enormous pink bill hung obviously against the blue of the water. It wasn't a super satisfying look, but it was a lifer and got things moving.

After this, for the next hour, things seemed to slow down. I decided to check the port side where for some reason there were a good number of shearwaters and nearly a dozen albatross. I was the only one on the side of the boat which meant if I had a good bird, it would just be me, and vice-versa, I would miss something back on the starboard side if they had a good flyby. I was thinking about heading back to let the others know when a birder named Zach (Zack?) form the bay area appeared to let me know there was a lot happening on the other side of the boat. Super cool of him, and super thoughtful. We headed back to starboard and as we walked out the door screams of, "SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS", erupted from several people. I didn't even need binoculars to see the large tubenose, which had come around the front of the boat and was banking out past us. I dropped my scope and started taking photos.

Lifer and rarity--Short-tailed Albatross

Zoomed and cropped version of the same image.

The bird passed close enough to get decent shots and make out a shiny band on its rear left foot. The bird headed straight away towards a fishing boat that had a steady stream of albatross following it. As the shortie veered to the right I scoped the line of Albatross behind it and counted more than 40 birds!!!

43 Albatross in one field of view!
White = Laysan, Yellow = Black-footed, and Red = Short-tailed.

I snapped a few pictures before the birds lifted off, and doing a quick review, Dorian spotted another SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS in my photo sitting on the water!

The 2nd Short-tailed Albatross seen with the large group!

Had Zach not come and got me, or had we stayed 30 seconds longer, I/we could have missed the whole show. I am truly thankful for his visit. As a side note, both Dorian and Chris apparently took off to try and tell me, but both found the port side of the boat empty. Luckily, they didn't miss anything else--but this brings up the point I mentioned in my previous post about NOT LEAVING THE GROUP. If you leave you risk missing big things. I opted to move my gear up to the group and stick out the rest of the day on the bow with everyone else. I learned my lesson.

As a side note, once I looked at my pictures I found that I had got both Short-tailed in this group in the same shot when all the albatross were in the air a few moments later.

Both Short-tailed Albatross in the same field of view.

The morning held a few more interesting birds and animals. For me, a pair of lifer FORK-TAILED STORM-PETRELS was a welcome find. The second interesting bird was what appeared to be a pair of all dark auklets that streamed by the boat. Several people said Crested would be the most likely species, but even that would be rare.

Much better shot of Laysan Albatross than the previous day

By the time I went to lunch it had been an eventful couple of hours. I tallied 14 LAYSAN ALBATROSS and 76 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, more than 100 NORTHERN FULMAR, and 17 BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.

Dark morph Northern Fulmar

Aside from the birds the morning had proved quite productive for marine mammals. I snagged 3 lifers in a small pod of beautiful DALL'S PORPOISE which came right alongside the ship.

Dall's Porpoise barely breaking the surface

A single FUR SEAL swam by at one point, and I mostly just got to see its flippers out of the water. The coolest thing, and perhaps most disappointing unfortunately was a pod of KILLER WHALES that made a pass. By the time I saw them, it was just their tails disappearing into the water. The downside of a cruise ship is that it DOES NOT STOP, so if you miss something--it is gone. I was stoked to see something that is one of my top 5 animals to see before I die but want a much more satisfying experience.

Humpback Whales Breaching

On the flip side, we had a pair of very entertaining and confiding HUMPBACK WHALES that kept breaching alongside the ship for close to 20 minutes. I was able to take several photos, and get a few video through my spotting scope. I have had much better looks at this species in Mexico and southern California, but anytime I get to see a whale it's an exciting experience.

A quick break to the Lido deck and I scarfed down a couple hamburgers. Back to the bow, all focus was on petrels--we had to get Mottled Petrel before it got dark! For a couple of hours, things moved along slowly--then came the first yell, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". Now imagine 50-60 birders crowded on the bow of a boat, with the person who saw the bird shouting out clock positioning and direction moving, as well as perceived distance from the boat. Seems like something fairly easy to pick up on. Now put your self 60' above the water and moving at about 20 MPH. Oh yeah, and now think about the bird you're looking for being just 13" long with a 2 1/2' wingspan. I got lucky. I spotted the bird with my binos as it zigged and zagged up and down from the water, several hundred yards ahead of the boat.

Guy McCaskie scoping for Petrels

I attempted to get a picture, but it was a ways off. And in a matter of seconds, the bird was gone. There were cheers, high fives, and relief on several peoples faces. But it became apparent that the majority of people on the bow had missed the bird. There were plenty of frustrated, angry, and beat down birders who thought there only shot at this gadfly had flown... But leave it to Dorian Anderson, who missed the lead bird to stick his nose to the grind and start scoping. A few minutes later I heard his boisterous voice yelling, "MOTTLED PETREL!!!". He had found his own. I rushed his direction to see if I could get a photo. Everyone else also moved this way and I couldn't get my eyes on the bird this time.

Imagine standing on the bow of the boat, staring through a spotting scope and not adjusting for the up and down--this is what the view was like on the bow.  Not only did you have to steady your body, you had to move the scope to keep a steady view as you scanned horizontally.

I turned to the bow to scan and immediately caught the up and down-swoop of another petrel, it was my turn to yell, "MOTTLED PETREL at 12 o'clock!!!". People turned their focus to the bow--and almost immediately I heard someone else blurt out, "It's a COOK'S PETREL!!!". Sure enough, the gadfly I spotted wasn't of the mottled form, but instead the much less common this time of year COOK'S PETREL. I followed the bird, noting the clean undersides. I grabbed my camera and snapped away, getting a few shots before it disappeared.

Lifer Cook's Petrel

I was ecstatic. This was another lifer and if I could just get a photo of a Mottled the trip would be a complete success. The next 90 minutes would be something that I don't think anyone on the boat ever expected. There was a constant stream of MOTTLED PETRELS. Some were by themselves, others in pairs, and a couple times there were small flocks or gatherings. On one occasion Chris spotted one that was being trailed by a Cook's Petrel. In all, I counted 44 MOTTLED PETRELS that I definitely saw. On the bow, several observers who stayed glued to their scopes the rest of the day scanning far out on the horizon tallied more than 200! Here is a sampling of some of the images I was able to capture.

And it wasn't just the petrels, both LAYSAN and BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS both showed in good number the rest of the day, adding another 17 LAYSAN and 32 BLACK-FOOTED. Some even made close passes for photos, improving on the previous day's horrendous photo ops.

Black-legged Kittiwake trailing a Laysan Albatross

I managed photos of a couple other birds including a few shots of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and an identifiable shot of a RHINOCEROS AUKLET.

Rhinoceros Auklet that didn't seem too worried about the ship approaching

Besides the typical seabirds, we had a couple of interesting moments during the afternoon. At one point, California birder Tom Benson points to the sky and almost bewilderingly shouts, "RED-BREASTED MERGANSER". Here we are 50 miles off the coast and this duck was heading southwest away from the coast.

The lost at sea Red-breasted Merganser

But it got much stranger a few moments later when Chris spotted a PEREGRINE FALCON. Shouts of Peregrine popped up left and right as the falcon came swooping out in front of the boat. What in the hell was this bird doing out here? This was a long way from home and seemed like a bad place for the falcon to be. But then the bird did something incredible. We watched in disbelief as it dove towards the water, and knocked a FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL out of the air. The falcon then proceeded to stoop on the storm-petrel, while being dived on by a MOTTLED PETREL. The whole thing maybe last 15 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity before the falcon grabbed the storm-petrel and disappeared up and around the boat.  Seeing these species together is almost surely something I'll never see again.

The "Petrel and the Peregrine"

I think everyone was shocked but then someone relayed a story that somebody else on the boat had told them they saw a hawk on board. I think the birder that hear this likely scoffed at the story, but it now made sense. Either this falcon had gotten lost and ended up on the boat--OR--and the story I like to imagine, the Falcon made the trip out of LA with us. We did see falcons in the Port of LA, and the falcon seemed quite skilled at open ocean hunting. The ease with which it took out the tiniest of the seabird

Me, Chris and Dorian stoked about the petrels

The rest of the afternoon sped by and around 4:30 pm, I decided to call it a day. I was exhausted, cold, and very satisfied with my haul of 4 life birds, and both target species for the trip. I retired to the cabin to relax and watch the sunset to the west. Others stayed on the bow, aware we were fast approaching Washington waters, and their ability to add a few state birds to their lists. As it turns out, those that did indeed added Mottled Petrel to their Washington life lists. Instead, I laid back, smiled and thought about that falcon. What a smart, and delightful bird.

The last sunset at sea...

Photos from Today
December 1st - Short-tailed Albatross
December 1st - Mottled Petrel
December 1st - Cook's Petrel
December 1st - Laysan Albatross
December 1st - Black-footed Albatross
December 1st - Rhinoceros Auklet

Checklists from Today
REPO Cruise -- Southern Oregon Waters (44.2128,-124.9576)
REPO Cruise -- Northern Oregon Waters (45.401846,-125.220306)

Other Posts
 in this Series
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 1: Adios Los Angeles
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 2: California Slog
>> West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 3: Pterodromas to the Rescue
West Coast Pelagic Repo Cruise Part 4: Vancouver, BC or Bust

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