May 25 - June 6/06
For most people who gaze out into the Pacific, there is nothing but air, space, and
"water, water everywhere
nor any drop to drink ... (S. T. Coleridge)
A privileged few like offshore fishermen and sailors know there is more. The ocean is the borderless global playground and habitat for millions of unique and amazing pelagic birds. One only needs to travel a few miles offshore of Vancouver Island to be in the domain of the legendary Albatrosses, Shearwaters, and Storm Petrels. I was blessed with the good fortune of knowing the owners of a fish boat, and their kindness and generosity provided me with one of the most memorable adventures of my life. Now I am doubly blessed as I have been privileged to enjoy the incredible pelagic magic.
PACIFIC SUNSET - There is only the sun, the water, the sky, and the birds, but they can combine in a harmony of unparalleled beauty ... (Black-footed Albatross in the foreground)
Fishermen affectionately refer to them as "goonie birds." They are the most prevalent albatross off Vancouver Island from Apr. to Oct., and an entourage of 200 to 300 birds constantly followed the boat. Apparently, there are only a few hundred thousand in the world and only about 71,000 breeding pairs. They breed on the Hawaiian Islands and Japan.
The huge wingspans of albatross allow them to fly effortlessly around the world. They are known to fly up to 10,000 miles to provide food for their nesting families.
Like many pelagic birds, the Black-footed has tubular nostrils which is an adaptation for drinking salt water.
The older the albatross, the more white on its face, head, and neck.
On my second day out, I was still mesmerized by the hundreds of Black-footed Albatrosses and shearwaters swirling around the boat. Suddenly a white bird with with very dark back and sides jarred me out of my mid-day stupor. Maybe a Slaty-backed Gull I thought until I noticed it was the same size as the Black-foots. I didn't have to check my bird guide to know that it was Laysan Albatross. I saw the lone Laysan almost every day for 11 days and named it "Big White." I thought Big White was all alone, but on the the very last day I as I clambered up to the poop deck at 6:45 am, I did a double-take as another Laysan joined the flock. Laysan Albatrosses are more common towards Alaska. I was fortunate to have seen 2. There are over 2 million Laysans in the world and over 600,000 breeding pairs. Their nesting areas are similar to the Black-foots but also include Mexico.
The most abundant tubenosed birds were the shearwaters. There were all very hyperactive and there was a continuous swirl of them around the boat. Even when they landed to grab some bits of fish they were in constant motion looking for another snack. Some of them like the Sooty had the advantage over most birds as they seemed to be the only ones that would dive right under the water. Many of the shearwaters originate from New Zealand.
The Pink-footed Shearwater was the only white-bellied shearwater I could find. It was easy to notice because the rest had dark bellies. At first there was only one but they gradually incresed to about 7 or 8 birds.
Now you know why they are named "Pink-footed."
Sooty Shearwaters were probably the most abundant bird, but it was hard to distinguish them from the Short-tails as they were almost the same colour and size. I took hundreds of photos before could differentiate the sloping forehead of the Sooty and the steep (Greater Scaup-like) forehead of the Short-tailed.
Sooty's were one of the only birds I saw that would dive under the water. They would even do the kingfisher act and plunge right in from the air.
Except for the steep forehead, I never found any other conclusive differences between the Short-tailed and the Sooty although the Short-tailed always seemed to have a bulkier neck and torso.
I was really looking for Short-tails when I spotted the pink bill of the Flesh-footed Shearwater. I saw 2 that day, but never saw any before or after.
Fork-tailed Storm Petrels
The smallest of the sea birds were the "Forkies." They were like hornets at a picnic as they zipped in and out and between the much larger albatrosses, Fulmars, and shearwaters foraging for fish scraps. At times there would be hundreds, but they would suddenly disappear. Their most popular time seemed to be late evening and early morning. They were the biggest photographic challenge as the nickname "sea-swallow" might suggest.
South Polar Skua
Although the South Polar Skua did not generate any excitement with my yahoo groups, it was my most exciting bird. It is a fairly rare visitor from the Antarctica and even an expert birder like Dick Cannings hasn't seen one. (No offense intended, Dick.) When I first saw the remarkable white wing marks from a distance, I knew I had something special. When I finally saw it close up, I knew it was a South Polar Skua. But, guess what? When I checked my photos, there were more than one. Accordingto Mike Force, both are of the light morph variety which the Sibley guide says is rare in North America.
The white wing markings of the Skua stood out like a white flag.
The Skua's behavior was similar to the jaegers plundering others for their food.
The heavy bill of the Skua helped to distinguish it from the jaegers.
I missed the second Skua until I checked my pictures and saw the heavy bill. At first I thought it was a jaeger because of the pattern of the wing markings.
Apparently the uniform body colour is typical of skuas but not the juvenile jaegers they may be confused with.
Prior to this trip, my only experience with jaegers was a distant flash of brown harassing the Bonapartes at Deep Bay in late summer. I've now had good looks at all 3 varieties and many views of their unscrupulous "pirate" activities. But, it was interesting to see that not everyone tolerated their behavior. On one occasion, the gull "police" sprung into action and the Parasitic Jaeger was forced to return the goods to the rightful owner.
Parasitic Jaeger in the evening light.
After a successful raid, the Parasitic would fly up to search for its next victim.
Usually, the dive-bomb and scarecrow technique was successful for another meal.
It's easy to see where they got the Long-tailed Jaeger name.
I'm glad the adult jaegers all had distinctive central tail feathers. The twisted tail feather of the Pomarine was unmistakable.
It was 2 days before the end of my trip and I hadn't seen any terns. I was disappointed as they were definitely on my wish list. But shortly after a quick survey of my flock, the long sweeping wing beats of 2 terns caught my eye. I managed a couple of distant photos but none were good enough for an i.d. Later, a group of about 10 flew in and although I was hoping for Arctic's, they turned out to be Common. I wasn't disappointed as they were still a new bird for my trip. By the time I called it a day at 9:30 pm, I had seen about 50.
A Night Surprise
At 3:00 am of my second night, Steve, the first mate woke me up to see some yellow birds flying around the boat. They looked like warblers but I couldn't i.d. them as I was still half asleep and they didn't land. After they disappeared, Steve was telling me about how Storm petrels sometimes hit the rigging of the boat and fall on the deck, especially during fog. Suddenly the was a light thud and right at our feet was a fluffy little bird. We caught it to check if it was ok then released it. Of course, I took a picture to record my first Cassin's Auklet. Later I saw 2 more fly through the lights and a crew member found and released another.
On my first day I could see little white heads and bodies floating in the distance, but I was too busy with the birds close to the boat to pay attention. Gradually they came closer and by the 3rd day they were regular fixtures about a 100 meters behind the boat. It was a spectacular sight to see a flock of 200 as they banked together to flash their white and black wings.
Occasionally, a gull would fly closer to the boat into camera range. They were usually well-rewarded as they had first dibs at the fish waste from the boat.
The orange tip on the bill is a unique feature of the Sabine's.
I knew I saw a distant Black-legged Kittywake on my first day as it had the "M" pattern and black edging on the tail. I didn't see any again until the 4th day when I was checking out a flock of Sabine's. Some of the birds seemed larger and turned out to be Kitty's. From then on I saw them regularly mixed in with the Sabines. It seemed that about 1 out of 10 were Kittywakes.
Although the Kittiwakes generally stayed out of camera range, patience really paid off as occasionally one would stray closer to the boat.
Northern Fulmar were regular features right from the begining. At first there were just a few but more showed up every day. Most were dark but on the 3rd day there were a few very light ones. They made me think of little Snowy Owls with their stubby build. Fulmars apparently defend themselves by retching. So noxious is the product of their defense that it can even cause its victim to drown.
The dark coloured Fulmars seemed to have no fear of the boat as they often flew and landed close by.
The light coloured birds never came close except on one occasion when one flew close to the stern.
Oddities (Jun. 5/06 - 50 mi. west of Tofino, B.C.)
After the Cassin's incident, I was sure there would be a few other surprises on the trip. I wasn't disappointed.
On the 2nd to last day I was on deck at 4:30 am waiting for a sunrise photo. The usual birds including the Fork-tailed Storm petrels were already quite visible on the water. Occasionally I would see some dark-cloured Storm Petrels which I surmised were Leach's Storm Petrels, but the visibility wasn't good enough for identification. After a 6:30 breakfast, I took my post on the poop deck and was surprised to see a small brown bird fluttering towards me. A Leach's, I thought as I grabbed my camera. My total concentration was trying to get the bird in the frame and in focus so I wasn't noting any of the field marks. After the bird left, I looked at the pictures. It definitely wasn't a storm petrel - it was a LESSER NIGHTHAWK! and I had some flight shots of it. Think of when and where nighthawks fly, and you'll note the improbability of ever getting a flight shot.
Puffins were definitely on my wish list and we were down to the last day. As I was well beyond my goal of 10 pelagic species, I wasn't going to be disappointed if I didn't see any puffins. It was a beautiful sunny morning and I'd already said good morning to all the birds, especially the newcomer, Big White's partner. I was just relaxing and taking the odd distant shot of the jaegers passing by when 3 dark shapes appeared in the sky. With wings beating furiously, it didn't take long before they were upon us, and the orange bills stood out like neon lights. They were Tufted Puffins. They circled once than headed east towards land. Later I saw 5 more in varying situations.
A Rare Gull
Old Indian legends occasionally told of a white bird that would appear in times of dire need. It was a good omen that food would soon be plentiful. Sailors and fishermen would also tell stories of the magical white gull that would ensure them of a successful voyage or good fishing. However, several expeditions by the Royal British Ornithological Society were unsuccesful and the "Snowy Gull" has since remained an unsolved mystery. Believe it or not, the Snowy Gull appeared during my trip. I have many photos to prove it, and if that isn't enough, think of this. This was the most successful fishing trip that the boat has ever made. Regardless of whether the tale I've just spun has any truth, one thing is certain. It is a rare gull isn't it?
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