Five years ago I had the pleasure and excitement of two weeks in bird paradise 25 miles due west of Tofino. No, that isn't a misprint. I was 25 miles out in the Pacific in the direction of Japan. Most people associate the ocean with salmon, halibut, cod, sharks, or whales, but for birders, it's all about pelagic birds - birds that spend their whole lives at sea except when they go to shore for sex and reproduction. For some that can be an annual affair, but for some young albatrosses, it can be over five years before they reach sexual maturity.
My first experience with albatrosses, shearwaters, and other pelagic birds left such an indelible impression that I often dreamed of reliving the experience again. In fact, several times in the past few years I even considered driving to Westport, Washington or Newport, Oregon for a pelagic trip. However, last month all the planets aligned for me, and I was offered an opportunity for another trip on the Osprey 1, the hake fishing boat out of Vancouver, B.C. that hosted my first trip. I didn't hesitate. As an amateur bird photographer I not only wanted to see the birds again, but I also wanted another opportunity for the ultimate photographic challenge - flight shots from a moving boat that was not just going forward but also bouncing up and down and rocking side to side.
On September 21 I was sitting on the Osprey's stern about 20 miles west of Ucluelet trying to focus my Nikon D300s and 500 mm VR lens with 1.4x converter on Northern Fulmars, Black-footed Albatrosses, and Pink-footed Shearwaters. Surprisingly, brown shearwaters were scarce, but after a few days I had added Sooty, Short-tailed, and Flesh-footed to my list. My favorite was the Flesh-footed zipping around like a teenager in a brand new sportscar. I was most surprised to see that it displayed some jaeger DNA. On several occasions I watched it dive-bomb unsupecting gulls to relieve them of their meals.
Being on a working fish boat is a excellent situation for pelagic bird photography. The first thing most pelagic bird tour guides look for is the location of the fishing fleet. The birds are well aware that the fish boats can provide a buffet of fish scraps and an easy meal. When we were fishing the boat was often surrounded by thousand's of pelagic birds swirling, diving, and squealing in obvious delight. However, fishing isn't always easy. Sometimes it's like finding a needle in a haystack and the ocean is one huge haystack. That meant a substantial amount of time was invested in looking for the fish, and during that time the birds were often few and never close to the boat.
For good pelagic photography certain conditions must be available. Like any natural photography, sunshine and blue skies is essential. It is especially important at sea where the water reflects the colour of the sky. Pictures with a cloudy or white background simple lack the life and vividness offered by the blue sky. Calm winds and a glassy sea is another critical factor. Without the obvious distraction of ripples on the water, photos on a glassy surface are often elevated closer to the realm of perfection. Calm seas also mean a steadier platform for the photographer to find and focus on moving targets. The third and perhaps most important factor for me was good fishing. Good fishing meant good birding and good birding meant better possibilities for good photography. As it turned out I enjoyed the perfect storm of weather and fishing for about 2o% of my three week adventure. It could have been better, but it also could have been worse. I was grateful for the days I got.
The major difference between birding and photography is that birders can scope birds 1000's of feet away. As a photographer I usually only see the birds in photographic range which seldom exceeds 30 m or 100'. With the my lens setup the ideal distance for storm-petrels is 20 - 25', shearwaters 40 - 50', and albatrosses 60 - 70'. The downside of photographic myopia is that many birds are missed including the possible mega-rarity.
By the end of the trip I had seen close to 20 pelagic species and reasonably photographed about half of them. The other half was was usually out of range, seen in less than ideal conditions, or unsuccessfully photographed when available. Ironically, the highlight of the trip wasn't even the pelagic birds. It was the close-up spectacle of passerine migration. One dark, stormy, and foggy morning the first mate woke me at 4:30 am. When I got outside thousands of songbirds were swirling around the ship like snowflakes in a blizzard. At daybreak I checked around the boat and found 11 species of passerines. Most disappeared as the day progressed but several were too famished to leave and eventually perished. The only survivor was Sammy Savannah, the sparrow that managed to forage enough fish scraps, shrimp, food scraps, and insects to last the five days it took us to get back to Vancouver. The best of the fallout was a Northern Waterthrush which was a new species for me.
Pelagic Magic #2 was another unforgettable experience. Would I like to do it again? Well, put it this way, I'm still looking for the Buller's Shearwater and Short-tailed Albatross, and would you believe that 3 days after I left the area several Great Shearwaters were reported. For me the search for birds and the perfect photo is and endless journey, and the sea offers endless possibilities.
Our departure from Vancouver was just after sunset. The timing was perfect to enjoy the city lights along the waterfront. Towering container loading cranes dominated the industrial section of the waterfront.
One last look at the the Osprey's home as we headed to sea. It would be over three weeks before we would return.
Eventually the industrial section gave way to multi-coloured lights of Canada Place, office towers, and the city skyline.
Lion's Gate Bridge was our final major landmark before disappearing into the darkness of Juan de Fuca. The bridge is one of Vancouver's most famous landmarks, and it is just as impressive from the bottom as it is from the top.
Early next morning I woke with the anticipation of seeing my first pelagic species. However, that wasn't to be. The first bird I saw was a small, brown songbird fluttering beside the boat. I spent about 15 minutes trying to get a photo, but it took awhile to aclimatize to the movement of the boat and the erratic flight of the bird. Finally I locked on and from the playback I saw that it was a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. We were about 20 miles offshore and heading west into the Pacific. I wonder where the cowbird was heading. Shortly after a pair of Rock Pigeons accompanied us for about 20 minutes. The sight of passerines out in the ocean foreshadowed an event that would unfold two weeks later.
It didn't take long before I started seeing my first pelagic birds. I could tell from the choppy wing strokes that they were Northern Fulmars. The fulmars are very common since they breed and live in the north Pacific.
Northern Fulmars come in many colours from dark gray to almost pure white.
Like all pelagic birds, the fulmars have their own desalination mechanism that allows them to drink salt water. The salt is expelled through a tube on the top of the bill.
Watch out below! Black-footed Albatross incoming. The most common Albatross in the north Pacific is the Black-footed.
Blackie measures about 32 inches in length and has a massive wingspan of about seven feet. The large wingspan is perfectly designed for gliding and long distance flight.
Landing gear down. The pinkish bill and white rump is indictative of an adult Blackie. Juveniles generally have black bills an brown rumps. Like 19 of the 21 albatross species, the Black-footed is endangered with less than 70,000 breeding pairs in existence.
The large, spatula-sized feet serve as perfect landing skis for the jumbo jet of pelagic birds.
My previous trip was during the spring and there were very few Pink-footed Shearwaters on location about 25 miles west of Ucluelet. Now it was late summer and 99% of the shearwaters were Pinkies. At times there would be about 2,000 swirling around the boat.
The Pinkies are one of the largest shearwaters regularly found in the north Pacific. They are aptly named with their pink feet, but they also have very distinctive pink bills.
Pinkies feed on small fish and fish, but they also take advantage of the offal offered by fishing vessels. They usually pick food from the surface of the water but will also dive under if they have to.
Pinkies are mainly found west of North and South America. They are endemic to Chile where they nest on 3 offshore islands. Their population is estimated at 20,000 breeding pairs and they are considered threatened throughout their range.
Sooty or Shortie? Sooty Shearwaters were numerous on my spring trip but scarce on my late summer journey. That may have been a function of timing and location on my part, but the majority may have already left on their migration.
Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters can be difficult to separate as there is definitely an overlap in characteristics. Greg Gilson of Birdguides does a fine job of discussing the differences, but it's like trying to separate a small Cooper's and a large Sharp-shinned. I'm calling this a Sooty based on the rounded and sloping forehead and the largish looking bill.
Typically the white underwing markings of a Sooty are confined to the interior of the wing. The overall whiteness of the underwing on this bird suggests that it is a pale Short-tailed.
I like the steep forehead and diffuse, pale, underwing whiteness for another Short-tailed. However, I'm not 100% sure about anything. Remember, I just take the pictures.
This is a photo from my previous trip. It is perfect for the stereotype of a Short-tailed. Notice the darkish hood in contrast to the pale throat along with the steep forehead and smallish bill.
There is no mistaking about this Shearwater. I usually saw two or three everyday when we were fishing and the birds were plentiful. I would say that for every 1,000 shearwaters, there would be 2 or 3 Flesh-footed.
The Fleshies were prominent not just because they were darker and chunkier than the other shearwaters, but they were also bolder. I'll explain in the next photo.
I was surprised to see that the Fleshies had some jaeger DNA. They would charge around and bushwhack some unsuspecting gull for a free meal.
I saw the jaeger behaviour many times which was fun because I wasn't aware of this aspect of Fleshie's personality, and I didn't see too many jaegers.
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels were definitely more abundant on my spring trip than on my recent trip. I thought it would be the opposite with a new generation of birds added to the mix.
Of all the pelagic species, the storm-petrels were the most difficult to photograph. As mentioned they weren't as plentiful, they were among the smallest birds out there, and they never flew in a straight line. They just buzzed around helter skelter changing directions constantly. It was like trying to photgraph mosquitoes.
What's a tubenose? Albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, and storm-petrels are all tubenoses. As mentioned previously, the tube on top of their bills is part of the desalination mechanism for removing salt from the salt water they drink. A Forkie kindly emerged from its hiding place on the ship to demonstrate its tubenose just for you to see.
Pelagic Magic 2 continued next week in journal 335
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House