It is early morning on August 1st, 2014 and the "Check Mate" awaits passengers at Monterey, CA for a pelagic day trip led by Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys.
During 2014 I was fortunate enough to take five dedicated bird-watching pelagic (offshore) day trips, four off the California coast and one from Massachusetts. Additionally I made an Island Packers day trip from
Ventura, California to Santa Cruz Island in search of the endemic Island Scrub Jay. All the trips were great fun and highly successful for birding and viewing ocean life.
Birding by boat is often the only way to get relatively close views of birds that typically don't come close to shore. There are several ways to accomplish this, and for the "listing" birder, often the most productive
way to do this is to take a "pelagic" trip with other birders.
It wasn't long after my interest in birds and bird photography began in mid-2013 that I started reading about people seeing great birds on these offshore trips. As my knowledge of birds expanded, visions of albatross and various
other seabirds played in my mind. I was eager to see these creatures but various circumstances, including being recently unemployed at the time, came into play. For one, I was land-locked in Arizona, so I'd have to travel a fair distance
to get to a port. Two, it was already summer and many of these ocean-going trips were likely already booked full. And three, I was unemployed...but I already mentioned that! Tubenoses and others would simply have to wait.
Despite these facts, happily I was able to enjoy my first off-shore birding trip with my father and cousin Susan in August 2013. I was planning a trip to visit my dad in Massachusetts and my non-birding dad suggested we try to
find a way to see the enegmatic Atlantic Puffin off the coast of Maine. I found seats on a puffin-watching Hardy Boats cruise to Eastern Egg Rock Island off New Harbor Maine. This relatively short, 90-minute trip would serve as my introduction
to the joys and uniqueness of birding by boat...and it only whetted my appetite for more seabirds.
I tallied 249 "life birds" through the end of 2013, and even though I'd found temporary holiday employment working in one of the Amazon "Fulfillment Centers" in Goodyear, Arizona, that gig came to an end shortly after the holidays were
over. My 2014 birding year got off to a pretty good start, then in late February my father slipped on black ice outside his apartment and broke his right femur. I flew out to Massachusetts to be with him during his recovery and
rehabilitation. He encouraged me to go out and see birds on my own, and after a few weeks he was able to take trips with me. These short excursions were good for both of us and especially Dad, even if only to get out of the rehab center for a spell, see
some birds, and breath fresh air again!
I made two Spring trips to visit my recuperating Dad...he was making great progress. We were making short trips out to various Massachusetts locations and seeing some great birds. It was during the second one I made phone reservations for
my first pelagic birding trip. I had yet to visit San Diego...hard to justify non-essential travel when you're jobless...but I made the decision to try a May day-trip. San Diego is an easy drive from Phoenix...roughly six hours
through desert, then mountains, and your there. In order to save some money on travel expenses I decided I'd drive my aging 1996 Toyota Tacoma instead of renting a car for a couple days. And while I was at it, why not just
schedule an Island Packers trip out of Ventura and try for Island Scrub Jay? The whold trip sounds easy enough, right? Well, it was, for the most part.
San Diego / Ventura May 2014
Because I'm still an avid aviation enthusiast I planned this trip to include a day of plane watching / photography at both San Diego and Los Angeles airports. The pelagic trip operated on Saturday May 17th while the Ventura trip
was scheduled for Monday May 19th. As mentioned earlier, I chose to drive my 1996 Toyota Tacoma on this trip. My truck has served me well over the years and has a good operating record on various road trips. Because of its
high mileage I rarely take it on long road trips. For better or worse, I made an exception this time.
I set out from home early on the Thursday morning. My first pit stop was in Gila Bend, AZ shortly after sunrise. I tanked up for the trip across the desert and made my way west. My next stop was Yuma, Arizona and I decided to stop
at the wetlands near the river crossing and stretch my legs and do some birding. Among the birds, I found my lifer Crissal Thrasher...a bird I'd just missed during one of my recent trips to the "Thrasher Spot" near Buckeye, Arizona. Later,
while driving through El Centro, CA on Interstate 8, I caught a brief glimpse of a Burrowing Owl on a berm near a frontage road. Cool!
Crissal Thrasher Yuma, AZ
Crissal Thrasher Yuma, AZ
It had been a couple of decades since I'd driven I-8 between California and Arizona. In fact I'd only done it a couple of times and then only eastbound. My southern California destination had nearly always been the Los Angeles basin...
I can probably count on both hands my visits to the San Diego area. Truck was performing well, I was enroute to San Diego, and visions of those seabirds were in my thoughts. It was a great day.
I arrived at the San Diego airport about 12:45pm...I'd made pretty good time. It was nice to be back in a coastal town...all the time I'd spent in Massachusetts with my father recently had really reinforced my appreciation for this
environment. I saw a few planes at the airport but the feathered birds were calling me so I decided to go find some.
First off, I located the harbor where the boat would depart Saturday morning. It was quite close to the airport so that was easy enough. Then I drove a bit further to Shelter Island. I parked and walked around for a while, taking photos of some of the birds present: Brown Pelican,
cormorants, sparrows, etc. I then decided to check out Pt. Loma. Pt. Loma is located across the harbor from downtown so it took a little while to drive up there, but once I parked and started walking around it was a nice environment. I
checked out the visitor center and enjoyed the vista across the harbor. Birds encountered included California Towhee and Spotted Towhee. There were other birds as well but not that many to photograph. From there I found my way into
one of the city parks near Sea World and found a Little Blue Heron hunting fish near the pond shore...another life bird for the trip. It was quite cooperative as I photographed from fairly close by.
Little Blue Heron San Diego, CA
Little Blue Heron San Diego, CA
Western Bluebird San Diego, CA
I watched the sunset near the harbor and decided to go back to the airport and watch planes for a while longer. Among other planes, I saw the British Airways 777 depart for London about 9pm. It had been a long day so I decided to
just camp out in my truck back at the parking lot where the boat would depart Saturday morning. Hopefully I'd be able to get in some more birding around San Diego on Friday. Mmmm, or maybe not. When I started my truck this time
it wasn't running right. It was dark, I was at the airport, and I got that sinking "what now?" feeling in the stomach. My truck was driveable but there was definitely something amiss in the engine compartment as it was running
very rough. I managed to nurse it back to the harbor parking lot and just wait out the night and deal with it in the morning. It was a fitfull night, worrying how much of the weekend plans I might have to scrap on account of truck
As the day dawned I went inside Point Loma Sportfishing and asked where the nearest auto shop could be found. With the directions I was given I nursed truck in that direction. What I found enroute just a short drive away was a Godsend:
a Naval Exchange service station and base exchange :-). I couldn't believe it...this was a really lucky find for me in this situation. I pulled in the parking lot and thankfully they were about to open. I explained my situation and
only had to wait a short while before the first mechanic came on duty to have a look at my truck. Luckily, the worst of it was only a spark plug wire that had melted though to the cylinder head. Truck was due a major tune-up so I
authorized the work and that was that. Parts needed ordering so while I waited I visited the small base exchange, hit the restroom, got something to munch on, and just basically waited around for repairs. At some point I decided
I'd walk back to the airport for some plane action, and see what birds I could find along the way. It was a good three-mile walk but very enjoyable. At the airport I ran into another airplane photographer, one Jose Gomez. We watched
the daily Japan Airlines 787 arrive from Tokyo...quite nice. I explained to him why I was there and asked him if he wouldn't mind dropping me back at the service station, which he kindly did.
Western Tanager San Diego, CA
Japan Airlines 787 JA823J San Diego, CA
Japan Airlines 787 JA823J San Diego, CA
Once back at the repair shop I had to wait another hour or so before truck was ready to depart. I was thankful the breakdown occured when and where it did; had I been out on I-8 somewhere, well, you get the point. Rather than
go exploring San Diego any further for birds I decided to just head back to the airport and watch planes for the rest of the day. Besides, there was some bird activity around the airport and right in front of me inside the
airport fence: nesting Least Terns! Yep, right inside the fence on a patch of ground near the taxiway are a number of Least Tern couples raising families. As such there is a constant flurry of activity as parent birds make the
short trip to the water for food, returning with a fish. I spent the rest of Friday at the airport, until after dark. A nice surprise airplane was a British Airways 777-300ER operating from London. I picked it up on the Plane
Finder APP while it was still an hour or so from landing and waited with eager anticipation as sunset neared. I'd never seen a BA -300 before so I was hoping it would arrive with enough daylight remaining to get a photo. Well it
did, but barely. At this point it was time to find a motel for the night. I found suitable digs at the Dolphin Motel just across the street from where the boat would depart in the morning. As such, I'd be able to leave the truck
parked there for the day with the permission of the motel.
Least Tern San Diego, CA
Least Terns San Diego, CA
BA 777-300ER G-STBH San Diego, CA
Dolphin Motel San Diego, CA
I was up well before dawn to make my way to Point Loma Sportfishing. I got checked in and waited around with the rest of the trip participants. It was going to be a cloudy morning but sunshine was predicted later in the day
as we got further from shore. We were scheduled to depart 7am and return about 630pm. The destination is known as 30-mile Bank and the trip is within San Diego County waters with a brief visit into Los Angeles County waters.
Trip leaders point out species along the way and work with the boat Captain to direct the boat towards rarities if possible. One of the leaders is responsible for keeping track of the species/counts so hourly
eBird reports can be prepared and sent out to the participants later. As with all pelagic trips, there was no guarantee any specific species would be encountered nor a guarantee that all participants would see every bird
encountered. I understood that going in and just hoped we'd all get to see some cool birds. In an effort to help keep track of birds I was seeing and photographing, I decided to keep a small notebook and annotate species seen
and what time I photographed them. I used a digital wristwatch that I synchronized with the internal clock of my camera so the times would match as closely as possible. This method worked well enough that I used it on all
the subsequent trips.
Birders on pelagic trips are a mixed bag of folks. Some are pure greenhorns, like myself, others have made the rounds and are well seasoned. Some are there just for the birding experience and others are trying to get photos. This
mix can present problems...the pure birders just wanna "see" the bird while the photogs hope to be in the best position to get the photos. Both wanna be up front...but it ain't happening. In theory, everybody's paid the same
ticket price...and everybody has a right to have an up-front seat. I learned early on to move around and try to stay out of peoples way so everyone would have as best a chance as possible to enjoy the sights and sounds. These
boats are reasonably sized but with the amount of folks onboard, it can get crowded at times.
After the obligatory introduction at the marina we filed onboard the 85ft Pacific Queen. We listened to the safety briefing and before long Captain Drew Card piloted the Queen through the harbor and into the open ocean. I was
summarily impressed by the birds seen all along the route and had a great time. The official trip report provides a fairly colorful narrative of the action
This being my first-ever pelagic trip I got a number of lifers...according to my files I managed 15. I saw my first albatross...how cool is that? Some great birds were seen by mostly everybody onboard. The skies had cleared during the
day and by the time we motored into the harbor it was 630pm...right on time. I filed off the boat with everyone else, thanked the Captain and the guides and walked back to my truck. Pelagic birding...I could get used to this!
I'd probably already made the decision about to continue with