Monday, September 6, 2010

Make or Break Time: My Seabird Cruise

AUG 17: I am sitting alone in “Ken’s Chinese Restaurant” in Port Hardy. Tomorrow afternoon I will board the coast-guard ship VECTOR and set out on a 9-day cruise over to the Scott Islands then up into the Hecate Strait and finishing in Prince Rupert. I open up my fortune cookie and can’t help but smile.

It reads:


AUG 18: This morning I birded the harbor-front in Hardy Bay. Lots of BLACK TURNSTONES milling about with half-a-dozen RUDDY TURNSTONES and a single SURFBIRD mixed in. LEAST SANDPIPERS, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and a lone LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER are also in the area but inevitably my binoculars swing out to the waves; RHINOCEROS AUKLETS, MARBLED MURRELETS, PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, and a noisy family of RED-THROATED LOONS are all offering a quick teaser for what is soon to come.

After lunch I met up with Dave Smith from CWS who is one of the main reasons I was able to come along. I will be conducting volunteer seabird surveys while he looks into mapping out marine wildlife reserves in the Scott Islands. But that’s only a small part of the cruise; the CCGS VECTOR, one of two Pacific vessels designated for scientific research along the BC coast will also be housing 5 other marine biologists studying the seafloor. The have brought with them a small remote-control sub (R.O.V.) that will document the various biological aspects down on the bottom. They are mostly interested in the sponge reefs of the Hecate Strait… can’t wait to see what they find!

We eat dinner and go through the safety procedures and general tour of the vessel, then finally around 7pm we head out—bound for Triangle Island!!! Before it gets too dark to see, I manage to get 1 yearbird: a single RED PHALAROPE. Then a pod of ORCAS cruise past us… off to a good start!

AUG 19: I woke up at 5am, hoping to get an early start to birding… turns out in late August it doesn’t get light until 6:30! So instead I head down to the “mess” for some breakfast, served up by a grumpy but also extremely hilarious Croatian man known as “Mikie.” Throughout this trip we would all be spoiled with unlimited amounts of great food… good thing there was also a small gym on the ship!

After breakfast, I headed up to the Bridge (aka “The Wheel-House”) which offers the most panoramic view on the ship. The skies brightened, and I could clearly see it!

The fabled TRIANGLE ISLAND! The most important seabird colony in British Columbia, housing literally millions of alcids and other seabirds including Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, Cassin’s Auklets, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Pelagic Cormorants, and Common Murres. As we approach I can see that there is a steady stream of birds heading from the island out to sea. Mostly puffins and murres, but there are also several thousands SOOTY SHEARWATERS rafting up in various areas with a few PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS mixed in. Out of nowhere a PEREGRINE FALCON glides over to our ship for a closer look, then the best bird of the day…

In amongst a groups of birds sitting on the water, closer, closer, yesssss…. Umm,… YESSSSS!!! A gorgeous adult HORNED PUFFIN!!! Certainly a prized bird in BC, there are only 1 or 2 pairs on Triangle so to pick one out of the 10,000+ puffins passing by the boat was quite a thrill. Soon other year-birds too came into view: a single BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS (light-morph adult pictured), then a few FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL (a long awaited lifer), and a very pale juvenile LONG-TAILED JAEGER! Perhaps most interesting for me was a lone SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER mixed in with all the sooties. These guys are more regular up in the Aleutians and generally don’t build up in numbers in BC waters until the Fall. They are very similar to sooties, differentiated only by a darker under-wing pattern and some very subtle physical differences—smaller bill, more bull-necked and rounder head… and yes, apparently a shorter tail. This bird also showed a relatively pale throat, and to my eye, it flew a lot higher than the sooties and flew with more hurried wing-beats. I have heard claims that flight-style can be used as a diagnostic feature in some cases but I’ll certainly have to study a lot more to see for myself if this is true.

Anyways… back to the BIG YEAR already!

AUG 20: Got some great birds today! (Mainly because we headed out to the shelf-edge about 10 km SW of Triangle) Out there a couple fishing boats where trawling for lingcod and had attracted a righteous swarm of seabirds. As we approached I picked out a FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER (another lifer) closely shadowing a PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER… I can see why some consider them conspecific. They really had the same proportions and overall flight “jizz,” only one was browny-gray and white and the other was chocolate-black. Okay sorry… another tangent…

Oooo! What’s that on the horizon? A jaeger? No, short-tailed and BIG. SOUTH POLAR SKUA!!! Watched him chase around a Pink-foot and actually tackled the poor shearwater into a wave before moving on empty-handed. Perhaps the best bird of the trip flew in next: a MURPHY’S PETREL! Any pterodroma petrel is awesome in BC, but this was really nice. I have seen lots of similar petrels in the South Pacific, but this guy was thinner-looking and very gray overall. Some of you may recall the mega-bird—Solander’s Petrel—seen last year by Sharon Toochin & Co. The Murphy’s is a very similar bird but has a small head and smaller/thinner black bill, thin-pointed wings, a wedged tail that is more narrow than in Solanders, and the underwing is more uniform. Solander’s on the other hand often has a more brownish cast, white flashes in the underwing, and is more bulky-looking overall. This bird also had a noticeably pale chin which also points towards Murphy’s. Unfortunately, as with most birds on the trip, I was not able to obtain photographs, choosing instead to concentrate on studying birds in the field as much as possible before they disappeared. For instance, if I started spending hours trying to get a good puffin photo, I might miss an awesome bird flying past on the other side of the ship. So for about 14 hours of the day, I ran back and forth up on the Bridge and out on deck, trying to ID every speck within 500m…

More RED PHALAROPES today mixed in with RED-NECKED PHALAROPES, and later in the evening we cruised even further out to sea, where Dave and I were treated to an adult LONG-TAILED JAEGER, many groups of HUMPBACK WHALES, a BLUE SHARK, and a big OCEAN SUNFISH.

(BELOW: Dave's scans the waters off Triangle)

Although Dave and I were seeing some very cool birds, I still felt like we weren’t getting the numbers that should be possible at this time of year. Over the course of the trip there were a lot of very dull stretches where almost nothing was around. I know “Big Blue” is never predictable, but I felt like if we could only get a little further offshore we would start running into more things. For instance, on the entire trip I did not see a single Sabine’s Gull and only had a handful of COMMON TERNS and one ARCTIC TERN.

I can’t complain though, and I must admit that although the ocean was barren most of the time… that evening was the exception. After dinner we continued out to sea for a stretch and on the horizon I could make out hundreds of tiny dots skipping across the waves… LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS!!! As we got into “the zone” things got… well they got, surreal. Around Triangle Island there are thousands of alcids, a little further out you run into albatross and fulmar, and shearwaters. Out here, at least on this night… all you could see—for miles—were storm-petrels. I was only able to make observations for around an hour and a half, but in that time I estimated that I saw over 13,000 Leach’s (150/minute) and 1,000+ Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels! The waves were absolutely alive with these tiny relatives of the albatross. And like I said, the weird thing about it was that there were no other birds of any kind…

AUG 21: The only year-bird today was an immature PARASITIC JAEGER. I also noted 3 adult LONG-TAILED JAEGERS, and over 90 BLACK-FOOTED ALBATOSS (61 of which sat around our boat for most of the day… presumably hoping to score some grub. There were also several hundred NORTHERN FULMARS loafing about)

Here, a groups of albatross and fulmars check out the ROV, hoping that it’s some sort of fishing device.

AUG 22: Another quiet day but had a few highlights—finally my yearbird POMARINE JAEGER (completing the BC skua grand-slam) and another LONG-TAILED JAEGER bombed past us on an otherwise quiet day. As Dave and I sat around checking through the mass of albatross and fulmar that had once again settled at our stern, Dave said musingly, “you would think that all these birds would attract something good.” At that instant (no joking), I spotted a small black-and-white shearwater coming right at us—MANX SHEARWATER I exclaimed… even the first mate and chief engineer got to see it in the bins as it made a couple loops around us then headed out. Formerly a mega-rarity in the entire Pacific (most breed in the north Atlantic), this species is being seen with increasing frequency off California and as far north as Alaska, suggesting the possibility of a small Pacific breeding colony. In fact, a few years ago, one was recorded calling over Triangle Island at night—probably prospecting for a roost site if not a breeding burrow… who knows???

AUG 23:

This morning we awoke to rainy Queen’s Sound near Bella Bella and the Inside Passage. Not a lot of birds to see here but lots of sponges and corals beneath the waves. In the evening a big storm came in from the south, creating 5 meter swells in the Hecate Strait. Instead of hiding out in Laredo Sound the captain decided to have some fun and we spent the night pitching back and forth in the middle of the Strait. Luckily I don’t seem to get seasick but boy, did some other people on the boat! That night before dark I saw another FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER.

AUG 24: The waves are still pretty big today; a SNIPE of some sort came out of the fog and made a few circles of the boat hoping to land… an Asian vagrant perhaps? Looked like a Wilson’s to me. We did have both BLACK TURNSTONES and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS land on deck for a bit, and a pair of LESSER YELLOWLEGS visited briefly… no lost passerines though.

AUG 25: Today is totally different, flat calm in the Hecate Strait and gorgeous sun! All 3 jaeger species seen today, and another Flesh-footed Shearwater. After dinner, the crew got out for some jig-fishing.

They caught halibut, lingcod, and several kinds of rockfish which we ate on the last few evenings.

During our jigging session, an adult PEREGRINE FALCON caught a juvenile RHINOCEROS AUKLET and proceeded to pluck it and eat it.

At first everyone was really excited, but then things got a little “gross” when the falcon ripped off the auklet head and dropped it down onto the deck.

AUG 26: A relatively quiet but pleasant day out in the Hecate with a few brief periods of excitement when another MANX SHEARWATER flew past (off Bank’s Island), and several flocks of 1000+ Red-necked Phalaropes mixed with 150+ Red Phalaropes passed us offering up nice side-by-side views of the 2 ocean-going shorebirds.

A group of 500+ PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHINS capped off the day nicely.

AUG 27: Today we arrived in Prince Rupert, where after saying my goodbyes and thanking everyone for the great opportunity, I hopped on the ferry to Skidegate--- on Haida Gwaii (QUEEN CHARLOTTE ISLANDS). When in Rome right? If I’m doing a big year, I figured I may as well head over there as I don’t visit Prince Rupert too often. I boarded as a foot passenger and planned to take another ferry to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island once I got to Skidegate, and hitch-hike the 12km to Sandspit.

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