High seas birding Essay

Out of sight of land, the ocean is considered salt-water desert by
some. But not by experienced birders. They know that at the edge of
the continental shelf–in general, from 10 to 100 or more miles out–the
best pelagic (high-seas) birding begins. It’s there you’re
likely to be stunned by the sight of albatrosses with 7-foot wing spans,
tiny petrels that flutter over the water like moths, and dark-backed
murres remindful of their Southern Hemisphere counterparts, the
penguins. From August into February, you can observe pelagic birds on
special charter-boat day trips with naturalist guides. Leaving from
ports in Washington, Oregon, or California, you’ll see species
rarely spotted from land, since they feed on off-shore fish and
plankton; now through winter, currents carry their food fish here, and
in winter, cold weather at their nesting grounds can bring these birds
close to our coast–sometimes in awesome numbers.

A few launch ports open to deep submarine canyons and banks (see
map), bringing food fish and pelagic birds close enough to shore that
you needn’t sail too far out to see them. Monterey Bay, with its
extraordinary submarine canyon, is considered one of the finest pelagic
birding spots in the world.

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Costs range from $22 to $50 for an all-day outing. Many trips are
sponsored by Audubon Society chapters, but nonmembers are welcome.
You’ll see more than just birds

Many of the people who go on pelagic birding trips are experienced
birders and fair amateur oceanographers. Even if you can’t tell a
gull from a tern, you’ll find willing teachers all around you.
Whenever whales, seals, dolphins, sailborne jellyfish, or birds come
into view, word quickly passes to everybody on board, usually followed
by commentary on where they are from, where they’re going, how they

Expect a different bird-watching experience from what you get on
shore. Since both birds and boat are always in motion, you can’t
depend on minor field marks for identification. Instead, you learn to
check silhouette, flight pattern, and major field marks (the light belly
and dark back of a pink-footed shearwater, for example).

For these reasons, your eyes alone are as important as your
binoculars. When you first spot ocean-going birds, you’ll probably
have trouble making positive identification. But chances are
you’ll see each of more than a dozen kinds of birds–maybe as many
as 20 or 25 species–many times in the course of a long day. What you
need to take along

Just as binoculars magnify distant objects, they also magnify
motion, so choose low-power (6x or 7x) binoculars. Center-focusing
models are desirable because you can use them with one hand (you’ll
probably be hanging onto the boat rail with the other); it’s all
the better if they’re water-resistant.

Take along a slicker and extra-warm clothing to protect you from
salt spray, and wind and sun screen to prevent burning. Your trip
leader will tell you how much food to bring. Guided trips: Westport to
San Diego

Listed north to south, here is a sampling of upcoming trips. This
time of year, birding is good and seas tend to be calm. Reserve well
ahead. Westport, Washington, September 9 and 23 ($40). Coordinator:
Terry Wahl, 3041 Eldridge Ave., Bellingham, Wash. 98225; (206) 733-8255.
Hammond, Oregon, September 8; $42. Eight-hour trips are run by Portland
Audubon Society, 5151 N.W. Cornell Rd., Portland 97210; (503) 292-6855.
Garibadli, Oregon, September 15 and October 13; 8-hour trips cost $25.
Coordinator: Dave Irons, 4005 S.E. Lambert St., Portland 97202; (503)
771-7170. Newport, Oregon, August 25; $32. Coordinator: Rick Krabbe,
Rt. 1, Box 9G, Philomath 97370; (503) 929-5541. Charleston, Oregon,
September 15; this 10-hour trip costs $25. Coordinator: Barbara
Griffin, 1691 Grant St., North Bend 97459; (503) 756-5688. Coos Bay,
Oregon, September 16; $30, 8-hour trip. Trip run by Ronald Valley and
Ronn Storro-Patterson, Biological Journies, Inc., 1876 Ocean Dr.,
McKinleyville, Calif. 95521; (707) 839-0178. Crescent City,
California, September 22; $30, 8-hour trip sponsored by Biological
Journies (address above). Eureka, California, September 23; $30, 8-hour
trip out of Humboldt Bay sponsored by Biological Journies (address
above). This trip gets to deep water faster than any other except the
ones out of Monterey Bay. Birding should be very good. Eureka to San
Francisco, September 24-26; $220, meals included. Bring your own
sleeping bag for this overnighter on the 50-foot Delphinus. Make
reservations with Biological Journies (address above). San Francisco,
weekends June through October; $40. Oceanic Society runs trips to the
Farallon Islands, leaving San Francisco Yacht Harbor at 9 each Friday,
Saturday, and Sunday morning and returning at 5. See puffins,
shearwaters, auklets, humpback and blue whales, elephant seals. For
reservations, call (415) 441-1106. Monterey, September 12, 16, 23, 26,
29, 30; October 6, 7, 13, 14, 20; November 3, 11, December 1, 27; cost
from $15 to $27. Shearwater Journeys runs day trips (7:45 to 3 P.M.)
into the bay; you might see albatross, red phalarope, tufted puffin, or
thousands of storm petrels; plus blue or humpback whales, fur seals,
Dall’s porpoise. For reservations, write to Shearwater Journeys,
221 Claudius Dr., Aptos, Calif. 95003 or call (408) 688-1990. Santa
Barbara, September 16 and October 20; $33. The Natural Conservancy runs
day trips to Santa Cruz Island in channel Islands National Park. From
the boat, you’re likely to see cormorants, brown pelicans, puffins;
after docking, there’s a guided hike of the island. Trips last
from 8 to 6, leaving from the Island Packers landing at 1867 Spinnaker
Drive, Ventura Harbor; call (805) 642-1393. Departing September 7, 14,
and 23, three-day Oceanic Society trips go from Ventura Harbor to the
Channel Islands; $375. For information and reservations, call (415)
441-1106. Los Angeles, September 23, $25. “Redbilled
tropicbird” trip circles San Clemente Island; leaves 5:30 A.M.,
returns 6 P.M. October 14, $22. “Shearwaters and storm 6 A.M.,
returns 6 P.M. Both leave from San Pedro are sponsored by Los Angeles
Audubon Society; for reservations and map, call (213) 876-0202. San
Diego, September 8; $40. Western Field Ornithologists’ day trip
(5:30 A.M. to 6 P.M.) heads to San Clemente Island. You’ll see
petrels, shearwaters, possibly redbilled tropicbirds, and more.
Departure is from Seaforth Sportfishing landing, 1717 Quivira Road. For
reservations, write to Ginger Johnson, 4637 Del Mar Ave., San Diego

Flite Tours runs trips along the coast between Imperial Beach and
La Jolla the second and fourth Saturdays in January and February; $38 to
$50. Departure is from H&M landing at Emerson and Scott streets.
See arctic loon, rhinoceros auklet, black-vented shearwater. For
reservations, write to Flite Tours, 2932 Greyling Dr., San Diego 92123.


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