Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Pelagic Magic

Jeremy K. gave me the heads up that there was an opportunity to do a pelagic trip in the second week of September and asked whether I'd be game.  Three of the Fur & Feathers 500 were chartering a boat to head out of Tofino in hopes of pushing towards their goal.  Knowing full well my schedule was open, I wanted in on the action.  I have never been able to get out on a proper pelagic birding trip in British Columbia.  I signed up for one years ago with the British Columbia Field Ornithologists (BCFO), but the weather was marginally too rough to head out.  My hopes for this trip were to see pelagic species I had never seen in Canada, such as Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus), Buller's Shearwater (Puffinus bulleri), Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes), and Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus), and also catch up with a couple I had never seen before like Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and Scripps' Murrelet (Synthliboramphus scrippsi).  On top of all the birds, I always get excited by marine mammal encounters and was hoping to see something new like Risso's Dolphin (Grampus griseus), Pacific White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens), or Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus).

The pelagic trip was set to take place on Wednesday, September 12 so Jeremy K. and I set out at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to get some birding in on the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park and the Tofino waterfront.  After the long haul up, we started at Wickaninnish Beach where we hoped to get out and find a bevy of shorebirds.  Instead we found a bevy of biped mammals walking up and down the beach, ensuring any shorebird flocks were long gone.  We moved on to Combers Beach which was nearly shorebirdless as well, but we eventually spied a couple of Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) flying in.  We also had a nice flock of gulls on the beach that contained around 30 American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus) among California Gulls (L. californicus) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (L. glaucescens).

I managed to catch the American Herring Gull stretching out its wings.  Compared to the California Gull (right), it has pink legs, a paler mantle, no black spot on its bill, a pale yellowish iris, and is slightly larger overall.

We zipped in to the airport due to the numerous reports we had read over the years from this location.  Unfortunately the terminal is not the place to go, so it was rather disappointing.  That didn't stop me from photographing a nice Western Tiger Beetle (Cicindela oregona) and Pine White (Neophasia menapia).

Tiger beetles are predatory as evidenced by their impressive large, serrated mandibles

This Pine White is posing on Heather (Calluna vulgaris) which is introduced and very common in the Tofino area

Long Beach was our next stop and we finally found a decent shorebird.  It was nothing earth-shattering, but we were pleased with fantastic looks at a Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus).

This individual effectively using its long, decurved bill to probe the sand for invertebrates

This angle shows the Whimbrel's diagnostic dark cap split by a thin pale stripe

And one last shot of this amazingly cooperative Whimbrel that really shows off its blue-grey legs

We made a quick and disappointing stop at Grice Bay before visiting Chesterman Beach.  We eventually came across a small but rewarding flock of peeps.  The group of eight birds had seven Western Sandpipers and a single Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii).  I managed to settle in close to the flock and they eventually worked their way towards me for some absolutely crippling views!

One of these peeps is not like the others

One of these peeps just doesn't belong

Can you tell which peep is not like the others by the time I finish my blog?

The scalloped mantle, long primary projection, and slightly down-curved bill are good indicators you've got a juvenile Baird's Sandpiper.

Baird's Sandpipers are not unusual to encounter during fall migration on the West Coast and only occasionally do we encounter adult birds

It looks like a good catch for the Baird's, but I was pretty darn happy myself with catching this shot!

This feeding juvenile Western Sandpiper shows the distinctive rufous-and-black upper scapulars contrasting drab grey lower scapulars

The bill of a typical Western Sandpiper is slightly drooping and has a fine tip, unlike that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper which is usually much straighter and has an ever-so-slightly bulbous tip

Just another shot of a juvenile Western Sandpiper because the peeps were so obliging

This will be the last Western shot - the lighting truly was great for photographing these sharp little shorebirds!

While watching the peeps, Jeremy K. spotted a flock of Sanderlings (Calidris alba) flying by and I went in for a couple shots as we headed back to the car.

Sanderlings running at the edge of the water - how cliché!

The Sanderlings were not overly cooperative, but I think you get the picture - nice birds on a nice shoreline

We poked in to a couple other local lookouts along the shoreline and even retraced our steps to end the day, but the only other decent sighting we could muster was a continuous flow of heat-shimmered Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) undulating along the horizon.  We hoped it was a good omen for the pelagic.

The view towards Incinerator Rock from Long Beach after the sun dropped below the trees

Looking the other direction over Long Beach, you get a very different view that is equally spectacular!

We managed to get to bed early enough to take in a solid sleep and were up at 6 a.m. the next day to meet with the rest of our seabound crew.  From the Fur & Feathers 500 we had Phil Cram, Brian Elder, and Ray Woods, then we had a nice fellow with a big lens named Charles Smith from Ontario, and longtime birding pal Rick Schortinghuis out for his first pelagic adventure.  The trip was chartered through the Whale Centre and we had a very Captain Highliner-like skipper named Mike and a spotter named Artie.  We donned floater suits and made our way down to our seaworthy vessel.

As we motored out, the water was only slightly rippled but we had a little swell - overall the conditions were great for viewing but far from optimal for pelagic birding.  Our first pelagic species was Sooty Shearwater, which could well have been the same continual stream that we spied the evening before in the distance.  From there on out, we had small waves of shearwaters pass by and among them was our first Pink-footed Shearwater.  More expected offshore species like Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini) and Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) were found in short order, as well.

The real action began as we approached Clayoquot Canyon when Artie announced "Black-footed Albatross!"  We all looked back to see a long-winged, large bird lumbering low over the water.  This was immediately followed by obligatory oohs and aahs.  We pushed on and spotted a few more Black-footeds and decided it was time to set out the first batch of chum.  We decided to move along and set out another batch and check on it later.  At the second batch of chum, we had rapid success when a lone Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata) darted in and fluttered over the slick with floating fish skins.  We watched for several more minutes and it seemed like the action had fizzled as quick as it had started.  We started to move back to the first batch when I noticed a jaeger checking out the action.  We moved in for closer inspection and were treated to great views of a classic adult Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus).

Parasitic Jaegers are mid-sized jaegers with short, pointed central tail feathers 

Adult Parasitic Jaegers have a dusky collar which is quite faded in this individual

This angle of the Parasitic Jaeger shows off the short, pointed central tail feathers

Multiple Black-footed Albatrosses soon moved in to check things out, followed by a couple Sooty Shearwaters and a few Pink-footed Shearwaters.

I had only seen Black-footed Albatross once prior to this trip and the views in Clayoquot Canyon far trumped my first experience!

The Black-footed Albatrosses were definitely the stars of the show out there

These photos don't do these hefty-yet-graceful birds justice

Here's a 2-for-1 shot: Black-footed Albatross taking off in the foreground and a Pink-footed Shearwater cruising by in the background

I caught this Pink-footed Shearwater banking, which shows of their white belly and underwing coverts and namesake pink feet

I see some great pelagic bird photos and I have a new appreciation for them - it is hard to get a good shot on a rocking boat!

One last mediocre shot of a Pink-footed Shearwater that made several passes over the chum before finally landing

We made our way back slowly, searching along the way for any new pelagic species and only managed one more: Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).

I had never seen a Tufted Puffin transitioning between breeding and non-breeding plumage and I must say it's an interesting look!

We also encountered several more small groups of Cassin's Auklets and I managed to get a couple record photos of them.

Cassin's Auklets are small and ashy-grey with a short, thick grey bill

You can just make out the small white dab above the eye of the Cassin's Auklet in the back.  Unfortunately you can't see that they have pale irises, which can be seen at close range.

Even though some of the pelagic birds were pretty spectacular, I won't deny that encountering a group 14 Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) was the highlight.  As the whales surfaced, we were able to hear deep groans and rushes of air.  I certainly hope this wasn't a once in a lifetime experience, but I can say it was unforgettable.  Let's see if these shots give a sense of how amazing it was to be right alongside these impressive creatures.

Here's an example of the characteristic stubby, irregularly-shaped dorsal fin of a Humpback Whale

This dorsal fin has a couple barnacles growing on it

Individual Humpback Whales can be identified by the pattern on the underside of their tail or "flukes".  Compare this individual's pattern with a limited amount of white and a scar on the left fluke to the one below.

The extensive gleaming white underside of the flukes easily separates this individual from the above whale

The right tail is the same at the one above and the left is a different individual from the one with a scar on its left fluke

Pretty spectacular sight set against a nice mountainscape

Three surfacing at once - awesome!  On the back individual you can see small bumps on the head which are called tubercles, and they are actually large hair follicles.

This photo ups the ante to four individuals surfaced at the same time!

I really wanted to get some shots of them blowing, so here is a moment with three Humpbacks just surfacing

This is right in the middle of the blow, so you don't get a good sense of the shape of the characteristic low, bushy blow Humpbacks make

I think I captured this one right to get a sense of the shape of the blow

Apparently a giant, dark solid object surfacing right beside these Red-necked Phalaropes is not that startling!

I momentarily broke away from the whales when we approached a couple groups of alcids.  First I got a shot of a Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) and not long after got a group of Common Murres (Uria aalge).

This Rhinoceros Auklet doesn't really represent its name very well.  In the breeding season, adults boast a "horn" on their bill.

The two Common Murres on the right are transitioning out of breeding plumage into the non-breeding plumage shown by the two left birds

We cruised around a few islands on the way back and were treated to a couple sightings of Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris) floating in the kelp beds.  Knowing the history of this species along the coast of British Columbia, it's always encouraging to see them doing well since their reintroduction from 1969 to 1972.

Sea Otters can often be spotted floating on their backs wrapped up in the kelp like this one

Another Sea Otter lounging in the kelp

Some of the treed islands we passed on the transit back in to Tofino were rather picturesque

This island was my personal favourite with a lone tree permanently angled away from the wind it has endured over the years

In the end, I picked up a couple birds I had never seen in Canada but couldn't connect with my grail birds.  I guess I'll just have to see what opportunities arise and do it all again!


  1. Is the Baird's Sandpiper is the one left of the sandpiper (are they Sanderlings?)on the far right? Love the Common Murre photo of two non-breeding and two breeding.


  2. The Baird's was with a flock of seven Western Sandpipers. In the first short-and-wide shot, the Baird's is the second from the right. In the next two shots it is front and centre. Compare the shots of the lone Baird's with the lone Western and then revisit the mixed shots. Note the long primary projection of the Baird's compared to the Western, along with the more scalloped back and the overall more tan-brown colouration.