At the Mic: Steve N.G. Howell
Bodega Bay, an hour or so north of San Francisco, California, is the best place on the West Coast, indeed, in North America, for pelagic birding. Yet not many birding trips go out of there—go figure. Thus, some friends and I charter a 6-pack fishing boat each year and do a few trips, splitting the cost equally and having a leaderless trip, taking photos, shooting the breeze, enjoying the ocean. In recent years we’ve seen Steller’s (Short-tailed) Albatross three times, and even a White-chinned Petrel, along with local rarities like Least Storm-Petrel and Brown Booby, although the latter is becoming almost expected.
Last weekend we did three trips out of Bodega Bay (21-23 August 2015), and perhaps it wasn’t that surprising when we found a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel with the thousands of storm-petrels that raft up near Cordell Bank. After all, the media is crying “El Niño,” and back in the spring on the nearby Farallon Islands biologists caught and banded 2 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels (P. Warzybok, pers. comm.). Still, with only about 10 records in North America, it’s a rare bird up here, although it’s common off Mexico, as close as the tip of the Baja California peninsula.
The first “sighting,” on Saturday, wasn’t, if that makes sense. It was a classic “oops, this looks like a Wedge-rumped” as I went through my photos in the evening! The bird was right at the edge of a huge line of birds, barely in the frame; but the preceding image showed a better angle and confirmed the first impression (Figures 1-2, with a Wilson’s to the right, among the Fork-tailed and Ashy storm-petrels, and 3 Wilson’s in the big frame). Well, that rhymes with duck (as in luck, of the not so good kind), was the conclusion of my fellow birders, who this time comprised Kenneth Petersen, Dave Pereksta, Tom Blackman, Bruce Rideout, and Scott Somershoe.
The first sign there was a Wedge-rumped—the bird is at the far left of the full frame image, but cropped it shows just fine.
The preceding image on the camera shows the bird at a different angle, solidifying the gut feeling from the first image. But that was all we got the first day!
But the next day conditions were good and we headed back to the spot, and by late morning we were surrounded by rafts of storm-petrels—looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We keyed in on white-rumped birds sitting in the flocks (there were 50+ Wilson’s among 5-6000 Ashy and 4-5000 Fork-tailed, along with 50+ Black Storm-Petrels) and, amazingly, a few of us saw a Wedge-rumped briefly and I got better images (Figures 3-7); another of us found a Wedge-rumped days later in his photos, and two others are still looking—the dangers of hundreds, if not thousands of images. Digital is cheaper than film, unless perhaps you figure the cost of your time editing all the images!
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel on Sunday, at rest and in flight. Look how tiny it is compared to Ashy and Fork-tailed, plus the short legs (relative to Wilson’s), big white wedge, and narrow crooked wings with a longer and more distinct arm than Wilson’s. The bird’s very small size point to it being the smaller taxon kelsalli, not nominate tethys from the Galapagos (likely separate species when somebody bothers to look closely…). Tiny size, along with the big white wedge (showing well even on the water), also rule out Townsend’s Storm-Petrel (see Howell 2012, Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America, for more information).
A Wilson’s Storm-Petrel for comparison—no comparison, really, other than having a white rump.
So, there was at least one Wedge-rumped, but there could have been more. It’s fun looking at blizzards of scattering storm-petrels, but it’s also frustrating. Without digital cameras this bird would not have been found at all, let alone refound and better documented the second day. Good luck for anyone who goes looking for it!
For pelagic fans, some photos of other things we saw are included here to round out the post—and hopefully make you want to get on a boat (Figures 8-21). We also saw Blue and Humpback whales, a pod of Baird’s Beaked Whales (one of which spy-hopped, “giving us the beak” before it dived), Guadalupe and Scripps’s murrelets, all 3 jaegers, South Polar Skua, 3 Brown Boobies, the always snappy Buller’s Shearwaters and Sabine’s Gulls, plus Red and Red-necked phalaropes, lots of Black-footed Albatrosses and a personal record high count for this spot of 5 Laysan Albatrosses behind the boat at one time, all juveniles. Back at the breakwater we ran into an amazing slick/swarm guesstimated at 100,000 Sooty Shearwaters, a mind-blowing spectacle! All in all, it didn’t suck being out there.
Spy-hopping Baird’s Beaked Whale—that’s quite a beak!
Obliging Guadalupe Murrelets…
And 10 minutes later, Scripps’s Murrelet!
A small part of the storm-petrel flocks.
Long-beaked Common Dolphins, rarely seen this far north.
“Just another” Brown Booby, a further indicator of warm water.
Laysan Albatrosses—usually one per trip is good.
Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, and not too rough!
Part of the Sooty Shearwater swarm—a popular target for recreational fishermen to flush, just what the birds need when they are food-stressed and trying to complete molt before heading back to New Zealand!
That’s all folks (for now), a Humpback Whale saying goodbye.
Steve Howell is a senior field leader with WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide and an occasional guest contributor to the ABA blog. Appropriately, his most recent books, co-authored with Brian Sullivan, are identification guides to Offshore Sea Life for the West Coast (published July 2015) and East Coast (due in November 2015, both from Princeton).
It’s getting exciting in the ABA Area this week, as passerine migration ramps up to combine with the shorebirds that have been on their way south for a few weeks now. We’re also starting to get our first reports from western Alaska, on the leading edge of what is predicted to be an exceptional El Niño year in the Pacific. There’s a lot to look forward to in the coming months as far as vagrant potential, and for many birders, this one included, this is the best time of the year.
Notable rarities in the ABA Area continuing into this week include the long-staying Collared Plover (ABA Code 5) in south Texas and Tufted Flycatchers (5) in Arizona. Joining them in the continuing column are the White-winged Tern (4) in Newfoundland and the Washington Lesser Sand-Plover, both seen through mid-week.
From St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea comes the first Code 5 bird of the Alaska fall season, in the form of a Willow Warbler. The first was found last weekend, and subsequently three additional individuals were found on St. Paul later in the week. Also notable for the state, an Anna’s Hummingbird was visiting a feeder in Homer.
Willow Warblers, like this one from St. Paul Island, AK, this week, have become almost annual in the Bering Sea in recent years. Photo by Cory Gregory, Used with permission
Arguably the best birding in the ABA Area in the last seven days came on the overnight pelagic out of Massachusetts. Birders found an incredible assortment of pelagic species, many of which were particularly good for the northeast including Black-capped Petrel, a North American record count of 28 White-faced Storm-Petrels (3), four White-tailed Tropicbirds (3), a Red-billed Tropicbird (3), a South Polar Skua (3) and a Bridled Tern. The haul places it firmly among the most-productive Atlantic pelagic trips of all time.
Westerly winds in Nova Scotia, brought a Chestnut-collared Longspur to Victoria.
In Virginia, a Brown Booby (3) was found well inland at Kerr Lake in Mecklenberg.
North Carolina had a Brown Booby (3) as well this week, along with a Masked Booby (3), both offshore out of Hatteras.
South Carolina continues to rack up the Ruff (3) in 2015, with a recent male in Orangeburg, remarkably the state’s 4th for the year.
In Indiana, a Neotropic Cormorant was notable in Tippecanoe.
A Swallow-tailed Kite in Clinton, Michigan, has been delighting birders for several days.
In Iowa, a Townsend’s Warbler was well-photographed in Dickinson.
Saskatchewan also had a Townsend’s Warbler, this one in Saskatoon.
Idaho had a pair of great birds in Owyhee this week, both a Parasitic Jaeger and a Hudsonian Godwit.
A Blue Grosbeak in British Columbia, reported here last week, turned out to be a weird molty Purple Finch, but an actual Blue Grosbeak did turn up not long after in Metchosin.
Washington had a Brown Booby (3) in Snohomish.
In Oregon, a Long-billed Murrelet was seen offshore near Florence.
A pelagic out of Bodega Bay, California, this week turned up one or more Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels (4) on consecutive days.
Noteworthy birds in Arizona include a Slate-throated Redstart (4) and the now annual Sinaloa Wren (5), both in Cochise
And in Texas, a Red Phalarope was found in Dallas.
Omissions and errors are not intended, but if you find any please message blog AT aba.org and I will try to fix them as soon as possible. This post is meant to be an account of the most recently reported birds. Continuing birds not mentioned are likely included in previous editions listed here. Place names written in italics refer to counties/parishes.
Readers should note that none of these reports has yet been vetted by a records committee. All birders are urged to submit documentation of rare sightings to the appropriate state or provincial committees. For full analysis of these and other bird observations, subscribe to North American Birds <aba.org/nab>, the richly illustrated journal of ornithological record published by the ABA.
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