[Tweeters] Westport Seabirds Trip Report Saturday, September 21, 2019

Cara Borre cmborre1 at gmail.com
Tue Sep 24 07:13:47 PDT 2019

Westport Seabirds had another STELLER trip on Saturday. That sentence
contains a cryptic spoiler alert, but read on for details.

Knowing Sunday’s trip was scrubbed due to weather, the Monte Carlo left
Float 10 on Saturday at 6:30am amid cloudy skies, calm seas, and optimistic
anticipation of what the day would bring. We considered ourselves
fortunate that our weather called for only modest moisture but otherwise
smooth sailing. The trip out was decidedly soggy, and I must confess a
sense of concern over the increasing rain, as this will often dampen
birder’s spirits as well as their optics. Concern elevated to worry as I
learned Captain Phil had no fishing boats in his “sights”. Many of our best
trips involve Captain Phil using his skill to locate fishing vessels which
we usually find already surrounded by birds. Without shrimpers we had only
the continental shelf and it’s natural phenomenon of upwelling as our
destination. Along the way we encountered a few memorable opportunities to
stop and study birds such as both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes side by
side feeding on a relatively flat sea. Leader Bill Tweit reviewed the field
marks for distinguishing these two similar species while happy
photographers recorded the moment.

Jaegers were plentiful during the trip and we achieved the Skua Slam. This
is not too unusual at this time of year when these arctic breeders are
making their way south to warmer climes. As for shearwaters, we would be
left wanting only for Flesh-footed, as we successfully saw 4 of 5 fall
shearwaters including Sooty, Pink-footed, Buller’s with excellent views,
and Short-tailed. We also enjoyed our largest numbers of the year for
Northern Fulmar. Sabine’s Gulls were well represented with a modest number
of juveniles, and Arctic Terns gracefully winged by less interested in us
than we were of them.

The alcid lover might remember this trip for the coveted Scripps’s
Murrelet, two pair seen well and found in two different locations. This
small alcid may seem superficially similar to our more common Marbled
Murrelet, but appearance is where the similarity ends between these two
species. The strictly pelagic, Scripps’s Murrelet breeds colonially on
islands off the warm waters of southern California and Baja. Post breeding
dispersal, presumably by swimming rather than flying, brings this species
north and occasionally to Washington for our enjoyment. Scripps’s Murrelet
wears its same black and white plumage during all seasons.

Contrast the natural history of Marbled Murrelet, a coastal as opposed to
pelagic alcid. A federally threatened species, Marbled Murrelet is a
solitary breeder that nests only in mature trees of the coastal forest and
possesses a brown (branch colored) breeding plumage and a black and white
non-breeding plumage. To round out the alcids, we had good numbers and
looks at Common Murre (inland, coastal and pelagic) Rhinoceros Auklet
(inland, coastal and pelagic) and Cassin’s Auklet (pelagic only).

Having made our way to Grays Canyon, the time had come to chum. Though
it’s 10 am and still no albatross, this is where this memorable outing
becomes an epic tale. We are now in optimal conditions, the rain has
ended, there is good lighting, but not the brilliant glare that can work
against us when viewing birds, there is the right amount of wind to carry
our oil slick away to intrigued tubenoses, but not too much to kick up the
waves, and maybe there’s the fact that we are the only bird attractant
around. No distant fishing boats or feeding cetaceans to compete with,
just the Monte Carlo, fish oil in the water, Bill Tweit throwing bait fish
to just the gulls at first, then the ensuing flock of visitors. We had most
of the aforementioned species at the chum site, added Fork-tailed
Storm-Petrel, and finally got our Black-footed Albatross, but it wasn’t
long before the call of “Laysan Albatross” was made and the scramble was on
to get everyone a look at it. The Laysan made several passes by the boat
and as is their character, was gone as quickly as it appeared.

The trip could have ended here and all aboard would have called it
successful. We had created an excellent bird viewing environment from an
empty point in a vast ocean and had great looks at both expected and
unexpected species. We were all quite pleased at how the day had turned
out and many enjoyed a relaxed lunch. Then from the stern came the most
animated bird commentary I’ve ever heard from Bill Tweit, “check the bill
on this approaching albatross, large pink bill, holy $! ...it’s a
Short-tailed Albatross, is there anyone who isn’t on this bird?…” We had
unbelievably added our third, and only other possible North Pacific species
of albatross, the massive Short-tailed (aka Steller’s) Albatross. This
albatross was more abiding than the Laysan, but also never landed. We were
stunned to be nearing the end of our seabirding season with a repeat of how
it began this year on March 16 with a North Pacific albatross trifecta.

Short-tailed Albatross were once declared extinct as a result of being
killed for their feathers in the early 20th century. In the 1930’s the
Japanese government attempted to intervene and declared the only known
breeding island of Torishima a bird refuge. Before measures could be
enacted, greed overcame the locals and the last known breeding adults were
sacrificed for their feathers. Soon afterward, in a made in Hollywood
twist, the island’s volcano erupted destroying the village and filling in
the only anchorage. It wasn’t until 1954 that a Japanese expedition
visiting Torishima discovered 10 pairs of Short-tailed Albatross nesting
there, seemingly back from extinction. We now know that juvenile albatross
of all species spend their formative years at sea. In the Short-tail’s case
this meant escaping man and nature made threats to them and their nesting
grounds. The juvenile is all dark with a huge, bright pink bill and this is
the plumage (or age group) that is rarely seen off the west coast of the
U.S. The adult is quite different with a snowy white body, a golden crown
and hind neck, and black markings on the upperwings. Maybe with hope, and
continued conservation efforts, we’ll see an adult in our waters someday.

Though they couldn’t compare with the birds on this most extraordinary day,
a good complement of marine mammals and fish were seen as well. One
notable and curious observation was the prevalence of Northern Fur Seals
with a grouping of five in close proximity loafing on the surface.

Trip leaders were Bill Tweit, Bill Shelmerdine and myself. Phil Anderson
took the helm and Chris Anderson supported both in the cabin and on deck.

Hope to sea you out there!

Cara Borre,

Gig Harbor
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