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California Seabirds (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
I’ve been to California several times, and while I always looked into it, my previous visits never coincided with any of Debi Shearwater’s scheduled pelagic trips. So when I learned that this season would be her last before retirement, I realized it was now or never, so I booked a couple of her trips. With other major travel already planned for the year, I made it a short trip to save time and money, cashing in some airline miles for the flight and scheduling only 3 full days in California, 2 of which were back-to-back pelagic trips with Shearwater Journeys.

Cashing in airline miles often leaves one with less than ideal route choices – in this case, I drove an hour and a half to New Orleans rather than flying from the smaller Gulfport airport, and had a seemingly unnecessary 5-hour layover in Seattle. I was tempted to try to get on one of the many earlier flights to San Jose, and it was only the thought that I’d still have to wait for my luggage to arrive that stopped me from trying – little did I know that my luggage was on the way to Salt Lake City and I wouldn’t be receiving it until the next day anyway. Oops! Otherwise the journey was uneventful if long, there was still daylight when I picked up my rental car in San Jose but I was wiped out and jet lagged, so I checked into my AirBnB in the south part of the city, got some food, and went right to bed.

Oct 4

With jet lag and an early bed time I had no trouble waking up before my alarm, ready for some birding. I planned to start at the San Francisquito trail in Palo Alto, along the south shore of the bay, targeting a Ruff that had been seen reliably for the last week. I misjudged local sunrise and ended up sitting in the parking lot for a bit waiting for it to get light, listening to White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and Black Phoebes as they began to sing in the twilight. Once it was light enough for shorebird ID I set out along the trail. The birds in the parking lot kept distracting me – no lifers to be expected but so much fun to see western species and California specialties – California Towhee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Anna’s Hummingbird, the Audubon’s subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nuttall’s Woodpecker.

Eventually I made it to the actual creek, a narrow tidal creek with wide mud banks exposed in the low tide and teeming with shorebirds. Mostly they were Western and Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, with small smatterings of Greater Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plover, and one Long-billed Curlew. Where the trail makes a sharp turn toward the bay the water got deeper, with fewer shorebirds but a nice Clark’s Grebe in the channel. I turned around and took the alternate fork of the trail across a bridge, and saw a pond out off the trail that held a good number of medium-sized roosting shorebirds. Annoyed that I hadn’t brought my scope, and doubly annoyed that I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway since I didn’t have my luggage, I scrutinized the distant birds with bins and camera, trying to turn one of them into a Ruff. Alas, I eventually determined that they were definitely all Black-necked Stilts and Greater Yellowlegs. At this point I was pretty cold, still wearing my shorts that were appropriate for the Gulf Coast but not for an October morning in central California. I walked back toward the parking lot, picking up a few different shorebirds but no Ruff.

I was about to leave when a local birder asked me if I had seen the Ruff, we talked for a few minutes and he told me it had actually been hanging out in the small pond behind the parking lot, mostly hidden by trees and shrubs. I thanked him and went to look, and sure enough it was there! Great views of a juvenile Ruff foraging with both yellowlegs species – a long-awaited lifer. Yay! Now it was off to the airport to retrieve my luggage.


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Well-known member
Oct 4 continued

After getting my luggage I went back to my room to change clothes and to charge my phone. After taking care of a few errands and grabbing a quick nap while waiting for my phone to come back from the dead, I head out again for the coast near Santa Cruz. I first went to Seacliff State Beach, hoping to spot the long-staying juvenile Red-footed Booby that had been hanging out with the cormorants and pelicans on the park’s pier. Once again distracted for a bit by parking lot birds, this time a stunning male Townsend’s Warbler, California Scrub-Jays, and Western Meadowlark. I headed down the cliff and to the pier, trying to make sense of all the gulls (mostly Western with some Heermann’s, California, and a least one Herring), and scanned the pier. Hundreds of Brown Pelicans and Brandt’s Cormorants were about, but no sign of the booby, no matter how many different angles I tried. A small group of Whimbrel and Marbled Godwits foraging along the busy beach was a nice sight. Eventually I gave up on the booby, and later learned that evening would have been a better time. Oh well.

I learned that the fee I paid to get in to Seacliff was good for same-day entry to other state parks, so I headed to Natural Bridges State Beach on the west side of Santa Cruz. I wasn’t targeting anything in particular, it just looked like a generally good spot based on ebird. I snagged some new species for the trip as soon as I got out of the car – Pygmy Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, and Hairy Woodpecker. I walked down toward the beach, spotting two more Townsend’s Warblers in a small grove of trees. In the adjacent tidal channel was a group of more than a dozen Red-necked Phalaropes foraging actively in the water, a nice treat as they allowed close approach. A quick scan of the beach produced more people than birds, so I turned around to walk the woodland trails. They were quite birdy, and enjoyable even though they were mostly common species – Wrentit, Spotted Towhee, Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, California Towhee, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, more chickadees and nuthatches, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Brown Creeper among others. I finished off the day by squeezing in a planned 7-mile run, taking in the views of the Pacific from the trail along the cliffs leading toward downtown Santa Cruz, turning around after running the length of the wharf.


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Well-known member
Oct 5

I left early in the morning for the 1-hour drive to Monterey Bay, launching point of the first of this weekend’s pelagic trips. I arrived with ample time to drive past the parking area a few times and still be the first person to check in. I watched the Western Gulls and listened to the California Sea Lions for a good half hour as the other passengers trickled in and daylight gradually arrived. Once Debi herself arrived we boarded the ship and were soon underway. We swung by the jetty on the way out of the harbor to view the sea lions, pelicans, and cormorants (mostly Brandt’s) before heading out. We motored along Cannery Row at first, spotting the one Pigeon Guillemot that was still remaining in the area, before heading out into open water. Before we had gone very far we encountered a large, dispersed group of Risso’s Dolphins, and were treated to sightings of an albino individual. After an hour or so we began to see our first pelagic species – Pomarine Jaegers, Sooty Shearwaters, and Pink-footed Shearwaters, along with my lifer Buller’s Shearwater. We also encountered another group of dolphins, this time Northern Right Whale Dolphins, distinctive with their lack of a dorsal fin. Some entertained us with bow-riding, while others breached in the distance, punctuated by breaching Humpback Whales farther out. Amazing! Other marine life included Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola, including one group of 5 sunfish of various sizes sunning themselves together, attended by a few Western Gulls.

As we got farther out we encountered larger groups of shearwaters, the vast majority being Sooty, followed by Pink-footed, and smatterings of Bullers, and a single Flesh-footed that flew by and gave brief views, not seen by all aboard. Also not seen by all (including most leaders and myself) was a Nazca Booby that made a brief appearance at the bow, which we pursued but soon lost and could not refind. Well, that’s how these things go sometimes. South Polar Skuas made several appearances throughout the day, and a couple of Black-footed Albatrosses came by and gave great views. For alcids, we saw Common Murre, Cassin’s Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, and a Tufted Puffin. A final noteworthy sighting was a Fin Whale that surfaced several times, traveling at 13 knots, which we followed for a short ways before leaving it as it was heading the wrong way for us. All in all a fantastic day, despite the surprising lack of storm-petrels. We arrived back at the dock at 3:30 – plenty of time for some more birding as I had planned, but with the doxycycline that I was taking to treat a tick-borne disease, the sun, wind, and salt had left my face and hands feeling like they had been rubbed by habaneros, so I just wanted to go buy some aloe and go back to my room for a bit. After a bit of recuperation I headed out for a short evening run around San Jose, adding California Quail to the trip list.


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Well-known member
Oct 6

Today was the second of the weekend’s trips, this one leaving from Half Moon Bay, also about an hour from where I was staying. The Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay has quite an extensive jetty system, which we explored on our way out, searching for banded Brown Pelicans (we picked up some rehabbed bands and bands from Mexico), and picking up Black Oystercatcher and Surfbird. Once out of the harbor, we explored the area just off the beach, successfully finding our target Marbled Murrelet before pointing out to sea. A couple of Harbor Porpoises put in a brief appearance near shore. Lots of birds to be seen even nearshore, with large feeding flocks of pelicans, cormorants (mostly Brandt’s but also a few Double-crested and Pelagic), and Common Murres, with flyby Red-throated Loon. Pomarine Jaegers starting appearing first, then the expected shearwaters – Sooty, Pink-footed, and Buller’s. We dragged along a contingent of gulls using chum, mostly Western, but a nice juvenile Glaucous-winged Gull joined when we got farther offshore. As we approached the continental shelf we started encountering large rafts of shearwaters, numbering up to 600 per group – the guides managed to pick out a single Short-tailed Shearwater in one group, which I got brief views of as the shearwaters took off. A few Northern Fulmars flew by at various times, mostly the dark gray morph. South Polar Skuas were again fairly regular, flying by every so often and some coming quite close. We spotted the same alcids as the day before (well, minus the guillemot and plus the Marbled Murrelet), though Common Murres were much more prevalent.

As we reached water 2000 feet and more over a canyon, the bird life thinned out, but we encountered small groups of beautiful Sabine’s Gulls, including one group being harried by a Parasitic Jaeger, and two flyby Arctic Terns. Otherwise things were slow until we reached the continental shelf again and rejoined the shearwaters. The real show stopper before crossing into shallower water was a close encounter with a small group of Fin Whales and Blue Whales foraging together. Nothing quite like seeing Blue Whales, the largest animal in the history of the earth – but the Fin Whales came so close to the boat, surfacing right next to us and showing off the paleness on the right side of their jaws. By this point I had put my camera away so I missed the amazing photo opportunities, but I was too engrossed in the moment to run into the cabin for it. Probably the highlight of the trip. We then headed into shallower waters, all hope of storm-petrels gone (I overheard somebody saying that seabird migration was early this year), but other goodies kept popping up – chiefly more Pomarine Jaegers, one Long-tailed Jaeger, and some Elegant Terns. A final treat awaited us back at the harbor, where somebody spotted a sparrow on the jetty – we turned around and managed to relocate it, it was the endangered Large-billed subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, a California specialty and likely future split. We disembarked after 5 pm, and despite the many layers of sunscreen and aloe I had applied that had caked my face white, my face and hands were once again on fire and I was knackered, so I abandoned both plans for additional birding or running and headed back to San Jose, falling asleep before 8:30.


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Well-known member
Oct 7

My flight didn’t leave until 1:30 pm, so I had a little time in the morning for birding even after sleeping in. I packed up all my stuff and headed out to Coyote Valley, just 15 minutes southeast of where I was staying. I drove along Laguna Road, about a mile stretch that goes by cattle pastures before dead-ending at private property at the base of some oak-studded hills. I chose this place for Yellow-billed Magpies and Tricolored Blackbirds, the former a California endemic and the latter nearly so. Neither were lifers but still were must-haves for a trip to the area. A scope would have been really helpful for the blackbirds, since most of the flocks were far from the road, but occasionally some would land on the power lines or visit the watering container right by the road, so eventually I got decent looks at both the Bicolored form of Red-winged Blackbird and Tricolored Blackbird, plus Brewer’s Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird. Yellow-billed Magpies were calling from the hillside, and while I did manage to see them, they were rather distant (couldn’t make out the yellow bill, but they are the default species here). Having accomplished my mission even if views left much to be desired, I headed to the nearby Coyote Creek trail – I knew nothing of the area but it had looked promising as I drove by it earlier on highway 101. It was a multi-use trail that ran along a creek (Coyote Creek I guess), with cottonwoods and scrub lining the path. It was quite birdy, lots of White-crowned Sparrows, a big group of Cedar Waxwings all along the way, and other common species. Several Red-breasted Sapsuckers were a nice sight, as were two soaring Golden Eagles and perched Red-shouldered Hawks. A flyby Common Merganser was a nice surprise. I racked up 50 species before I had to return to my car and head to the airport. The late flight out heading east had me rolling into my driveway at almost 3 am.

Overall it was a fantastic trip, though too short – I’m already half-considering returning next fall for more, gotta try again for the storm-petrels and I didn’t even get to hike in the redwood forests like I wanted. But then, I’ve never wrapped up a trip to California feeling like I’ve seen it all – there’s always more!


Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Sounds like a great trip - Sabine's Gulls being harassed by jaegers looks pretty cool, as does the all-black-headed Tufted Puffin, not to mention the whales!


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