California-Fort Bragg

A gathering spot for seabirds from around the Pacific

Fort Bragg, California - August 19th-22nd/2011

After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge I headed north driving through wine country and subsequently through giant redwood forests. It was a beautiful California summer day without a cloud and around 90F. I speculated on my chances to see
Hawaiian Petrel and my mood was optimistic. This was the primary purpose of the four days I had booked with Shearwater Journeys off Fort Bragg the premiere North American location to view this rare species.

As I came over the last mountain ridge just east of the mouth of the Navarro River the sunshine disappeared and as seems to be so often the case in north California a deeply overcast sky and fog with temperatures in the low 70s replaced the seemingly perfect weather just a few miles to the east. One thing I have learned the hard way is that coastal California can be cool even cold even in mid summer. I froze for an entire trip out of Santa Barbara last August. Even after that I never contemplated bring my long underwear to California in August-big mistake.

Typical grey California seascape with Ashy Storm-Petrel

Fort Bragg is about 175 miles north of San Francisco and given the westward slope of the coast is about 200 miles west of Los Angeles. It is the most northerly port in California that has regular pelagic birding trips. Off this coast we know the Hawaiian Petrel is a regular visitor.

The Hawaiian Petrel however is a truly pelagic species that spends most of its time in the open waters of the central North Pacific Ocean. Encounters close to shore are rare. Hawaiian Petrels have been known to forage as far north as the Aleutian Islands to find food for their nestlings. They can embark on impressive trips spanning weeks and covering over 6,000 miles. Squid supplies most of the Hawaiian Petrel’s diet, but the bird also eats fish and crustaceans as well.

Over the last 5 years Shearwater Journeys has had a 50% plus success rate ay finding this species in August off Fort Bragg.


Well I arrived at Noyo Harbor at 0630 and many birders had already arrived. I noted some of the top ABA listers including Paul Sykes and James Huntington both keen on inching forward towards the elusive 900 mark. James Vanderpoel in the middle of a
Big Year was present and accounted for. Mike Danzebaker a well known and travelled seabirder and photographer was on board as was Debi Shearwater and her crew which on this day included Todd McGrath, Abe Borker and master chummer extraoidinaire Wes Fritz.

The Telstar-Debi Shearwater and friends unloading at the end of the day

Well I will cut to the chase-we didn’t see a Hawaiian Petrel. We had a very suspicious bird on Day 1 but it was just to distant to confirm. Day 2 & 3 were marred by flat calm conditions - not great for Pterodromas. Day 4 started off calm but got fairly windy and conditions looked real good with warm water, schools of Albacore and anticipation was high but it was not to be.
Despite missing the target bird we had a very good four days of seabirding with some great photographic opportunities.

Debi Shearwater giving he pretrip address familiar to virtually all serious birders worldwide. Mike Danzebaker & Wes Fritz in the backgound

Rather than go chronologically through the four days I am going to go discuss the various species we were able to study and photograph during the trips and try to provide some insights to birders not familiar with pelagic birding in California on an approach to seeing the seabirds of California.

After Debi Shearwater’s pretrip address we steamed out of Noyo Harbour with great anticipation hardly noticing the rather shabby condition of the harbour which is clearly in a state of decline.

Noyo Harbour, Fort Bragg - post golden age

We cleared the harbour and immediately started seeing a few alcids. Lots of Common Murres with chicks suggested a decent breeding season. Pigeon Guillemots mostly loners were scattered about still in breeding plumage. A single Rhinoceros Auklet followed -one of many we saw each day of the trip.

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Common Murre and chick, off Fort Bragg

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Rhinoceros Auklets, off Fort Bragg

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Pigeon Guillemot, off Fort Bragg

The aforementioned species tend to be found in shore. Marbled Murrelet is another species usually found quite close to shore and is seen on some of the Monterey trips. We did not see this species off Fort Bragg. It is seen quite reliably off Newport, Oregon on the Bird Guide pelagic trips. Cassin’s Auklets tend to be off shore a bit further and can be found well offshore. They are notoriously difficult to photograph despite being relatively common.

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Cassin’s Auklets, off Fort Bragg -one heading away one heading under

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Cassin’s Auklet, off Fort Bragg-

On Day 1 we had a single Tufted Puffin that circled the boat repeatedly but never really settled in. Tufted Puffin is not an easy bird to find in California. The most reliable location is the Farallon Islands where they undoubtedly breed. Not usually accessible Shearwater Journeys runs a yearly trip in early August out to the Farallons specifically for Tufted Puffin. This trip has 100% success rate. It sells out every year so the next best thing would be a trip out of Half Moon Bay which has a reasonably good success rate for this species.

On Day 3 we had what I thought was a single
Xantus’ Murrelet. On reviewing the pictures I noted a second bird in the background that we hadn’t noted at the time. This is relatively northward for this species although they are rarely found as far north as Oregon and accidentally to British Columbia.

0Xantus Murrelet "scrippsi", Fort Bragg, California, USA-a
Xantus’ Murrelet Synthlibroamphus hypoleucus scrippsi off Fort Bragg

Xantus’ Murrelet is a much sought after endemic seabird to California and the Baja peninsula. There are two subspecies the nominate S.h. hypoleucus and S.h.scrippsi. There is increasing evidence that these are different species. There is limited evidence of interbreeding, they have easily differentiated vocalizations and currently DNA work is being done which is supportive of the two species concept but is as yet not published. I wouldn’t go home without seeing both these birds.

The nominate subspecies breeds in the more southern areas of its range including Gaudalupe and San Benito Islands off Baja with a couple of reports from Santa Barbara Island.
“Scrippsi” breeds mostly in the Channel Islands. (link to paper on biology of Xantus’ Murrelet) The ferry out to Santa Cruz Island to see the Island Scrub Jay gives you a decent chance to see “scrippsi” during the breeding season. The nominate species can be found on trips from San Diego. On all three Labor Day Searcher pelagics I have taken we have seen both “hypoleucus” & “scrippsi”. Fall trips off San Diego are the most likely to find Craveri’s Murrelet as well although you have to be real lucky. If you really want this species and you aren’t obsessed with your ABA list go to the Gulf of California were they breed.

Xantus's Murrelet- S.h.hypoleucus-off San Diego, CA,
Xantus’ Murrelets S.h. hypoleucus, off San Diego - note distinctive white crescent above eye

The next group of near shore birds we started to encounter were phalaropes. The California coast is definitely the best spot at sea for excellent opportunities to study numbers of both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes. We saw 100s of both of these species off Fort Bragg and last year off Half Moon Bay we had a mega flock of about 20,000 birds a truely awesome sight.

Mixed phalarope flock off Fort Bragg

Red-necked Phalarope, off Fort Bragg-showing typical streaky back

Red Phalarope, off Fort Bragg- living up to the British name “Grey Phalarope”

As we got a few miles off-shore on the first day we were treated with very close studies of both Ashy & Fork-tailed Storm Petrels in good numbers.

For birders used to Storm-petrels dabbling off the back of the boat California’s storm-petrels will come as a bit of a culture shock. They often congregate in big flocks on the water and just as your boat gets within almost decent range they burst off the water scattering in a hundred different directions. It takes some time and considerable practice to get a feel for the unique jizz of each of the many dark-rumped storm-petrels that occur off California.

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Ashy Storm-Petrel off Fort Bragg

The Ashy Storm-petrel is a near endemic breeder to California with about half the birds breeding on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. The Channel Islands is the home of most of the remaining Ashy Storm-petrels with a small population breeding on the Coronado Islands in Mexico.

Monterey Bay is the premier location to see large numbers of Ashy Storm-petrels. They are not a regular feature as far north as Fort Bragg and are not seen on many trips this far north. Once you get south of the Channel Islands they again thin out and you may well not see this species off San Diego.

Ashy Storm-petrel is medium in size between Black and Least Storm-petrels. It has some ashy tones to the body if seen well, a deeply forked-tail and a pale stripe down the underwing panel which can be a useful diagnostic aid at sea.

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Ashy Storm Petrels showing pale underwing panel & forked tail

To quote Debi Shearwater “Fork-tailed Storm-petrel can not be found reliably anywhere in California”. Although they were present in good numbers on these trips this is not usual and the occurrence of this species in California is sporadic. Clearly Monterey Bay and spots to the north are far more likely to encounter this species with sightings in Southern California being very rare.

If you have your heart set on seeing this species
Westport Pelagics, in Washington or a trip with Bird Guides off Oregon are probably your best bets.

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Fork-tailed Storm-petrel off Fort Bragg

Fork-tailed Storm-petrels do breed in California in low numbers on small off shore islands in Del Norte and Humboltd Counties with breeding being suspected in the Farallon Islands.
Breeding occurs all along the Pacific Northwest through the Aleutians to the Kuril Islands off Russia.

On Day 3 we encountered a flock of well over 100 Fork-tailed Storm-petrels with a dozen or so Ashy Storm-petrels mixed in.

Fork-tailed & Ashy Storm-petrel flock off Fort Bragg

Although the only grey and black Storm-petrel lighting at sea often makes Fork-taileds appear dull and dark. In molt & while foraging the tail may not show a fork which can be confusing. Like all Storm-petrels the jizz of the Fork-tailed can change considerably based on whether it is foraging or travelling or evading. The dark under forewing is often a useful diagnostic marker at sea.

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Fork-tailed Storm-petrels showing dark under forewing

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Molt & foraging activity can make Fork-tailed Storm-petrels appear relatively ‘’forkless”

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A few more of the various faces of Fork-tailed Storm-petrel

On Day 1 and 3 we had brief encounters with Wilson’s Storm-petrels. This is a relatively uncommon to rare storm-petrel off California occurring in small numbers and usually encountered as singular individuals.

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Wilson’s Storm-petrel off Fort-Bragg

The other “California” storm-petrels-
Black & Least breed mostly in Baja and are much easier found further south. Although most falls Monterey Bay can host a few Black & Least Storm-petrels the best area for these species is undoubtedly off Southern California. Trips run by SoCal Birding in the late summer and fall off San Diego & Santa Barbara are usually good for dark Storm-petrels. The 5 day Searcher Pelagic run after Labor Day invariably finds all the regular “California” storm petrels including the newly described Townsend’s Storm-petrel, Oceanodroma soccoroensis which breeds in summer on Gaudalupe Island, Mexico. The Searcher Pelagic is usually led by Todd McGrath who is clearly one of the most experienced & knowledgable seabirders in California and has unparalleled expertise in this tricky group of seabirds.

In California the Leach’s Storm-petrel complex are usually found far off-shore. A great paper on this group -OCCURRENCE AND IDENTIFICATION OF THE LEACH’S STORM-PETREL COMPLEX OFF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA by Howell,McGrath,Huenfeld & Feenstra can be found in North American Birds Vol.63. #4. They describe two new species of storm-petrel in this work the aforementioned Townsend’s Storm-petrel and the Ainley’s Storm-petrel, O.cheimomnestes .The later breeds in winter on Guadalupe Island, Mexico and has not as yet been recorded in the state of California.

The rest of this report is dedicated to
Wes Fritz, master chummer for Shearwater Journeys. Wes makes any pelagic trip more enjoyable with his unique sense of humour and candid editorializing. He works his magic with everything from popcorn to fish oil through beef fat and giant hoagie sandwiches. For me no pelagic trip seems quite complete without at least a twenty minute “bull session” with Wes.

A rare contemplative moment with Wes Fritz

Wes Fritz clowning around

Wes Fritz- a man with a large appetite for life- Ron Howard trying to avoid any fallout and Abe Borker in the background

Wes is also an accomplished birding guide who specializes in providing his clients unique photographic opportunities with hard to find California specialties such as LeConte’s Thrasher and Mountain Quail. If your looking for a guide in California, Wes is top notch and his guiding enterprise California Target Birds comes highly recommended

Wes generally starts chumming just off-shore using popcorn. This initially brings in a fair selection of gulls-
Western Gulls predominate but Heerman’s and California Gulls are present in small numbers.Although not common in late August later in the season Glaucous-winged and Herring Gulls often join the mix.

First cycle Heerman’s Gull, off Fort Bragg

A bit further out the mob of gulls often attracts terns. From Monterey north Arctic and Common predominate. We saw a selection of both species on all four days.Off Santa Barbara and south Elegant and Royal Terns are common as well but tending to be closer to shore than the “Comic” terns..

Juvenile Arctic Tern passing by, off Fort Bragg

The basic premise is the popcorn attracts the gulls and the other birds are attracted to the activity. the works especially well for jaegers & skua. Without a doubt early fall off shore California is the premiere place in the world to study numbers of jaegers. Mid to late August is the peak for adult Long-taileds with the juveniles peaking in early Sept. By October most of the Long-tailed Jaegers will be gone. At peak season it is possible to see 100 Long-taileds in a day with 20 plus not being uncommon. Long-tailed were seen in good numbers daily off Fort Bragg.

0Long-tailed Jaeger -adult, Fort Bragg, California, USA-mt0Long-tailed Jaeger- adult, Fort Bragg, California, USA-oq0Long-tailed Jaeger- adult, Fort Bragg, California, USA-oy0Long-tailed Jaeger, Fort Bragg, California, USA-y
Adult Long-tailed Jaegers, off Fort Bragg

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Adult Long-tailed Jaeger kleptoparasitizing a Northern Fulmar (with some of Wes Fritz’s special Fulmar chow)

The majority of the Long-tailed Jaegers we saw were adults. We did see a few younger birds including a stunning dark juvenile. Dark Long-taileds are exceedingly rare and despite having seen several hundred Long-tailed Jaegers this was my first dark morph. As luck would have it I was in the head indisposed when the bird was called out and despite a very rapid resolution to things I missed the opportunity to get decent picture and managed only one shot of the bird heading off. As luck would have it there was no encore.

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First winter Long-tailed Jaeger, off Fort Bragg

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Very rare dark morph juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger

Pomarine Jaegers
also but on a good show with many adult birds some with intact tails. One rather mangey adult hovered over the boat repeatedly then landed and began to gobble down popcorn- a first in my experience. Most of the Pomarines we saw were adults but a few older immature birds were seen as well but no first cycle birds which must be still in the arctic.

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Adult Pomarine Jaeger, off Fort Bragg

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Enjoying some popcorn

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Molting adult Pomarine Jaeger, off Fort Bragg

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Probable third summer Pomarine Jaeger- note barred underwing coverts with well developed breast band

We had a few Parasitic Jaegers each day and South Polar Skua on two of four days. The numbers of these species will increase as fall progresses. A few Pomarines and Parasitics will overwinter in the mid to southern parts of California.

As we continue off shore gull numbers recede and they are replaced by a numbers of Northern Fulmars and subsequent multiple Black-footed Albatrosses.

0Black-footed Albatross & Northern Fulmar, Fort Bragg, California, USA-ao
Black-footed Albatross & Northern Fulmar, off Fort Bragg

Northern Fulmars were especially abundant with hundreds over the four days. The entire spectrum of colour morphs were noted from the typical brownish Aleutian breeding birds to the whitish birds that breed further north in the Bering Sea. Many were in heavy molt a few had completed molt and were pristine.

0Northern Fulmar, off Fort Bragg, Californis, USA-yt0Northern Fulmar, Fort Bragg, California, USA-0Northern Fulmar, Fort Bragg,California, USA-b0Northern Fulmar, off Fort Bragg, California, USA-0Northern Fulmar, off Fort Bragg, Californis, USA-qa0Northen Fulmar, Fort Bragg, California, USA-li0Layasan Albatross, off Fort Bragg, California, USA-ss
A selection of Northern Fulmars in various stages of molt, off Fort Bragg

Other than the Fulmars the commonest seabird behind the boat were definitely Black-footed Albatrosses. Nesting on Midway and other islands north of Hawaii (a few off Japan) this species ranges widely in the North Pacific. To my eye it is not nearly as graceful a species as its cousin the Laysan Albatross but it has a subtle beauty with a very intricate plumage pattern very poorly illustrated in the standard references.

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Black-footed Albatross, a subtle beauty, off Fort Bragg

We had at least 10-15 Black-footed Albatrosses following the boat on all four days and up to forty or more at times. These birds always seem voraciously hungry. They seem to love popcorn, beef fat and Wes’s hoagie sandwiches. On day 4 we came across a large group of Black-footed albatrosses feeding on a Giant Squid- very cool.
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Black-footed Albatrosses enjoying popcorn, off Fort Bragg

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Black-footed Albatrosses enjoying beef fat, off Fort Bragg

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Black-footed Albatrosses enjoying one of Wes’s hoagie sandwhiches, off Fort Bragg

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Black-footed Albatrosses finally enjoying something not prepared by Wes Fritz- a large squid, off Fort Bragg

We encountered quite a few banded Black-footed Albatrosses over the four days. Most of these birds are probably banded on Midway Atoll is the largest breeding sites-roughly two-thirds of all Laysan Albatrosses breed on Midway’s two islands, as do one-third of all Black-footed Albatrosses. Shearwater Journeys staff keep careful track off all banded albatross (and other seabirds) which provides significant data to seabird researchers.

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Banded Black-footed Albatrosses ,off Fort Bragg

No two Black-footed Albatross are exactly alike. There is considerable variation in the intricate plumage patterning especially in the “paleness” of the plumage which is affected by age and wear and fading from sun exposure. Abe Borker suggested that breeding birds are often heavily bleached by the sun. We observed a very pale bird although very worn and undoubtedly bleached to some degree it is difficult to explain the very pale underparts by this hypothesis unless it was laying on its back sunbathing.

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Very pale and faded Black-footed Albatrosses, off Fort Bragg

It is always fun watching Black-footed Albatrosses crashing into the surf behind the boat in there clumsy way. Virtually any summer/fall pelagic off central California will encounter this species. They love to follow the boat and they usually provide excellent photographic opportunities.

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A selection of Black-footed Albatrosses, off Fort Bragg

Well Black-footeds aren’t the only expected albatross in California. Laysan Albatrosses have become increasingly regular in small numbers over the last decade. This is a direct result of the successful and growing breeding colony on Guadalupe Island off Baja. Breeding on Guadalupe was first noted in 1986 and they probably bred for the first time off Mexico in 1983/84. The population is growing steadily with close to 200 pairs by 2004. Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay pelagic trips seem to be very reliable for this species.

We had a single very cooperative Laysan Albatross on Day 2 and a quick fly by at the end of Day 4.

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Laysan Albatross wings into the Telestar

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Circles boat a few times to ensure photographers get awesome pictures

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Crashes into the feeding frenzy to get snack

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Finds a tasty morsel supplied by Chef Fritz

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Digesting tasty morsel

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Adios, back to Guadalupe its bloody freezing up here

Alcids, jaegers, storm-petrels, albatross - what have we forgotten. Off course!!!! Shearwaters. California is certainly one of the top pelagic destination in the world to study this family. Thirteen species of shearwaters have been recorded in California waters. Shearwater Journeys recorded 7 species of shearwaters on Monterey Bay on a single trip a few years back and 5-6 species trips are fairly regular. August is a bit early for the shearwaters with Buller’s just arriving and Flesh-footed not yet arrived. Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters were seen on all four days in good numbers.

Breeding Islands & Distribution of Pink-footed Shearwaters

Although I think of
Pink-footed Shearwaters as a ‘California” specialty they breed far to the south and range widely after breeding along the eastern Pacific coast. A very interesting website dedicated to the Pink-footed Shearwater (with some great recordings of vocalizations) states - “The Pink-footed Shearwater is endemic to Chile, breeding on only three known islands. The largest known breeding population is found on Isla Mocha, a continental island, with smaller breeding colonies found on the oceanic islands of Robinson Crusoe and Santa Clara in the Juan Fernández Archipelago. During the nesting season, breeding birds remain in Chilean waters. After chicks fledge, shearwaters undertake an impressive migration northward to spend the non-breeding season in waters off the coasts of Peru and North America. In North America, they range along the Pacific Coast from Baja California, Mexico to British Columbia, Canada. Pink-footed Shearwaters appear to prefer the shallower, colder and typically more productive oceanic waters that occur over the continental shelf and shelf-break.”

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Pink-footed Shearwaters, off Fort Bragg

Pink-footed Shearwaters vary considerably inn the amount of darkness on the underside and a “dark morph” exists. It is quite rare and I have never seen one. They do see them on occasion on Monterey Bay and here is a link to some pictures of a dark morph Pink-footed Shearwater from a recent Debi Shearwater Blog entry.

I know but where are the pink-feet?

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Pink-footed Shearwaters, off Fort Bragg

Sooty Shearwaters
were seen in relatively small numbers with a few individuals around the boat most of the time. No large flocks were seen. Monterey Bay can at times host flocks of 1000s of Sooty Shearwaters with the peak being later in September.

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Sooty Shearwaters, off Fort Bragg

We had
Buller’s Shearwaters on each of the four days. They begin to arrive in California waters in late August and are generally seen in good numbers by mid-September a few may linger into the winter months. Buller’s Shearwaters breed on the Poor Knight Islands off New Zealand then disperse across the north Pacific although they may range as far north as Alaska they are most common off the coast of California.

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Buller’s Shearwater, off Fort Bragg

The other regular shearwater species in California include Black-vented Shearwater which breed off Baja and are commonest off Southern California in late fall and winter. They can be found regularly from the boat that takes you out to Santa Cruz Island during that period. I saw a number off San Diego on a whale watching excursion in March. They are seen in small numbers in fall in central California.

Flesh-footed Shearwater is never common in California but central California(Monterey, Half-Moon Bay, Bodega Bay) in mid Sept to early March is the best bet. Short-tailed Shearwater is primarily a late fall to winter visitor. The peak time for rare shearwaters and petrels is probably Sept- early October.

Well that about covers it. Ooops- I almost forgot an honorary seabird-
Sabine’s Gull

Like jaegers I don’t think there is any place else like California for seeing numbers of Sabine’s Gulls. On the Atlantic I never recall seeing more than a few in a day. Off California it is common to see small flocks of Sabine’s Gulls and seeing 20 or more in a day isn’t terribly unusual. In August most of the Sabine’s gulls were adults some still in nice alternate plumage. We did see a few juveniles like the one pictured below with just a couple incoming grey mantle feathers.

Adult Sabine’s Gull joining the big boys, off Fort Bragg

Juvenile Sabine’s Gull, off fort Bragg

Currently with SoCal Birding and Shearwater Journey’s there is an excellent choice of pelagic expeditions of California. A combination of trips off Southern California and Central California in September is a logical choice for visitors hoping to see all the California seabird specialties. My advice to seabirders considering a trip to California is - go soon!!! If certain planned retirements proceed as anticipated the number and diversity of trips in the future may be much more limited than the great selection available currently.

Debbi Shearwater shares some of her extensive knowledge of world seabirding - picture by Lauris Phillips

Lastly I would like thank Debi Shearwater who has been masterminding pelagic birding off the central California coast for over 35 years. My first pelagic trip off California was a Shearwater Journey where I saw my 600th North American bird a Buller’s Albatross on Monterey Bay. I think it is safe to say that no one has done more than Debi to promote pelagic birding in North America. There is no serious North American birder that hasn’t been on a number of Debi’s trips and I am sure there are very few dedicated world birder that haven’t participated in a Shearwater Journey. Thank you Debi for your tremendous contribution to the North American & World birding communities- we greatly appreciate you.

See ya
Next stop - The Southern Ocean off New Zealand- Snares, Antipodean, Macquarie, Campbell & Chatham islands

Kirk Zufelt
World Pelagic Birding Headquarters
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario