Friday, April 17, 2015

Here Be Albatrosses: Our First Pacific Pelagic

Ah, the Pacific Ocean. Our longing eyes have scanned your vast and mighty waters endlessly, searching, without hope, for glimpses of Captains Nemo, Hornblower, Ahab, or Wolf Larsen. Somewhere out there are are Blue Whales, Mola mola, and Giant Squid. More to the point, there are albatrosses. That there are albatrosses off the Oregon coast is something that my brain has only barely managed to register as fact, and yet we were certain to see some once we got out on the open sea for our first ever pelagic on the Pacific.

Yaquina Bay Bridge at sunrise

This would be the inaugural voyage for a new company, Oregon Pelagic Tours, setting out from Yaquina Bay around 7:30a. This was in mid-February, and the earliest molting Red-necked Grebes were starting to take on a cleaner, more dapper look. Large numbers of Surf Scoters and Western Gulls combined with lesser numbers of assorted cormorants, loons, and diving ducks close to the rock jetty. As we made our way out of the harbor, we started seeing more and more alcids: Common Murres, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets.

Red-necked Grebe looking handsome

One of the first good birds seen on the trip was a Parakeet Auklet, which both Maureen and I were able to see, but only poorly. It was certainly an auklet -- we can swear to that much -- although we wouldn't have been able to say which kind, since it stayed relatively distant, and the waves insisted on keeping it hidden 80% of the time. Oh well, it'll have to be a lifer for another day.

But soon, the main attraction was upon us. Our expected albatross for the day was Laysan, with hopes of maybe (fingers crossed) finding a Short-tailed or two. What was not expected was that we'd be swamped by roughly two dozen Black-footed Albatrosses over the course of the day, outnumbering Laysans by a comfortable margin. Seeing an albatross at all was one of the pinnacles of our birding careers, especially out west, and here we had absolute beauties from two different species. 

Black-footed Albatross

Just a ridiculous number of Black-footed Albatrosses. Six in this photo alone.
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!
Laysan Albatross

Joining them in good numbers were Northern Fulmars, dwarfed by the albatrosses, and with almost half the wingspan. For us, these were nearly as exciting. They were always a remote possibility during the pelagics we've taken out of Florida, but they'd always eluded us. I hadn't imagined that we would find them in such abundance once we got out on the Pacific, but it was fantastic watching them zip every which way, threading the space between the other pelagic species.

Northern Fulmar

Black-footed Albatrosses come in for a landing, while the indefatigable fulmar threads the air on the left side of the photo

Laysan Albatross and Northern Fulmar

The other bird that we were practically guaranteed during the trip, and that we were no less excited about for it's local abundance, was Black-legged Kittiwake. It's a really striking gull, and an awesome compliment to the menageries that gathered in the chum slicks. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that we short-changed them attention-wise, since they had to compete with the most perfect gliding machines ever to grace the skies. 

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-footed Albatrosses and Black-legged Kittiwake

Before we left Savannah, we were warned that even if we never got seasick on the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific would surely do us in. Precautions were taken, but they proved inadequate for one of us, putting our principle photographer out of commission for some stretches of time (unfortunately, only one of us saw a Pink-footed Shearwater). On top of that, we missed some species that were seen briefly, or by only a few (neither of us saw a Parasitic Jaeger or Thayer's Gull). I casually heard one of the spotters mentioned that he'd seen a Mola mola earlier… well, thanks a lot, buddy.

Still, this trip completely lived up to our expectations. We didn't see a huge number of new species, but we did see the expected ones. They were new, and they were magnificent. Albatrosses are no longer merely the stuff of dreams (particularly laudanum-induced ones; see Coleridge, above), but are no less the stuff of legend for their being real and present. As the boat made it's way back into the harbor, we checked the jetty for Rock Sandpipers, which never turned up. We did get one last lifer for the day, though: out on one of the buoys was a solitary Steller's sea lion, clearly much more blonde than the California sea lions that laze on the docks all winter long. Soon afterward we disembarked, partly reminiscing about an amazing day, and partly fantasizing about what we'd see next time.


  1. Sorry about the Parakeets being difficult...that's rough. Such is the way of the pelagic. Albatross are the best birds though, glad you got to meet 2 species.

    Molas often don't stay at the surface when the boat comes close, so if it dives there's no point in calling it out and stopping the boat. Hopefully that's what happened, we always stop for a couple cooperative molas on our trips down here.

    1. Albatrosses make everything ok. Auklet what? Parakeet who? All is forgiven, earlier gripes are obliterated, regret is washed away by euphoria.

      I'm glad to hear that there could be an innocent explanation for the Mola that wasn't. It's just one more item for our boating bucket list.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Wunderbar!
    I hope y'all came away with some lovely big necklaces from the excursions..wait, never mind.

    Brilliant birds. It's nice to have the Fulmars and Kittiwakes accompanying the main dish.

    1. I've never fancied myself a jewelry person, but an albatross does have a certain appeal -- I think I could pull it off.

      Seabirds are tops. And to think that they're out there right now, out of sight, but not out of mind. Man, we need a boat.

  3. Awesome! I'm finally doing an Oregon pelagic later this year and this post has definitely made me psyched for it.

    1. Thanks, Jen! I can't wait to see photos from your pelagic to help psych us up to get out for another one… and then the cycle continues.

  4. There are no finer birds than albatrosses, I agree. So ungainly yet so graceful. For a good read, try Eye of the Albatross, all about the Laysans in Hawaii.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Laura - I'll have to check that out sometime!