After a pleasant night of sleep (I don’t think all the other birders enjoyed it as much as I did) we woke up heading for the Channel Islands. At first, the birdlife was very similar to the first day’s, with fewer but still present Brown Pelicans, another Skua, several Pomarine Jaegers and numerous shearwaters, including our first Buller’s (lifer).
Buller’s Shearwater is one of those interesting species that doesn’t align well with our land-based sense of what makes a bird rare or not-rare; they’re abundant, but far out at sea so that most people rarely lay eyes on them. And although they range over the whole Pacific, their breeding colonies are clustered tightly enough that a rapid-fire series of relatively local disasters could do the whole population serious harm. So they’re considered a vulnerable species, even as we saw over 200 on our trip.
As we bore towards the southernmost island we were briefly accompanied by a pod of Risso’s Dolphins and spotted a Northern Fur Seal doing that weird Fur Seal thing where they stick their flippers out of the water in a loop and point them skywards to thermoregulate – I initially mistook it for a floating tire.
Also numerous as we neared the islands were phalaropes; mostly Red-necked, a species that I had the good fortune to see at Jamaica Bay a couple years back, but also a small group of Red. Red was the last species I needed to complete the phalarope trifecta! Phalaropes are my second-favorite group of birds, so that was a big moment for me. Shortly thereafter yet another lifer hove into view in the slim dark form of an aptly-named Pelagic Cormorant.
The captain detected a temperature break in the channel – a place where two currents collided, creating an upwell of water and little specks of organic matter from the deep. Birds regard such places as buffets, and the whitish band of foam on the water was flocked over by more phalaropes, gulls, and cormorants. We headed that way in hope of more new birds. Here I picked out the formerly-elusive Leach’s Storm-Petrel at last; the first individual, and most of the rest we would see, were among the dark-rumped subspeceiseseseses (Leach’s Storm-petrel taxonomy is, shall we say, somewhat in flux; the species may be in for multiple splits based on little things like the fact that various subspecies are known to breed on the exact same island and yet remain sharply genetically distinct due to differences in the breeding season etc.)
Another Sabine’s Gull was in the mix, along with the trip’s first Common Tern. Dozens of phalaropes were taking off and landing everywhere we looked. I saw a non-breeding-plumaged Pigeon Guillemot briefly, but much to my frustration it disappeared underwater before anyone else got anything but a brief and unconvincing look at it.
This frustration only got worse when I spotted a Northern Fulmar, only to keep quiet in self-doubt (“maybe just a gull with weird light reflecting off the water onto the bill”) and have someone else call it a moment later. With the constant wind, engine noise, waves, and my throat dry no matter how hard I tried to stay hydrated, I wasn’t sure that I could effectively call a bird even if I had no mental blocks! It was all very well and good to tell myself I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, but I didn’t want to be one of those listers who goes on a trip and just looks at birds that other people point out!
Fretting, I retreated to the stern and continued to squint at storm-petrels. Gradually, the process of watching the sea settled my thoughts back off myself and onto the patterns made by the waves and the birds. We slipped between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, and there a cry went up of “Common Murre!”
I had no qualms about who pointed that one out. I just ran forward and found myself with an excellent, extended look at yet another awesome alcid. We would see more Murres as the afternoon flowed on, but none as cooperative and close as this one.
At San Miguel Island, the leaders decided to take us west, to test the tenor of the sea and decide whether we should spent the night at anchor or head out further. Unsheltered by the islands, things immediately grew choppier and only a few hardy souls rode the bow, let alone the upper deck.
In the stern, someone cried out “Albatross!” and everyone leaped up. Trapped behind tall people, I strained to see the bird before it crossed the horizon to no avail. My funk returned, as well you might imagine.
But not for long. One of those hardy souls on the upper deck spotted a whale spouting in the distance. It looked like a Humpback. We headed in the spout’s direction.
Soon there were more spouts. And then more. And over the next hour or so, we watched some twenty-five Humpbacks and five Blue Whales surrounding the boat, blowing, flipping their flukes, and going about their business with their remarkable grace. They were so close to the boat that we could hear the tonal difference in breathing between the species, so active that no one could hope to see everything, and so immense that I was suddenly struck by the almost comic smallness of our boat on the ocean. This was my first encounter with Humpbacks, as yesterday had been my first encounter with Blue Whales, but even the experienced whale-watchers on board said that it was one of the largest pods they’d ever seen. I found myself just turning in circles, trying to take it all in.
Eventually the whales moved on, and we headed back for the shelter of the islands to anchor for the night. And as we did so, the albatross, or another very like it, returned. This time it stayed with the boat, and so I watched my life Black-footed Albatross until the earth rotated the sun out of sight, feeling entirely content.
And there were yet two more days to come. How could they hope to top this?