Took my first, and perhaps only, pelagic birding trip with the LA Audubon Society out of Santa Barbara Harbor on April 30. I found out later that this is the notorious rough-water trip. I also discovered as we returned to harbor that half the birders were on scopalamine, scopase or dramamine. The other half, I heard, including me, got seasick. The first hour, as we motored up the coast toward Point Concepcion, past Sands Beach where I watch snowy plovers and Rancho Dos Pueblos, where Serin will be married, I was fine, except for my surprise at seeing the ocean surface coated with oil slicks, allegedly from seeps in the ocean floor. As we turned out to the open ocean, however, the ups and down soon made me queasy, and a lot more was going up than down. After breakfast left me, the man behind the snack counter gave me a garbage bag, which was my trusty companion the rest of the trip. We left at 7 a.m., got back at 8 p.m., so I would say I was sick for 12 of the 13 hours, much of it spent lying on my back on a bench, half-dozing, but generally in suspended animation.
That said, the birds were, to my mind, amazing. The boat would cruise at speed until it found a slick, whatever that was, where birds were feeding. We would then float down the slick, feeding chum off the stern, and the loudspeaker would call out sightings. Having never seen ocean birds before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised at the good views we had of most species. Admittedly, there were some that excited people that I may have seen but couldn’t tell, because they were spots on the waves or were flying with other, equally nondescript varieties. The big find of the day was a Murphy’s Petrel – a lifer even for the man at the microphone. I was at the rail when people were talking about it, but, not knowing what I was looking for, I can’t say I saw it.
Easier, and more exciting for me, were the few birds that were distinctively marked, which usually meant having some white on them. Laysan’s Albatross, for one, was unmistakable, both due to its size and its color. But my favorite of the day was the Sabine’s Gull, a bird I had never even heard of before, which flashed beautiful black-and-white stripes on its forewing as it fly. Other seabirds were generally muddy – e.g., the Rhinoceros Auklet and Sooty Shearwater – but the Sabine’s Gull was crisp and handsome.
By far the most numerous birds were the Phalaropes, both Red and Red-necked. I have no idea which there were more of, because for the most part the flocks took wing as the boat approached them; but there were sharp individuals of each species that floated close by. In all, we saw hundreds of them, dainty little birds for such a big ocean. Another easy-to-identify find were the black terns. Having seen these in Minnesota I was not as excited as the Santa Barbara birder who said he had never seen so many – seven – at one time.
In all, I’d say the birds are most interesting to life listers, as they are largely drab, don’t do much and all inhabit the same environment. But what magic there is comes from that environment – being totally out of touch with land, sitting in an endless, infinite expanse of ocean, and coming across birds, like the albatross, that make this their home.