Birding Boat Tour Strikes Gold With a Yellow-Billed Loon

Pelagic observations from a recent birding tour on the high seas of San Francisco out of Half Moon Bay.

Yes, most do not associate San Francisco and the high seas, but that county has a huge amount of marine real estate that is not visited all that often.

Our pelagic tour out of Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay on Aug. 11 started in San Mateo County, but was aiming towards Pioneer Canyon and the deep waters of “The City.” We did well.

Inside the harbor there were three pairs of gorgeous Pigeon Guillemots, probably nesting there beside migrant Surfbird and Black Turnstone. Just outside of the break wall we found a pair of gorgeous breeding plumaged Marbled Murrelets, which stayed for a little bit before flying off.

Then we struck gold — a Yellow-billed Loon found with a Common Loon. First to utter the name Yellow-billed Loon was San Francisco teen birder Logan Kahle. Thanks, Logan, for making us look twice.

Heading out towards the shelf we picked up Common Murres, Rhinoceros Auklets in pretty good numbers, a nice group of roosting Steller’s Sea Lions and then the first of many Ashy Storm-Petrels. The shearwaters started with Sooty as is typical, and there were some Pink-footed close to shore and more farther out, the first Buller’s Shearwaters were around as well.

Numbers of Buller’s will climb as the season progresses, and when they peak is a good time to look for the relatively rare Flesh-footed Shearwater, so if you are looking for that one there is time yet this season.

A highlight was a quick but close look of a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel that came to look at the boat. Getting close to the shelf we found the first Black-footed Albatross and then we were made our destination — offshore in San Francisco.

Our aim was to try and get to warm water over the Pioneer Canyon a deep water canyon that leads to an underwater mountain known as the Pioneer Seamount. We did not find warm water, but we definitely found warm-er water, although no strong edge between the cool and the warm, maybe next time.

While we were out there Black-footed Albatross were around much of the time, along with Sabine’s Gull, Cassin’s Auklet, and a superb show of foraging Humpback Whales.

They were diving in synchronized fashion, big ones, little ones, maybe 10 of them in total and you know its a good whale show when you can smell their breath and we did.

Another highlight was in the deep water seeing a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, a good one in San Francisco as they tend to stay way out deep. This was a pale rumped classic Leach’s, not likely a “fancy” one from farther south.

We had fantastic looks at full spooned Pomarine Jaegers, South Polar Skuas, Arctic Tern, Common Tern (an offshore bird in California), and eventually Laysan Albatross. We feel there were two of them actually as the first was boat shy, and the second was as boat friendly as you will see in the photos.

By this point we were heading back, with one Laysan in San Francisco and one in San Mateo counties, same as for the South Polar Skuas, which we determined were two different birds based on photos.

A final addition was a Tufted Puffin on the way back to port, icing on the pelagic cake. There were many Pacific White-sided Dolphins, a few Northern Right Whale Dolphins and a boat load of happy humans.

The next Alvaro's Adventure trip out of Half Moon Bay will be on San Mateo waters Aug. 25, 2012. Click here for more details.

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