Saturday, July 7, 2012

Alaska: Sea Day, June 27, 2012

Today was a virtual final exam for our birding trip, with a full day at sea sailing around the outside islands of British Columbia, Canada.

Interestingly, as we changed location, distance from land, and depth of water, so changed the distribution of birds we saw.

The morning found us just over the border of Alaska and Canada. Unfortunately, we had passed the large breeding colonies on Forrester Island while we slept. But my disappointment at that omission was rapidly assuaged as we came upon Shearwaters and both Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, with the Ancients being the dominant bird. There were also a few Tufted Puffins in the mix.

We broke for lunch at noon and went back outside when the ship was outside the southern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. As we checked the water here we began to see more and more Black-footed Albatross slowly coursing close to the surface of the water.

Hoping for a Short-tailed Albatross, we began paying very close attention to their bill color, hoping for bright pink. I think we were extremely lucky when we found a pair of Albatross sitting on the water. The initial impression was a much brighter face than the others we were seeing. Avie got the scope on the birds and we were thrilled to see a bright pink color on the bill. We now had all three Albatross which were possible on this trip: Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed.

During this time we had been joined by our new friends Sharon and Roger (newer birders), as well as some people who were simply interested in what we were doing. Sharon had been frustrated with pelagic birding up to this point. But the birds had become so prevalent over the water she began seeing them more easily, enabling her to learn how to spot them. The learning curves in birding are steep, but extremely rewarding!

Birding slowed down and we went inside for a bit for some hot tea and warming up. After about an hour’s lull, we began to spot birds outside the window, so we grabbed our gear and went back outside.

Once again the population had shifted. This time there was a very large group of Storm-Petrels flying nearby. They were so close we were actually able to distinguish field marks with our binoculars, rather than what I like to call “impressions”.

The dominant species were Leach’s Storm-Petrels, with their dark bodies and white rumps. Some of them were close enough that we were able to see the lighter “M” marking on their wings.

I noticed there were a few birds which were grayer and had a dark leading edge on their wings. While Avie was trying to show me a Shearwater in the scope, it magically shifted to one of these birds, a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We noticed there were several mixed in with the Leach’s, as well as limited numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters (really stubby, rounded heads) and a couple more Black-footed Albatross.

By the time we finished, we had amassed quite a group of people, both birders and photographers. I know many of them are going home with photographs of the Albatross, a bird they might have otherwise ignored while looking for whales off the decks of the ship.


Tomorrow will be the dessert of the trip as we rent a car and drive up to the fields surrounding the airport in Victoria, British Columbia, looking for the Sky Larks.

Before I post the list of birds for the day, I’ll share how difficult it is to photograph birds, even ones as big as an Albatross, from the eighth deck of a ship (check the lower right hand corner).


The list:

Black-footed Albatross
Sooty Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Leach’s Storm-Petrel
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Ancient Murrelet
Tufted Puffin

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