Last Sunday I went on the Sacramento Audubon Society's 23rd Annual Pelagic Tour to the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco. Our Dawn Chorus host, lineatus, has written about the islands a couple of times, but this was my first trip.
Contrary to Thomas Friedman, hot, flat and crowded it was not.
Cold, wet and rocky is a better description of being on a chartered boat with 35 other people. We see-sawed and pitched our way from Sausalito Harbor out to the great rocks in the hopes of seeing some interesting pelagic ("open ocean") birds -- including, we hoped, a Northern Gannet that had been seen there off and on over a period of weeks.
I didn't expect a troupe of entertainers to join us on the voyage, but all it took was a little popcorn tossed into the air behind the boat to draw a sizeable contingent of gulls to accompany us most of the way.
These gulls, most of them Western Gulls which breed on the Farallons, were amazing. They could hover and stay right behind us with no effort at all, each of them locking eyes onto the hand of the guy tossing popcorn. He'd brought a giant bag of it, the size of a duffel bag, and he threw it upward a kernel at a time as he pimped for his photographer friend who stood next to him on the pitching deck taking photos.
I'm glad he did so because they were the only good pictures I got for the day.
Interestingly, this guy lost track of a popcorn kernel long enough to stare right at my camera and pose.
Occasionally, a kernel would be missed and plop into the water to be fished out by a gull. Look closely and you can see the popcorn in the mouth of the gull in the foreground.
The gull show was fun, but eventually we made our way out to the islands. The Farallons are a protected marine sanctuary off-limits to visitors without scientific credentials. Boats aren't permitted any closer than 500 yards so as not to disturb the nesting birds. As we approached, the islands looked like nothing so much as a bunch of craggy rocks.
Get a little closer, and you see those rocks oddly have black-and-white spots all over them.
Getting even closer, you can see what those black and white spots really are.
Birds. Tens of thousands of birds.
Big birds. Little birds. Black birds. White birds.
And one bird different from all the rest: a Northern Gannet.
Needless to say, I looked at that and I said to myself:
"You've got to be kidding me. I'm supposed to find a Northern Gannet in THAT?!"
I wasn't the only one aboard who appeared dubious. There was no guarantee it was even there, much less visible if it was. But perseverance is the hallmark of the good birder and collectively, we had a much better shot at success. This boat was full of very experienced Audubon bird nerds, to say nothing of the naturalist on board who acted as our docent and was full of great information. Eventually, a few people claimed to see the Northern Gannet and the trip leader tried to describe the area to point your binoculars. Alas, to me it was something like, "See that island? It's there, by that ledge."
Right. I did what any sane bird photographer does: I started shooting every conceivable spot I could, hoping I'd be able to enlarge the images later once I'd uploaded the photos. Once I got home, I was up till midnight doing exactly that, combing the hundreds of photos I'd taken in a time-consuming, regimented grid, much the same way an archeological dig is laid out.
Left to right, nothing; next row, left to right, nothing; next row -- yawn -- nothing; next row . . . wait, what is that? Is that something? Could it be . . .? Excited now, enlarging, enlarging and . . .
I got it! The Northern Gannet!
Here's the sequence, though I was very far away, so the resolution drops off successively:
Do you see it?
Surely you see it here, right?
I'm sure you've got it now. That golden head stands out once you see it, but it sure didn't in the larger picture.
And here's as close as I can get enlarging it without it dissolving:
I'm betting I don't need to tell you what it was like in my house when, after eight hours on the water, a two-hour drive home, and three hours on the computer, I finally saw this.
"Holy crap, I got it!" is a milder form of what I said.
I was happy, though back on the water earlier, I really hadn't held out hope. I was just enjoying the trip for all the other birds we saw. The most plentiful birds in the water bobbing all over were the Common Murres.
They were easy to see and they were closer to the boat than many others, but hard to photograph because their eyes are black-on-black. With no sun in the gray and overcast sky, there was no "catch light" to be had in their eyes, making the photos somewhat flat.
Bobbing along with the Common Murres were several Pigeon Guillemots, this one successful in securing a fish.
A word here about my photos. This trip was, by far, the most challenging day of photography I've ever had. The fact that I got any of these shots is a celebration even though most are fuzzy around the edges. Shooting moving birds from a boat that was pitching and yawing from side-to-side, as well as up and down, was next to impossible.
It was like trying to shoot from a roller coaster on a trampoline. Most of the time, you no sooner got the image in the frame than the trampoline pitched you up, you lost it, and you simply couldn't lock on the focus if you had it for even a second. Most of my shots looked like this upon later uploading.
The trampoline effect was most pronounced when the captain would slow the boat to look at something interesting and we'd be in a trough between swells. The swells were probably only 3 or 4 feet most of the time, but pausing within a trough was like being a cork in a moving stream; you were totally at the mercy of the moving water. And the captain, wanting to give us the best experience, would slow the boat and announce,
"Whale off the bow at 2:00 o'clock!"
The docent would call everyone forward and you'd have to make your way to the bow, hanging on for dear life, as the boat pitched up and plunged down like a roller coaster. Just impossible to take a photo. I got pitched to the deck flat on my butt and two seated people reached out to grab me, securing my camera and taking a forearm each, as I crab-crawled my way back to the railing.
We saw four Humpback Whales and three Blue Whales this day and it was truly a sight to behold. They'd breach the water and blow, then plunge downward. These were baleen, or filter-feeding whales, and they were lunge feeding, the docent explained. She and a deck hand had put a filter sock over the rail earlier and they hauled it in, showing the tiny krill captured in the attached bottle. These itsy bitsy teensy weensy little crustaceans are the sole diet of these whales. Here's the only photo I managed to get.
The Blue Whale is the largest creature on earth and its size was almost too much to comprehend. As the naturalist explained, "This boat is 56 feet long and weighs 27 tons. The Blue Whale is 90 feet long and weighs 130 tons."
I don't know about you, but I can eat more than a few cocktail shrimp and still be hungry. If you weigh 130 tons, I'm guessing you are never full. "No, no more krill for me, thanks. I'm full," is what one whale says to another, never.
Among the whales, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots and plentiful gulls, we started seeing shearwaters and albatrosses. Although we saw Sooty Shearwaters, Pink-footed Shearwaters, and Flesh-footed Shearwaters, it was hard to distinguish between them from a moving vessel. I only got a few shots of what I think are the flesh-footed variety (the underside of the wings aren't visible to tell).
[Correction: The collective wisdom here says these are cormorants, either Pelagic or Brandt's, and not shearwaters.]
This one, however, is definitely a Pink-footed Shearwater -- mottled underwing, white belly, pale bill with a dark tip.
And here's my trifecta, a shot with Flesh-footed Shearwaters flying over a Pigeon Guillemot and some Common Murres.
Now here's a generally crappy shot of a Pigeon Guillemot in flight. Note its stubby little tail and those bright orange feet tucked behind its body.
And here's an even crappier shot of the only Tufted Puffin I managed to snap a shot of, despite seeing quite a few of them.
We also saw lots of mostly Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, but my photos show nothing but skinny necks sticking up from the swells, pretty useless for sharing. But here's a conga line of cormorants in the far-off distance. Your guess is as good as mine what they are.
The sharper-eyed among you may have noticed back in the gulls-and-popcorn shots that there was a brown bird in one shot that was decidedly not a gull. That large brown bird was an albatross, a Black-footed Albatross to be specific. I'd never seen one before and these guys were an instant hit with me. Very cool-looking birds, much larger than gulls, with 84-inch wing spans.
Here's one in flight which gives you a good idea of their size.
Sitting in the water, they almost seem turkey-like in size and shape. These birds were my favorites of the day. Because I'm not familiar with albatrosses, I'd only ever had knowledge of white ones and I didn't even know these brown beauties were right off shore. Such cool birds.
Here's a good look at one close up and one of my better shots of the day, actually. We were in the process of turning the boat around to head back, so there was a momentary calm that let me get off the roller coaster for a few minutes and allowed me to lock in and focus for a change. A handsome bird, no?
Needless to say, given how lengthy this edition of Dawn Chorus is, it was quite an adventurous day. I picked up a number of birds to add to my life list, which is always fun. Among the other birds seen and later posted to eBird by one of the group leaders were three early-season Northern Fulmars (way off in the distance; I could've been looking at flying black blobs), a single Buller's Shearwater, many Red-necked Phalaropes, a few Red Phalaropes, tons of Western and many Heermann's gulls, a couple of Cassin's Auklets, several Rhinoceros Auklets, a Caspian Tern, many Elegant Terns, and a single Brown Pelican, a bird I expected we'd see more of.
None of these other birds, except the gulls, was I able to photograph, though I've tons of shots with many birds too hard to ID from a distance and presumably containing all of the above.
At the end of the day, some familiar landmarks started coming into view as we neared the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
The lighthouse northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge.
An enormous cargo ship loaded with shipping containers passing under the bridge on its way to the Port of Oakland. This ship was traveling faster than we were.
Beautiful, sunny San Francisco on the other side.
The north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge as we were about to pass under it.
Having spent the day in the open ocean and having started out quite early, all of us were in layered clothing with most of us in hats, gloves and rain suits. As we came into San Francisco Bay, it was warm and sunny and the Bay was dotted with sailboats with people lolling about on the decks, girls in bikinis. We looked like idiots, of course. But hey, they missed out on some awesome birds and breathtaking whales, so we got the better end of the deal.
And as we entered the harbor, who do you think showed up again? The gulls, of course. They were with us once more, hovering right over the stern deck, waiting to see if popcorn would magically appear in the air again.
And sure enough, the popcorn reappeared -- and all was well in the kingdom of the sea once again.