Saturday, August 11, 2012

How I got started leading pelagic birding trips

Pelagic birding trips offer exciting seabirds such as this Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross off Newport, Oregon. October 22, 2011 by Greg Gillson.
On January 29, 1994 I found myself with a group of other birders motoring up on a dragnetter 30 miles offshore from Newport, Oregon. Rich Hoyer, then a student at Oregon State University but now a field trip leader with Wings, had put together this pelagic birding trip. It was the first ever organized group winter pelagic off Oregon. I couldn't sleep the night before the trip, I was so excited. And the day dawned wonderfully. The seas were unseasonably calm, the temperature surprisingly warm--perhaps in the low 50's. As a Laysan Albatross--my second one ever--wheeled up to the delighted cheers of all, I said to myself: "I want to do this more often!"

For the previous ten years I had usually managed to get in a fall pelagic trip each year. So I was familiar with all of the birds. In fact, I had been the impromptu leader on a Portland Audubon pelagic tour from Tillamook, Oregon, a few months earlier, in September 1993. The leader of the trip for which I signed up called me the night before the trip to say he was sick. He asked me if I could take over for him. I arrived at the dock early to find the charter was not expecting us! So I led participants around the bay for 2 hours looking at birds until the captain could arrive to take us out for the day!

But this January pelagic trip was unique, without the jaegers, phalaropes, terns, and shearwaters of typical autumn trips. But that's not all. Besides the normal alcids--Common Murres, Cassin's Auklets, and a few Rhinoceros Auklets--we tallied just shy of 500 Ancient Murrelets--a number not since equalled or surpassed! Because this was a "no-host" trip, there were no assigned guides. I naturally fell to explaining field marks of the seabirds that were new to many around me. Rich noted that I made a very good seabird guide. The seed was planted.

Pelagic birds: Ancient Murrelets
Ancient Murrelets off Newport, Oregon. April 18, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

 When we encountered the fishing vessel offshore there were many pelagic birds feeding behind it: 5 Black-footed Albatrosses, 70 Northern Fulmars, 120 Herring Gulls, 200 Glaucous-winged Gulls, and lesser numbers of 5 other gull species. While there we were graced by 2 Laysan Albatrosses!

By the time our boat had returned to port my mind was already making plans. The next Oregon seabirds pelagic trip I attended on August 27, 1994 was one I organized and led myself--The Bird Guide, Inc.'s first pelagic trip.

It has now been 18 years since those two memorable pelagic trips in 1994. I've organized and led over 150 trips since then--an average of about 8 per year. But you know what? I still can't sleep the night before a pelagic trip, I'm so excited.

We still have some spaces left this autumn on upcoming trips. If you'd like to join me, please visit The Bird Guide, Inc.'s website for more detailed information on our pelagic birding trips.


  1. This is a terrific story Greg, I'm in awe when I think of how many people you have educated in over 150 trips!

  2. Thanks, Mia. With 20-30 persons per trip that's somewhere between 3000 and 4500 total participants (many repeats). It is definitely disappointing, though--for both the organizer and the participant, when winds come up and force a long-planned trip to cancel. Like today's canceled trip due to high winds and waves from hot weather inland. :-(

  3. Nothing comes up on the link, and I tried The Bird Guide on Google, and information comes up there, but when I clicked on that, no site either.

  4. OK that does it - I'm booking a pelagic trip for this spring! I've been putting it off far too long.

    Any seasickness remedies you can suggest?

    Stewart M

  5. Great post. I have yet to go on a pelagic trip. I should do that sometime

  6. To anonymous: Please try again The site has existed at that address for at least 10 years.

    Stewart, I find that excitement and involvement is the best seasick prevention. Unfortunately, if you get carsick, airsick, or have trouble on Mr. Toads Wild Ride, you'll likely succumb. Additional hints are in the preparation material we provide every time you register for a trip.

    Yes you should, Dan. Thanks!

  7. Greg, I enjoyed reading your story on how you started leading these trips. What a glorious time you have, as well as the people that attend. I really do hope to go on a pelagic birding trip some day in the future. Wonderful post!