Sunday, August 11, 2013

Oregon deep water pelagic trip

Seven species of seabirds in one view! 37 mile offshore from Newport, Oregon. August 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson.
Click for larger view.

On Friday, August 2, 2013, twenty-three experienced seabirders boarded the 43 foot charter boat "Gracie K" and headed west at high speed from Newport, Oregon. This was a specialty trip, advertised as a "Leach's Storm-Petrel and Scripps's Murrelet Search Trip." These two species are rarely found closer than 60 mile from shore, thus not often seen on our typical 8-10 hour pelagic trips that go only 25-30 miles off shore. The goal in chartering this smaller, faster boat for 12 hours was to spend as much time as possible in deep water, beyond 60 miles of shore. Thus, we would not stop for common birds or marine mammals near shore.

The sea was calmer than most days. Flat. Windless. We started just after 7:00 a.m. in fog and a bit of drizzle in patches that lifted for a moment to where we could almost make out the sun, then fogged in again. Our near shore list was quite small. We had Common Murres, several Cassin's Auklets, 2 Tufted Puffins, 1 Northern Fulmar, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, and a few small flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes.

For the first 25 miles off shore of Oregon, the sea floor drops slowly until the water depth reaches 100 fathoms (600 feet or approximately 200 meters deep). From this point at the shelf break, the water starts getting deeper more rapidly. In the next 25 miles the water reaches 1000 fathoms (2000 meters or about a mile deep), and then we would officially no longer be over the North American continent, but over the abyss--the real Pacific Ocean and not the continental shelf.

Black-footed Albatross. Click for larger view.

By 9:30 a.m. we were 25 miles off shore passing our usual trip endpoint in 200 fathoms of water. On queue, a Black-footed Albatross passed by the boat, giving us a once-over. We picked up our first Pink-footed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Sabine's Gull, and Long-tailed Jaeger. The water temperature was still cold--about 54 degrees Fahrenheit. We continued on west at full speed. And we broke out into the sun!

Long-tailed Jaeger. Click for larger view.

Red Phalaropes replaced the Red-necked Phalaropes. The numbers of shearwaters declined significantly. We encountered more Sabine's Gulls and Long-tailed Jaegers.

At 10:45 a.m. we traveled over the last vestiges of the continental shelf--an underwater mountain called Hydrate Ridge for the deposits of frozen methane gas on the bottom. It was here, 43 nautical miles (47 statute miles) west of the Yaquina Bay bar, that we spotted the first of our target species--3 Leach's Storm-Petrels! Unlike the erratic moth-like flapping, changing speed, and shearwater-like brief glides of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Leach's have deeper double-flaps with wings held forward at the wrists and swept back sharply--uncannily looking like common nighthawks!

Our first target species--Leach's Storm-Petrel. August 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson.
Click for larger view.
Now, officially off the continental shelf at 11:00 am, and reaching 1000 fathoms at 60 miles west of Newport, we slowed the boat to a leisurely 6 knots and turned northwest. Almost immediately we sighted our second target bird ahead. We slowed the boat to stop for a pair of Scripps's Murrelets on the water!

Our second target species--Scripps's Murrelet. August 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson.
Click for larger view.
As we continued the water depth increased to 1500 fathom and the water temperature increased to 62F. The deck hand dropped a line in the water and soon pulled in an albacore tuna! A new species joined the list here--Arctic Tern. In this area there were a lot of logs and debris on the water. Every tiny piece of flotsam held an Arctic Tern, and larger logs held several and often Sabine's Gull, too! Numerous Red Phalaropes flew about.

Arctic Tern on the back of a hippo. OK, maybe not. Click for larger view.

Sabine's Gulls and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. Click for larger view.

After an hour we spotted a lone Scripps's Murrelet flying in front of the boat. This was 5 miles NW of our previous sighting. We turned and headed south. Little dorsal and tail fins breaking the surface revealed several Blue Sharks in the warm water. Arctic Terns and Leach's Storm-Petrels were the primary birds here. After another hour and a half we were just ready to start back up the slope waters to get back over the continental shelf again. We again found a pair of Scripps's Murrelets. This time one of the birds was obviously a smaller chick with shorter bill. To think, this chick had just fledged a week or two earlier on the Anacapa Islands off southern California!

Pink-footed Shearwater. Click for larger view.

The captain was keen to head back inshore where he learned there was a hake (Pacific whiting) fleet. These processing ships always attract lots of albatrosses and other seabirds. He desired to see another "white albatross," as it had been several years since he last saw one. Summer is not the expected season for Laysan Albatross. But we found the fleet... and the albatross!

Laysan Albatross. 37 mile offshore from Newport, Oregon. August 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson.
Click for larger view.

Flocks of jaegers, primarily Long-tailed, were attacking flocks of Red Phalaropes and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Spouts from Fin Whales hung in the air in every direction like mushroom clouds in a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Over 250 Black-footed Albatrosses and 60 Northern Fulmars were behind the trawlers and factory ship. There were also 450 Pink-footed Shearwaters and 150 Sooty Shearwaters. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels formed flocks away from the other birds. Jaegers put on an ID clinic.

Katie Ann. Factory ship processing hake.
 Soon it was time to motor back to port. We didn't see anything new on the 2-1/2 hour ride back, but skies were now clear, so we saw higher numbers of shearwaters, phalaropes, and lots of murres as we got to within 8 miles of shore.

Pomarine Jaeger. Click for larger view.

Here is the trip list, which includes everything seen on the boat, from bay to 65 miles off shore.

264 Black-footed Albatross
81 Northern Fulmar
431 Pink-footed Shearwater
173 Sooty Shearwater
189 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
46 Brandt's Cormorant
35 Double-crested Cormorant
58 Pelagic Cormorant
1 Brown Pelican
1 Great Blue Heron
1 Great Egret
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Osprey
98 Red-necked Phalarope
533 Red Phalarope
20 Red-necked/Red Phalarope
199 Sabine's Gull
121 Western Gull
580 California Gull
74 Arctic Tern
1 Common/Arctic Tern
9 Pomarine Jaeger
12 Parasitic Jaeger
82 Long-tailed Jaeger
8 jaeger sp.
377 Common Murre
57 Pigeon Guillemot
50 Cassin's Auklet
9 Rhinoceros Auklet
4 Tufted Puffin
1 American Crow
2 Barn Swallow

Ocean Sunfish
Blue Shark
2 Humpback Whale
8 Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Harbor Seal
1 Steller's Sea Lion
3 Northern Fur Seal

Fin Whale by Joe Blowers.
Click for larger view.

More trip photos.

The Bird Guide, Inc.'s pelagic website.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic pelagic. It's incredible to see such calm seas for one.

    I really like the image of the Pomerine Jaeger - well captured.

  2. I'm so envious! What a great day.

  3. Wonderful post - what a great trip - fantastic photos too.

  4. Very few trips are ever this calm. What a great day we had!