Hi birders --
Yesterday, September 25, Laird Lenkel, Tonya Haff, and I did an aerial marine bird and mammal survey off of Big Sur in southern Monterey County. At 12:07 I spotted a strange shearwater, possibly a Cory's, about 20 miles west of Gamboa Point, south of the Lucia Canyon.
The way these surveys work is that one observer on each side of the plane records everything he or she sees within a 50-meter-wide corridor as we are carried at a speed of 90 knots, 200 feet above the ocean surface. This means that each animal is in view for only a few seconds. And we typically can't watch it for the whole time as we have to be ready to record whatever comes next. The survey method works well for species we expect to see, but it's not so good for rarities where we would want a longer look.
When I saw this bird I didn't think much of it. I called its features--ones that didn't fit any species I expected--into my tape recorder and prepared for the next sighting. In fact it wasn't until this morning, as I was transcribing yesterday's observations, that I considered what the features I noted added up to. What I said on the tape was the bird was "like a Sooty Shearwater above, though somewhat paler, with broader wings, and gleaming white underparts, including underwings." I didn't notice the color of the bill or upper tail coverts, but it's nearly impossible to see such localized features from the plane. Perhaps this was just a weird Sooty or Pink-footed shearwater, but it was like none I've ever seen.
Other tubenoses we saw were dozens of PINK-FOOTED and BULLER'S SHEARWATERS, hundreds of SOOTY SHEARWATERS, 1 BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER, and two ASHY STORM-PETRELS. It was a fine survey for cetaceans, as it almost always is off of Big Sur. Laird, in his front-seat position as navigator, noted a few distant large baleen whales, probably Blue and/or Humpback, and we also saw 1 MINKE WHALE and dozens of NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHINS and DALL'S PORPOISES in a few small pods. We rarely see Minke Whale, but the cetacean highlight, for me at least, was seeing two large groups of RISSO'S DOLPHINS. One group of about 220 was just south of Point Pinos and another of about 110 was off of Point Joe. Both groups were very close to shore and the largest ones I've ever seen.
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