“Do you think we’ll find it?” July 18, 2012Posted by GGAS in Birding, Sightings
By Dave Quady
No matter what your normal birding pattern is, sooner or later you’ll probably find yourself chasing off in hopes of finding a particular species. Often it’s a potential addition to your life list, which might generate the need (or “opportunity,” as birders usually put it) to visit a new part of the country. Arizona, say, or Texas or Alaska.
Other times it’s an individual bird that gets your blood pumping, maybe one that shows up way out of its normal range. Could be a bird never before found in your favorite birding patch, in your home county, or even in your part of the world. You might want to chase it, or a friend might suggest a chase. Either way, one is likely to ask, Do you think we’ll find it? … and then hope for an encouraging reply.
California birders got a jolt to their chasing impulse recently when they learned that PRBO Conservation Science biologist Peter Warzybok had detected a Northern Gannet flying near Southeast Farallon Island early on the morning of April 25. Within hours, links were published to distant flight shots, and before nightfall Sophie Webb’s spectacular full-frame photos made the rounds.
A Northern Gannet! A beautiful member of the Sulidae family that breeds in cliffside colonies along the north Atlantic coastlines of North America and Europe. But there are no known records anywhere in the Pacific Ocean. So how did it get here? The next day, Pacific Seabird Group researchers reported that a Northern Gannet had been seen in the northeastern Chukchi Sea in 2010, when the Northwest Passage was ice-free, and seen again a few days later further west near Barrow, Alaska. Perhaps the question had been answered.
Chasers began to wonder: Will it stay around? The answer came on May 1, when the bird was seen again. Next chaser question: Is there a chance of seeing it? The answer was another yes: Dedicated pelagic birding trips to the Farallons were scheduled for July 15, and for August 5 and 19.
But that’s a long time off! Can’t we try sooner? cried the chasers. A third “yes,” since whale-watching boats visit the Farallons on many summer weekends.
In mid-June, Riverside birder Curtis Marantz began to investigate the possibilities. He learned that space was available on whale-watching boats on Saturday and Sunday, June 23 and 24, and began to solicit interest among his southern California birding friends. One of them called me, and I didn’t even ask, Do you think we’ll find it?
I just told him, sure, I was interested, and offered a place to sleep before and after the trip.
Curtis and the skipper settled on Sunday June 24 as the date. Seventeen birders joined the 29 whale-watchers already signed up, and at 8:00 am we set off from Gashouse Cove Marina in San Francisco aboard the catamaran “Outer Limits.”
Since this was primarily a whale-watching trip, the skipper’s first target was North Farallon Island, where humpback whales had been spotted. There we found another boat, the Salty Lady, already on station with a load of whale-watchers.
And there were whales. Even though we birders would have preferred heading straight to Southeast Farallon Island, it was pretty neat to see humpback whales waving their pectoral fins, fluking and – best of all – breaching. Two whales even breached simultaneously at least once.
Finally we headed for Southeast Farallon Island. En route there were smaller islands to scan for the Northern Gannet, and the dimensions of the challenge in front of us became clearer. There were thousands of nesting Common Murres and other species spread out upon rock surfaces that seemed much too large to search through carefully in the short time we’d have available.
And there were distractions. Although the Northern Gannet was uppermost in our minds, it was hard not to spend time enjoying close views of Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, and Pigeon Guillemots.
At last we drew near Southeast Farallon Island, on seas calm enough that we could approach as closely as regulations permit. About 12:15 pm the engine idled and we stood 100 yards from an immense rock face covered with tens of thousands of nesting Common Murres, scanning intently for our target bird. Minutes passed, and discouragement grew. Half-whispering, I asked the birder alongside me, Do you think we’ll find it?
The skipper’s action delivered the answer. He gunned the engine to move on, and our time was up.
And then the mood changed.
The engine slowed to idle again, and chattering arose among the birders. Someone asked, “Do you have the bird?” and another asked, “Where is it?” For what seemed like minutes there were no clear answers. Finally we all realized that someone did have the gannet in view, but exactly where it was took much longer to be communicated. Then came the challenge of reconciling the directions we heard with the scene before us.
But eventually everyone – even the binocular-less whale-watchers – located the Northern Gannet . . . which is roughly in the middle of the photo above. Can you see it?
Fortunately Larry Sansone could, for it was he who first spotted the bird.
Excitement lingered for quite awhile. The Salty Lady pulled alongside, and I suspect that its whale-watchers also got a look at the gannet. Eventually, though, the aura faded, camera shutters stopped clicking, and our skipper set a course back to San Francisco.
Curtis and Larry got the thanks they so richly deserved, photographers traded looks at each others’ viewing screens, and our thoughts turned to other things, like . . .What’s for dinner? . . . and Any good birds to look for in SF? . . . and Did you think we’d find it?
You know . . . normal birder thoughts.
P.S. Two birders went out the day before our trip and didn’t see the gannet. Nor did the thirty birders who took our same boat on June 30. Or birders on the July 8th, 14th or 15th boats. But no doubt other birders will try again, later in July and in August.
I wonder how many of them are asking one another, Do you think we’ll find it?
Dave Quady has been an active birder for about 30 years. He regularly leads field trips for Golden Gate Audubon Society and also teaches a North American owls class. Friends say he’s usually up for a good bird chase. Especially for an owl.Tags: birding, Farallon Islands, humpback whale, Northern Gannet, pelagic birding, PRBO Conservation Science, whale watching.