Xantus’s Murrelet and more on SoCal-Northern Baja pelagic trip

2011 March 10
by David J. Ringer

Sunday, I took a pelagic birding trip out of San Diego with friends Charley Burwick and Melanie Driscoll. The trip was part of the San Diego Bird Festival and had an all-star lineup of leaders, including Debi Shearwater, Paul Lehman, and Matt Sadowski.

Xantus's Murrelet, Synthliboramphus hypoleucus scrippsi

A definite trip highlight was seeing and photographing the scarce Xantus’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus scrippsi), which breeds on only a handful of rocky Pacific islands off southern California and Baja California. These birds are about the size of tubby Red-bellied Woodpeckers — so it can be rather difficult to spot them bobbing in the waves.

We encountered other alcids (more on that in a minute), but tubenoses were scarce. We had quick flybys from one Pink-footed Shearwater and a couple of Sooty Shearwaters, and some people got brief looks at Northern Fulmars. But none of them lingered, and we didn’t find any albatrosses. We did have several jaegers, including nice looks at a couple of adult Pomarine Jaegers, and we had several immature Black-legged Kittiwakes.

California Gull, Larus californicus

A beautiful adult California Gull (Larus californicus) following the boat.

Rhinoceros Auklet, Cerrhinca monocerata

We had good numbers of — and good looks at — Rhinoceros Auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata), a crow-sized puffin relative that winters in these waters. Everyone seemed to call them “rhino auklets” or just “rhinos” — certainly much easier to blurt out in a hurry. This individual is just starting to acquire its facial breeding plumes, and it hasn’t yet developed the bill ornament that gives the species its name. We did see one or two birds with “horns” and several with more developed plumes. Here’s a gorgeous shot of a breeding-plumaged Rhinoceros Auklet.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

At one point, a black-and-white bird among a small flock of Rhinoceros Auklets caused a stir – “Common Murre!” Apparently Common Murres (Uria aalge) are irregular winter residents this far south, and the captain manuevered the boat till everyone got good views of the sharp-looking bird.

The other trip alcid, which I didn’t photograph, was Cassin’s Auklet, a small, stubby, gray bird that never afforded great looks but even at a distance was distinguishable from the other alcids we had. I was pleased with four species of these intriguing “penguins of the north”!

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

Brown tones in the mantle, traces of black in the tail, limited white in the outer primaries, and a smudgy bill tip identify this Western Gull as a third-year bird, well on its way to the crisp, clean plumage of adulthood.

Common Dolphin, Delphinus sp.

Hundreds of Common Dolphins were also a highlight.

Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

The bay held Surf Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) — here’s a spectacular male — and other species from Brant to Eared Grebe.

More to come!

Related posts:

  1. Pelagic birding in the Gulf of Mexico: Mississippi Canyon in September
  2. Anyone up for a Big Bend trip?
  3. Northern (Great Grey) Shrike in southwest Missouri
  4. Mexico’s Coronado Islands: Brown Boobies, cormorants, oystercatchers, and pinnipeds

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