You’ve got to be mighty dedicated to stand on the bow of a boat in search of seabirds for 12 straight hours while being battered by the sun and wind. But that’s exactly what birders from the Santa Barbara and Ventura Audubon Society chapters did this past October when I joined them on one of Island Packers’ popular pelagic birding trips.
We gathered at dawn with hopes of spotting something amazing and checking a new species off of our expanding life lists, because thanks to the long stretch of unseasonably warm weather, this promised to be more than your typical birding adventure. Known as “the Warm Blob,” this unique weather anomaly has pushed warm water currents northbound since late 2013, bringing lots of avian species from southerly waters into our neck of the woods.
We first headed toward the west end of Santa Cruz Island and Carrington Point on neighboring Santa Rosa Island. Waters were cooler out in the glassy Santa Barbara Channel, where we saw huge numbers of black-vented shearwaters, whose flotillas also included the occasional northern fulmar, Pomarine jaeger, and red-necked phalarope. Once we cruised south into the gap between the two islands, we started spotting Sabine’s gulls, parasitic jaegers, south polar skuas, rhinoceros auklets, and California gulls. As we approached deeper waters on the south side of Santa Cruz, where upwelling from the 6,300-foot-deep Santa Cruz Basin attracts pelagic species, we found huge rafts of black and least storm petrels rolling in the swells.
Turning southeast, we beelined toward tiny Santa Barbara Island, coming across feeding frenzies of common dolphins, California sea lions, and brown boobies along the way. We even saw a pair of Craveri’s murrelets. Just a quarter-mile off that isle is Sutil Island, a massive rock outcropping that’s become a favorite roosting site for Mexico’s brown boobies. I expected to see just a handful, but then one of the trip leaders started counting all of the ones clinging to the sheer north face. Like everyone else onboard, we were astonished to find 84, which made an impressive end to our trip into the unknown.
To book your own birding trip, see islandpackers.com.