Pelagic Birding off Northern & Central California, USA

The California Current is a hundred mile wide river of ocean water running from north to south along the west coast of North America. Coastal upwelling brings cooler, nutrient-rich water to the surface resulting in an immense biomass. To see evidence of this one only has to watch . In the fall, the California Current weakens and subtropical water may push closer to the shore, bringing warmer water species. In the late fall and winter, a countercurrent (Davidson Current) develops pushing water up from the south, this may include species more typical of Baja and the Gulf of California such as Black-vented Shearwater and Black Storm-petrel. Thus the dynamic nature of ocean water flow creates an amazing year-round opportunity for pelagic birding. Beyond the continental shelf, the water becomes blue indicating less planktonic life - a result of decreased circulation. Research cruises and occasional deep-water pelagic birding trips however, have documented an exciting list of deep-water specialists such as Murphy's and Cook's Petrels as well as wintering Horned Puffins and Parakeet Auklet.

Pelagic birding in central California centers on three areas: (1) the Cordell Bank and Bodega Canyon (2) Monterey Bay and submarine Canyon and (3) more southerly Channel Islands.

Helpful Literature

Les Lieurance and Debra Shearwater (1994) Through the Seasons: An Introduction to the Seabirds and Marine Mammals of Monterey Bay. Excellent 36 minute videotape, available from the American Birding Association (ABA) or Shearwater Journeys.

Rich Stallcup (1981) Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific. Point Reyes Bird Observatory Press.

Debra Shearwater (1995) Mysteries of the Cordell Bank. ABA's Winging It, Jan 1995 issue.

Stallcup, R. and Terrill, S. (1996) Albatrosses and the Cordell Bank. Birding 28: 106-110.


Cordell Bank

The Cordell Bank is a raised seamount on the edge of the continental shelf, approximatel 25 miles offshore. It is one of North America's northernmost seamounts. The Bank rises to within 115 feet of the sea surface with water depths of 6,000 feet only a few miles away. An area of some 22 square miles has water less than 300 feet deep. The prevailing California Current flows southward along the coast and the upwelling of nutrient-rich deep water stimulates the growth of organisms at all levels of the marine food web. This is an excellent place to encounter the North Pacific Albatrosses, primarily Black-footed Albatross in the summer months with small numbers of Laysan Albatross in the winter. The Bodega Canyon marks the northern edge of the Bank. An area of some 526 square miles has been designated as the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Depending on season, the following species may be encountered:
Black-footed Albatross - most in summer

Laysan Albatross - small numbers in winter

Pink-footed Shearwater

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller's Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater

Short-tailed Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Ashy Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
Red-necked Phalarope

Red Phalarope

Pomarine Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger - peak in late summer/early fall

Heermann's Gull

California Gull

Western Gull

Sabine's Gull - peak in late summer/early fall

Arctic Tern - peak in late summer/early fall

Common Tern

Elegant Tern

Pigeon Guillemot

Common Murre

Rhinoceros Auklet

Cassin's Auklet

Xantus' Murrelet
Craveri's Murrelet
Tufted Puffin - uncommon

Horned Puffin - uncommon in fall

Blue Whale
Fin Whale

Humpback Whale

Baird's Beaked Whale

Risso's Dolphin

Dall's Porpoise

Harbor Porpoise

Northern Right Whale Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Orca

Harbor Seal

Northern Fur Seal

Northern Elephant Seal

California Sea Lion

California Sea Otter

Rarities have included

Shy Albatross - (8/23/99)
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross - first record for Northern Hemisphere, 17 July 1994

Short-tailed Albatross - multiple records

Great-Winged Petrel - 21 July 1996; 24 August 1996

Dark-rumped Petrel - 24 August 1996; 1 August 1997

Murphy's Petrel
Cook's Petrel
Wedge-Tailed Shearwater - (10/10/98-10/11/98)

Least Storm-Petrel
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Crested Auklet - 24 June 1995


Monterey Bay, Submarine Canyon and Albacore Fishing Grounds

Monterey Bay is world famous for its highly accessible pelagic seabirds and marine mammals. The bay is relatively sheltered and is bisected by a very deep-water canyon that comes to within a few miles of the shore at Moss Landing. The canyon itself extends over 50 miles offshore, reaching depths near 12,000 feet.

The detailed knowledge of pelagic species within the bay is due in large part to the many hundreds of offshore trips organized by Debra Love Shearwater. Details of past and upcoming trips can be found on her very helpful Shearwater Journeys web site. If you cannot join an organized pelagic trip, it is possible to see a nice selection of seabirds by taking one of the commercial whale watching boats from Fisherman's Warf in downtown Monterey. For more information, including detailed reports of cetacean sightings check out the Monterey Bay Whale Watch web page. Although most whalewatches are out for only a few hours, and often travel no more than a few miles into the Bay (in my experience, almost always to an area just off Point Pinos in Pacific Grove), it is possible to get excellent views of Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwater, Sabine's Gull, alcids, phalaropes and of course Humpback, Gray or even Blue Whales.

The species mix in Monterey Bay is similar to that of the Cordell Bank and Bodega Canyon, however there are some interesting differences, not least the large storm-petrel roost that forms in the fall on the north side of the bay. Twenty-six species of marine mammals have been recorded. Depending on season, the following species may be encountered:
Black-footed Albatross

Laysan Albatross - winter

Sooty Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller's Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater - mainly in fall

Northern Fulmar

Ashy Storm-Petrel - max nos in Oct

Black Storm-Petrel - max nos in Oct
Least Storm-Petrel - found in storm-petrel roosts

Red-necked Phalarope

Red Phalarope

Pomarine Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger - peak in late summer/early fall

South Polar Skua

Heermann's Gull

Western Gull

California Gull

Sabine's Gull - peak in late summer/early fall

Arctic Tern - peak in late summer/early fall

Common Tern

Elegant Tern

Common Murre

Pigeon Guillemot

Ancient Murrelet - winter

Rhinoceros Auklet

Cassin's Auklet

Tufted Puffin

Brown Pelican

Brandt's Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Blue Whale

Fin Whale

Humpback Whale

California Grey Whale - winter, often visible from shore

Cuvier's Beaked Whale
Baird's Beaked Whale
Orca

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Short-beaked Common Dolphin

Long-beaked Common Dolphin

Risso's Dolphin

Northern Elephant Seal

Harbor Seals

California Sea Lions

California Sea Otters

Mola mola

Blue Shark

Rarities have included:

Yellow-billed Loon - winter in harbor
Manx Shearwater
Great-winged Petrel -18 October 98

Bulwer's Petrel - 26 July 98

Wilson's Storm-Petrel - found in storm-petrel roosts

Leach's Storm-petrel

Red-billed Tropicbird
Masked Booby
Horned Puffin

Basking Shark


The Channel Islands

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is located 25 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The sanctuary encompasses the waters surrounding Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands. The northern Channel Islands and Santa Barbara Island are the peaks of large offshore ridges. A relatively shallow island shelf about 330 feet (100m) deep surrounds the islands, usually extending from 3.5 to 7 miles from the island coast. The sea bed then either plunges steeply to a coastal basin 1,600 to 2,500 feet (500 to 750m) in depth (e.g. the north of the northern Channel Islands) or slopes more gradually to the peak of a submerged ridge 600 to 1,200 feet (180 to 350m) deep in the area southeast of Santa Rosa Island.

The islands are important breeding locations for a number of species more typical of the Gulf of California and Baja Mexico such as Xantus' Murrelet and Black Storm-petrel. These may be encountered during the boat trip from Ventura along with Pink-footed Shearwater and Black-vented Shearwater, Cassin's Auklet, Phalaropes, Sabine's Gull, Blue Whale and Common Dolphin. The first few miles are over shallow water and are characteristically uneventful but then the water gets deeper and pelagic species more obvious. The endemic Island Jay can be seen near Prisoner's Harbor or in the arid valley above Scorpian Ranch.



Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson

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