By Elliot Janca
Editor’s Note: Toward the end of September, when the skies were dense with smoke and fog, teenage birder Elliot (accompanied by his father, John) took a Pelagic tour to see as many birds as they could. This tour was part of a prize Elliot won in GGAS’s Young Birders Contest (a feature of this year’s truncated Birdathon event).
Because my dad and I live in San Francisco, we had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to get to the dock on time.
As tired as we were, we somehow made it to Monterey in one piece. It was a foggy day, and both the night and the orangish-yellow smoke amplified it so that everything had a slight haziness to it. The boat was medium-sized and was pretty stable.
As we boarded, we could hear Belted Kingfishers rattling and terns squawking around us. A Peregrine Falcon watched from its post, overseeing our journey out to the ocean. As we left the port’s safety, the smog closed in and shadowed our boat in a shroud out of which we could not see. However, as our vessel slowly moved farther offshore, into deeper waters with faster winds, the fog started to lift, and with it, the birds came in.
Small rafts of Sooty Shearwaters flowed past us while Common Murre parents with their young attempted to swim away from the boat.
There was a profound difference in their method of swimming. While the shearwaters looked like they were hurriedly walking away from the ship, their little bodies swaying side-to-side, the murres preferred to rapidly foot-peddle with the occasional wing stroke. Most of the time, the murres ended up flying, but once we had a murre who was quite adamant in its belief of being bound to the water. Probably too fat to take to the air, it loudly butterfly-swam 50 yards, its tiny wings pushing it up and forward over and over again like a little windmill.
Tiny phalaropes made their way among the waves, fishing for shrimp. Distinguished from the sooties with their mostly white underside, larger size, and bi-colored bill, Pink-footed Shearwaters soared around the boat, watching it careen through the water.
A few little Ashy Storm-petrels came in and out of the ever present fog. In the distance, but always present, were Humpback Whales breaching and slamming their tails into the blue depths.
The boat slowly covered the waters of Monterey Bay in its unending quest for winged life forms. Though a few Mola-Mola did show up, the major highlight of the day for me was seeing magnificent Risso’s Dolphins breach right next to the boat!
As the afternoon slowly progressed into evening, the fog began coming back, in tiny wisps at first. Still, it eventually went to the point where everything was gray. Ironically, this was also when the birds began to increase.
The small rafts we had at the beginning were converted into flocks of a few hundred shearwaters, which were predominantly made up of sooties. Though they stayed away from the Brown Pelicans, a couple of Parasitic Jaegers flew in and harassed the Western and Heermann’s Gulls.
A final parting gift was a mythical albatross.
The Black-footed Albatross came in from the horizon and landed a little ways away, before flying out again. It came in a second time, disrupting a flock of shearwaters, surveying us again, and then flew back out, eventually getting swallowed by the dusky gray fog.
Finally, we reached port, our legs shaky from the long voyage, we quickly hobbled back to our car, completing a memory to be called back much to reminisce about.
About Elliot: Elliot Janca is a 13-year-old Korean-American birder from the Sunset District. He began birding recently and goes out whenever he has the time. When not having the time to go birding, he can be found checking out his feeder birds (always numerous), looking at birds on iNaturalist, and walking his cockapoo Pumpkin.
About Alvaro’s Adventures Pelagic Tours: Founded by avid birder, Alvaro Jaramillo, Pelagic Tours takes people on bird-oriented journeys, pairing birds and culture, birds and food. The Tours will guide clients to learn, enjoy, and understand more about birds and nature. To learn more about Alvaro and his team, and to get information on upcoming tours, click here.
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