Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bobbin' Around Out There ; or, In the Albatross's Living Room

As I have seen so many boats do when watching from the point, Monday morning around 8AM we went out from the harbor at La Push, passing through the channel between the jetty and James Island. The harbor and the jetty were filled with pelicans, probably thousands of them.

Tatoosh at the dock (Click for larger image.)
Looking back at the harbor. (Click for larger image, and to admire the pelicans.)

The transect begins and ends at this buoy. We bobbed around there quite a while, so the observers could practice estimating distance and be sure they would be reporting things the same, and because Liam was having trouble with the laptop, so that the data logging program, which is called Seebird ('a program to gather seabird sightings during ship transects') wasn't behaving right. Then we got going.

The buoy which is the survey start point. (Click for larger image.)
Our three observers, Bob, Bill and Ryan, sitting ready to observe, and Liam at the laptop ready to record data (Click for larger image.)

We record only what's visible up to 300 meters off the front quarter, from the bow to the port beam. If they aren't visible in that quarter of view, they don't count. We were only to break that pattern, to 'go off transect', either (a) to try to get individual identification of orcas if we saw any, which we did not (other marine mammals not of interest, simply recorded). Or (b) if there were something really rare. (STOP STOP STOP shouted all three observers, when they saw an albino cassin's auklet. A who?)

It was partly sunny for a while when we were at the outermost end of our transect.

Out there (Click for larger image.)

Bright out near the edge of the continental shelf, but closer in it was low clouds and murk all along my familiar coast: though it was goopy, heading out and coming back in again, there I was looking at my own home turf, La Push and James Island and Rialto Beach and Cake Rock and Dahdayla Island and the Giant's Graveyard to the south FROM THE OCEAN, and it was pretty exciting. The forecast was for 7-foot swells, yikes. The skipper said at the end it had never gotten more than about 6-feet. When we were on the outbound leg we were headed right into the swells and it was pretty 'lumpy' as the skipper called it. Bounce bounce. ("The Tatoosh is a cork," said one of our observers, Bob Boekelheide.) A couple of people got sick, and one of the observers carefully ate nothing all day but a few saltines now and then... I didn't get sick, because I had taken TWO bonine, but unfortunately they did make me nearly a zombie from sleepiness. Later in the day the swell settled down. Warm, no rain, and smoother going.

There were lots of birds. I usually had no idea what they were even though everyone else on the boat (including Nathan, our skipper) knew exactly. We also saw humpbacks, dall's porpoise, pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions swimming, a female northern fur seal just loafing around out there with a flipper in the air (don't ask me how they knew that's what it was), a gray whale.

For myself I could just about recognize common murres and tufted puffins when I saw them, coastal birds I already knew. And humpback whale and dall's porpoise, those I recognized too. Maybe I sometimes had an idea a fulmar was a fulmar, if it was sitting still; or an albatross if there were other birds around for size comparison. But we were sighting vast numbers of sooty shearwaters, and I never had a clue that's what I was seeing or how to recognize it. 'Storm petrel, forktailed, 200 meters, flying, 120 degrees?' Nah. Gotta take their word for it. 'Bird-passing-by' is all I get with my own brain. These pictures are not good, but they're what I got, and are not inconsistent with the amount of detail I was able to observe with my eyes :-(

Dark morph of northern fulmar? (Click for larger image.)

I don't know what I thought it was that pelagic birds DO all day, but I never imagined them sitting around in huge flocks, just bobbing on the water in the middle of the ocean— ok, not the middle, we were no further out than Juan de Fuca Canyon near the edge of the continental shelf, no I'm not sure we got even that far— enjoying themselves. Bill Tweit, the WDFW guy who was one of the observers, said they looked healthy and well fed, and thought it significant that they were so contented they could barely be bothered to move out of the way of the boat as we drove through their livingroom. (Bill also uses his nose a lot; he said it smelled good out there; and when the gray whale was around he knew it was gray whale blow not humpback whale blow he was smelling before he saw the critter at all.)

I hope eventually to have numbers and species lists. Liam has the official data for NOAA, and will have to process and correct and fuss with it before telling us anything even informally; but Ryan Merrill (another of the observers, who is on contract with the state for the summer to survey marbled murrelets) took a copy and thought he could email us some ballpark numbers by next week. (I just want the lists so I can remember and tell you about it. Bob Boekelheide, the observer from the Dungeness River Audubon Center, is really eager to get his hands on all the pelagic bird survey data for the past 8 years and analyze it to pieces. It's treasure.) I wasn't taking good notes for myself—the only time I knew what they were seeing was when I had the radio headphone on and was entering data, and all those sightings went right through my ears and into my fingers without having time to register on my brain. Press enter and start typing the next one. It was hard to keep up. I'd get on the little radio and say 'Wait wait,' and the observer wielding the outside radio would have to hold a WHOLE SEQUENCE of sightings in his head until I was ready for him. When it got really busy and there were lots of sightings I had to ask Liam to take over again.

While Chris was recording data, Bill teased her by reporting a kiwi. 'What's the code for that?' she asked in a panic, and then got the joke. Everyone knew she was after pelagic birds she had never seen before for her life list, and she did indeed get three (but not a kiwi).

About the humpbacks, a couple of times they were really close. Not spectacular, just the humpy back appearing out of the ocean just right there and going down again, but very big and smooth and RIGHT THERE.

Cake Rock from the Sea. It's usually on the western horizon when I take pictures on Rialto Beach... (Click for larger image.)

Addendum: (August 18, 2011)

"Protocol: Traveling ; 70.0 mile(s)." Before we left the Tatoosh on July 25th, Ryan Merrill took a copy of the pelagic bird survey data from the Seebird program on Liam's laptop, and entered it into as checklist #S8599880 , He includes not just how many were reported to Liam or me or Chris at the keyboard, but others seen outside the survey quadrant. Like, "4750 Pink-footed Shearwater; 2633 in survey area, a few large rafts and many smaller rafts outside survey area."

Other highlights:

  • 3850 Sooty Shearwater ; 1932 on survey
  • 1050 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel ; 761 on survey
  • 2 Leach's Storm-Petrel ; both on survey, crossed close to boat and seen well
  • 300 Black-footed Albatross; 169 on survey, most associated with the hake trawler/processor and in the wake trailing behind them for miles
  • Go to the ebird entry to see them all.

I don't see how to get to his comments from the link above. But he emailed them to Liam, and gave permission to use them here: "Comments: OCNMS NOAA survey from La Push - Forecast was 7 foot swell at ten with 10-20 knot winds but reality was more like 5-6 foot swell with max 10 knot winds, overcast at first clearing to mostly sunny, dodged some dense rain showers. Mammals included 6 Humpbacks, 15 Dall's Porpoise (bow riding), 15 Pacific White-sided Dolphins (bow riding), 50 Steller's Sea Lions (all but three at Sea Lion Rock south of Carroll Island), 2 Fur Seals, 1 Gray Whale (south of Carroll), and 4 Harbor Seals. Big highlight was encountering a hake trawler and processor with thousands of tubenoses (mainly fulmars) behind it, most of which were in the survey area! only a couple hundred of the PFSH were here - Good numbers of birds seen throughout the survey highlighted by tremendous numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters (4750)! Several rafts of 50 or more Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels seen sitting on the water were fun to see as well. 26 species (+1 other taxa)."

I sure didn't see a fraction of all that, you know. But we did.

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