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Monterey Bay has some of the finest pelagic birding in the world: an array of regular seabirds and many extraordinary rarities. Upwelling of nutrient rich water along the California Current and the intrusion of the deep Monterey Submarine Canyon combine to bring pelagic birds close to shore. Some seabirds can be seen (often distantly) with a scope from shore, but one needs to get out on a boat to see most of the truly pelagic species well. Even a single trip can be very rewarding; a series of four to six over the seasons will produce most of the bayís avian bounty.
Boat trips with skilled leaders and organized specifically for seabirding provide the best opportunities and are worth the price. Fortunately, such trips are available throughout the year on Monterey Bay (most frequently August to October). Boats chartered for whale watching or fishing also encounter pelagic birds, but these forays are usually unsatisfactory. They do not venture far from shore (gray whale trips) or they stay in one place a long time (fishing trips), and they lack expert birding leaders. The guides are crucial for birders who are just learning the subtleties of recognizing species at sea.
Directions. Two organizations currently provide frequent and outstanding birding trips on Monterey Bay: Shearwater Journeys (831-637-8527; P.O. Box 190 Hollister, CA 95024; www.shearwaterjourneys.com), and Monterey Seabirds (831-375-4658; P.O. Box 52001, Pacific Grove, CA 93950; www.montereyseabirds.com). Both use experienced leaders and run comfortable boats piloted by knowledgeable and cooperative skippers. Contact these organizations for information about trip schedules and costs. Their costs sometimes dissuade birders from seabirding trips, but in fact the price usually is reasonable for a day at sea that combines avian riches with competent leadership. Information about organized seabirding trips is published every January in Winging It, the newsletter of the American Birding Association.
Santa Cruz Sportfishing Inc (831-426-4690, www.santacruzsportfishing.com) and Stagnaro Fishing Trips and Bay Cruises (831-427-2334, www.stagnaros.com) both offer whale-watching and fishing trips from the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. While these are not specifically for birding, the skipper for Santa Cruz Sportfishing is knowledgeable about with seabirds. For information on other natural history, whale-watching, or fishing trips around the bay, contact the local chambers of commerce.
Most organized birding trips leave at dawn from Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. In some years Shearwater Journeys offers trips out of the Santa Cruz harbor, too. While these may be preferred for county birders, trips from Monterey often venture into Santa Cruz County waters. Much of the northern rim of the main submarine canyon is in Santa Cruz County, as is its productive tributary, Soquel Submarine Canyon.
Birds. Pelagic birding varies as much as land birding does with the seasons. August to October is the best time for diversity and rarities, and seas are often calm, permitting easy viewing. Species expected particularly in late summer and fall include Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Buller's, Sooty and Black-vented shearwaters; Ashy, Black, Least (sporadic) and Wilson's (rare) storm-petrels; Red Phalarope; South Polar Skua; Pomarine, Parasitic and Long-tailed jaegers; Sabine's Gull; Arctic and Common terns; Tufted Puffin, Xantus's Murrelet, Rhinoceros and Cassinís auklets and other alcids. Trips out of Santa Cruz regularly find Marbled Murrelets, although they are readily seen from shore, too. Winter is the best time for large numbers of alcids (including Ancient Murrelet), Northern Fulmar, Short-tailed Shearwater, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Black-legged Kittiwake, and an occasional Laysan Albatross. Black-footed Albatross and Sooty Shearwater are most numerous in spring and summer, and spring also offers migrating loons and Brant, as well as a chance to see birds in breeding plumage. Among the stellar rarities found on seabirding trips in Santa Cruz waters are Streaked, Greater and Wedge-tailed shearwaters, Masked (Nazca) and Red-footed boobies, and Thick-billed Murre. Many others from the Monterey side of the bay and elsewhere off Central California make for a long wish list!
Even an ardent birder must admit that the chance to see marine mammals close up is one of the rewards of a pelagic birding trip. Organized birding trips on Monterey Bay always have leaders and skippers who know the mammals, too. Among the more commonly encountered possibilities are blue, humpback, and gray whales; Pacific white-sided, long-beaked common, Rissoís, and northern right whale dolphins, and Dallís porpoise. Fin, orca, and Bairdís beaked whales uncommon, but seen annually.
Several publications will assist anyone seabirding on Monterey Bay. Rich Stallcupís Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific (1990, Point Reyes Bird Observatory) has excellent information on identification, behavior, and seasonal occurrence. Don Robersonís Monterey Birds (2002) details local seasonal occurrence and abundance, and his website includes pages devoted to Monterey Bayís birds and marine mammals (http://montereybay.com/creagrus/MtyBay.html). The video Through the Seasons: An Introduction to the Seabirds and Marine Mammals of Monterey Bay by Les Lieurance and Debra Shearwater (1994, available through American Birding Association or Shearwater Journeys) lets you see the birds in action from the comfort and stability of your living room.