Totally Tubular Tube-noses

The semi-annual WildResearch pelagic trip out of Ucluelet is a spectacular way to see some impressive off-shore birds and this year’s fall trip was no exception. It was interesting to compare the birds with those seen on the spring pelagic trip out to La Pérouse Bank I did in 2012—there were some repeats but there several birds that were new life birds for me. Russell Cannings, Mike Boyd, and Paul Levesque (and many others) were on board to help call out the birds and point birders in the right direction.

Tube-noses are one of the target species for a trip like this since they can be challenging to see from land. Birds in the order Procellariiformes (albatross, petrels, storm-petrals, and shearwaters) have distinctive tubular nostrils on the tops of their bills. Since these birds spend most of their life over the open ocean, the tube-shaped nostrils enable these birds to excrete excess salt from the seawater they drink.

Sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus)
Sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) were common and easy to identify.
ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000 sec – Nikon D600, 300mm f/4 AF (cropped)

Sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) were common and we passed through a large flock just outside of the Ucluelet harbour. The flash of the silvery patches under the wings contrasting with the uniform brown body and upper wings of this species of shearwater is distinctive.

Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus)
Pink-footed Shearwaters (Puffinus creatopus) were also fairly common and approached the boat close enough to be photographed with a “short” telephoto.
ISO 800, f/8, 1/1000 sec – Nikon D600, 300mm f/4 AF (cropped)

I got better photos of pink-footed shearwaters (Puffinus creatopus) on this trip. There seemed to be more of them compared to the numbers seen during the spring 2012 tour and they glided back and forth through the mixed flock of gulls and sooty shearwaters following the boat creating excellent photo opportunities. The white belly and under-wings made them easy to separate from the sooty shearwaters.

A La Pérouse Bank the fog rolled in and visibility was somewhat limited, making birding (and photography) challenging. A few black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) made fly-by appearances, but not in any kind of numbers or very close to the boat.

A couple of northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) also passed through and I got a good look at a Buller’s shearwater (Puffinus bulleri) rounding out the tube-noses that I was able to see well enough to “list”. I did get a quick glimpse of what looked like a Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) on the way back, bringing the total number of tube-noses on my list to six. A number of storm-petrels were seen by other birders on the boat—unfortunately they were too far away for me to get a satisfactory look. Also dipped on a flesh-footed shearwater (Puffinus carneipes).

Pomarine Jaegar (Stercorarius pomarinus)
Pomarine Jaegars (Stercorarius pomarinus) often harass other seabirds to make them drop their fish.
ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000 sec – Nikon D600, 300mm f/4 AF (cropped)

Additional highlights of the trip for me were excellent looks at both pomarine jaegar (Stercorarius pomarinus), a couple of massive south polar skuas (Stercorarius maccormicki), and several northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) – all three of these species were “new” for me. I’ve seen jaegars and fulmars before, but never this close and never this well.

The photography was challenging due to the relatively poor light and the focusing limitations of an older Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF lens that I borrowed for the trip. With a bit more reach and a faster focusing lens I think I could have gotten some better photographs, but I’m still reasonably happy with the results. I’m thinking that the new 300mm f/4 which is rumoured to be on its way and a teleconverter will do the trick next year.

If you’re looking to do some serious off-shore birding keep an eye on the WildResearch website for the date of their next totally tubular pelagic tour. It’s definitely worth it!