Sept., 2010

Being from Ohio, I was late to the party as far as pelagic birding goes. Probably like many others in the interior of the continent, I would flip through the field guides and pay little attention to the pages with all those brown and gray shearwaters, petrels, and storm petrels. They were out of sight and out of mind. It didn't take my first pelagic trip until 2008 and was immediately hooked. I have since taken a dozen or so on both coasts. I'm still a real novice, and I will probably always be. For me they're a blast. I love being out on the ocean. Every trip is an adventure. Even for those birders who have been doing it for years there exists the possibility for something new.  I wish I could do a pelagic trip every week, but the reality of it is that if you're from Ohio you're just not going to be able to do many.  This year I did two trips (my only ones this year) with Monterey Seabirds led by Roger Wolfe.  I did one trip with him in 2008 and it was the most enjoyable I had ever been on. I have been on other pelagics out of Monterey and Bodega Bay with that other well known operator, but Roger's trips are much more pleasant. The boats are far less crowded. The leaders include some of California's most experienced and knowledgeable seabirders. I headed to Monterey for a few days to include his only 2 day in a row trips this year (Sept. 18 and 19). The birding highlight was a Great-winged Petrel on Sept. 18th, the 3rd record in North American waters and a code 5 bird for the ABA area. I was on the other side of the boat when the bird was forst spotted, but I did manage to see it and get some record photos of no quality.

Of course one reason I like to get on these pelagic bird trips is to try to do some bird photography. Generally when planning a trip I would at the very least like to come home with enough salable photos to eventually pay for itself.  That will never happen with pelagics, especially for me since I have to throw in the cost of a plane ticket, car rental, and motels in addition to the trip itself.  Pelagics are a real indulgence for me and I really envy people who can do a lot of them. Coming home with high quality stuff is difficult.  There are a lot of cameras on pelagic trips, but I would bet that not many very photographs are taken that go beyond just basic documentation.  Ideally I would like to have the same quality of photos of seabirds as any other kind of bird with razor sharp feather detail, a decent composition with minimal cropping necessary, evenly lit subjects saturated with warm light, a nice pose at eye level, and of course a well lit face with a catchlight in the eye. A lot of things conspire against getting many seabird photos to meet those basic criteria. Obviously one problem in getting a sharp photo is that you're trying to photograph a moving bird on a boat that is also moving. It's tough to keep a focusing sensor on the bird's face when at close range and at more usual distances it's tough to keep the sensor on the bird itself against the backdrop of water. When birds come close to a boat, it's usually quickly and often unexpectedly. Pelagic birding trips aren't made for photography specifically and as a passenger you have no control over where you go or when you stop or slow down. Rarely is a boat stopped just because there are some common birds are in nice light around. Birders are more interested in rarities no matter how bad the light may be. Light is often the biggest obstacle. The early mornings on these particular trips this year were foggy or cloudy. Mid day light on the ocean is harsh. Monterey Bay can be great on a sunny morning since you start seeing seabirds soon after leaving the harbor, but that wasn't the case this year. Light is an even bigger problem on the trips I have taken out of Hatteras in North Carolina.  Brian Patteson does a great job getting close to the birds, but the light has always been harsh since it takes a few hours to get to the gulf stream where the seabirds are. By the time you see your first shearwater in the Atlantic it's already about the time you would be finishing up the morning on land. Photos I have seen out of North Carolina in spring look like the light is less harsh than the August trips I have taken. Those late May and early June weeks are too productive for taking photos that will actually pay for traveling and camera equipment, so I don't anticipate ever doing pelagics at that time of year. On any boat I can only try to always pay attention to what the direction the light is coming from and keep the sun at my back and hope a bird flies through that window of decent light. Boats move around a lot and without any landmarks in sight it is easy to lose track of where the light is coming from. Exposure is always a problem too. You're forced to shoot in manual exposure modes since there is a dramatic difference between the light in the sky vs. the ocean. The light can change quickly, so it is necessary to constantly take exposure readings. It's very easy to overexpose any whites that may be on some birds, especially in harsh light. Blown out whites with no detail ruin any bird photo whether it's a Ring-billed Gull or the first North American record of some shearwater. I'm sure that I could come up with more reasons why getting good pelagic photos is difficult if I thought about it. Only 10 or 15 years ago people were trying to photograph these things with manually focusing lenses using slide film, so I really shouldn't get too whiny about it.

On pelagics I have been using Canon's 300 f2.8 IS lens, usually with the 1.4x, but sometimes without or with the 2x. It's light enough to hand hold for prolonged periods, focuses quickly enough, and has the versatility of the three focal lengths. A smaller telephoto zoom lens might be useful too especially if you want to photograph the mammals encountered such as whales. I don't own one at the moment, but Canon's recently announced 70-300 L IS lens is a lens that I plan to get soon and it would have been useful on this trip. I see some people using a 500 f4 lens, but they put it down when not in use. I definitely wouldn't want that hanging around my neck all day.  A 400 f4 DO lens would work well with or without the 1.4x I would think, but I don't see that lens often. The most commonly seen lenses are Canon's 300 f4 + 1.4x, 100-400 zoom, and 400 f5.6, but I would miss not having the 600mm range available when needed. I have the 300 2.8, so that's just what I use. Being in the right place at the right time in the right light with the right exposure set and getting an accurate focus is probably more important than any lens for pelagics.

Below are some photos from this short trip.

Pink-footed Shearwater
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens + 1.4x
f5.6, 1/5300th sec., ISO 640

The above photo of a Pink-footed Shearwater is probably the best photo I have ever taken of any shearwater to date. It's fairly sharp for a pelagic shot with decent light and exposure. It's easy to blow out the whites on the undersides of Pink-footeds. Ideally I would have preferred the head turned slightly more toward me rather than away, but I'll take what I can get at this point. Using ISO 640 wasn't necessary. It just happened to be what the camera was set to when that bird flew by.

Sooty Shearwater
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens + 1.4x
f6.3, 1/2000th sec., ISO 500

I was glad to finally get some OK shots of Sooty Shearwaters on this trip. They're usually the most common shearwater out of Monterey, but they can be hard to get sharp photos of.  Unlike the Pink-footeds with their contrasting dark with a white belly, there isn't a whole lot of contrast for a focusing sensor to latch on to with Sooties, especially when they're flying against the water. When it's windy they will fly in higher arcs, but it was pretty calm on this trip and they stayed low against the water. It would be nice to have had better light for this, but I'll take this overcast over the harsh glaring light at mid day anytime. I wanted better shots of Buller's Shearwaters too, but we never had any close enough to the boat, at least not when I was ready for them. Buller's are the third most common shearwater out of Monterey after Sooty and Pink-footed and are beautiful birds with their striking pattern. They're pretty easy for a focusing sensor to latch onto, even using my 300+2x, but I only got photos with the bird too small in the frame. Hopefully next time along with some Flesh-footeds and Black-venteds too.

Black-footed Albatross
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens + 1.4x
f4, 1/800th sec., ISO 640

In the above photo in early morning heavy overcast the bird looked so serene on the calm sea. On all my previous California pelagic trips Black-footed Albatrosses have been numerous, but not as many were around this time. I have still yet to see my first Laysan Albatross. Again, hopefully next time.

Ashy Sorm-Petrels
Canon EOS 7D, Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens + 1.4x
f5, 1/1600th sec., ISO 320

Above is part of a flock of Ashy Storm-Petrels that numbered in the hundreds. They sure are skittish little things. Unlike the Wilson's Storm-Petrels in the Atlantic, Ashies never seem to come anywhere near a boat.  Coming across these flocks is a treat. With a total population of about 10 thousand birds, every time you see one of these Ashy flocks, you're seeing a countable percentage of them. A Least Storm-Petrel was also seen that day, and great looks were offered by several Black Storm-Petrels.  I usually avoid pano crops, but that seems to be the only way to go with these storm-petrel flocks. I used a 7D here instead of the Mark4 because it is the camera I happened to have in hand when we came across these birds. It's an OK camera, but I didn't use it much. The Mark4 did much better tracking the flying birds from what I could tell with my brief try of the 7D that day. This kind of lighting really brings out the worst of a telephoto lens. I rarely notice any chromatic aberrations with the Canon "L" telephotos, but they were apparent in the full sized files in this bright high contrast situation. Fortunately it's easy to eliminate them with one click of the mouse when processing RAW file using Capture One 5. Canon has recently announced a new series of their big glass lenses which will supposedly be better with chromatic aberrations. I don't use the 300 2.8 enough to get the new one any time soon considering the price tag on it, but I definitely look forward to trying the new teleconverters on my 300. On the other hand, when the new 600 comes out you can count me in for sure.

Juvenile Pomarine Jaeger
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens + 2x
f7.1, 1/2000th sec., ISO 500

A large number of jaegers, especially on the second day, were seen on this trip.  Long-taileds were the most numerous but there were plenty of Pomarines and Parasitics too. Usually some South Polar Skuas are around also, but I didn't see any or remember hearing any called out on this trip. Unfortunately they only came close to the boat at mid day when the light was at its worst - very harsh with a lot of glare. The jaegers usually stay pretty high up which makes the viewing angle even worse. That was the case last year as well on the trips I took out of Bodega Bay. On land I wouldn't bother trying to photograph a bird in that kind of light no matter what it was, but if you're stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go and jaegers flying all around you, of course you're going to snap away even if you know better. Between this year and last I have lots of terrible looking photos of jaegers that I have tried to make look acceptable in Photo Shop before giving up realizing that there is really no way around the bad light. The above photo is very borderline at best. At least there is some light in the eye. Using the 300 2.8 with the 2x at 600mm works fine for this as far as focusing goes. If you manually prefocus on the bird the 600mm combo has no problem at all following the bird against the plain sky with the Mark4 although it is difficult to keep the eye the sharpest part of the flying bird while standing on a rocking boat.  It would be nice to have such a great opportunity to photograph the jeagers in better light. Maybe next time..........

A more complete report of the species seen can be found on the trip report page at  the Monterey Seabirds website.  As I was leaving the boat Roger Wolfe mentioned the possibility of doing some multi day pelagic trips especially for photographers from Monterey. That sounds like a great idea and I hope something comes of it. There are a lot of great birds to photograph out there.

There is a lot more to birding in Monterey than the pelagic trips. I have been there five times now, and it's one of my favorite places for both birding and bird photography. Lengthier trips I have taken in November to Monterey County have been among the most productive for the camera I have done, but no organized pelagic seabird trips are regularly scheduled then. On this short trip I only had two days to poke around on shore. The mornings were foggy and the afternoons were windy, so I really didn't do any bird photography. If planning a trip there, the book, Monterey Birds, by Don Roberson is a valuable resource to have for a birding trip to the Monterey area and all you really need. It has full species accounts for the entire county and a guide to the best spots.

My first stop on any trip to the Monterey area is always the Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove. It is a great place to see and photograph all the rocky shorebirds of the west coast in the winter. All the regulars were present this time too: Black Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Black Turnstones, Sufbirds, Sanderlings, Willets, and Whimbrels. There were also more Wandering Tattlers present on this visit than I've seen later in the season. I already have photos of all those species in better light so I had fun poking around the rocks with my 14mm lens.  Below are a few photos of the Asilomar State Beach.

Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 14mm f2.8L II lens
f13, 1/125th sec., ISO 250

Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 14mm f2.8L II lens
f13, 1/400th sec., ISO 250

Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 14mm f2.8L II lens
f13, 1/320th sec., ISO 250

Western Gull in fog
Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 600mm f4L IS lens + 2x
f10, 1/1000th sec., ISO 400

It's hard to believe that I lugged along my 600mm lens on this trip and this is all I used it for.  You can increase the contrast in Photoshop to lessen the effect of fog if you want, but this is more what it looks like. Asilomar is a good place for us easterners to study those confusing west coast gulls and hybrids in winter at close range. The harbor down the road in Moss Landing is even better. I think it's safe for me to say the above bird is a pure Western Gull, but they'll soon be joined by Glaucous-winged Gulls and everything in between at all ages.

Canon EOS 1D MarkIV, Canon 24mm f1.4L II lens
f13, 1/25th sec., ISO 320

On my second morning I paid my first visit ever to Point Lobos just south of Carmel. It was another heavily overcast morning. Despite its reputation for scenery, I didn't find find it as interesting for the 14mm lens as Asilomar. The above composition in the rock caught my eye for my 24mm lens, which I also brought along. Birding wise there weren't very many shorebirds on the rocks at Point Lobos, but it was an enjoyable place to bird for the passerines of the coastal scrub and surrounding woodlands. All the expected California regulars were seen which are always a treat for me.