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Pelagic Birds – Part 1

By George Walter

September and October are fairly boring months for local bird watching. So, as a change of pace, we are writing over the next few weeks about, and providing photographs for, some Washington birds that almost never are seen in Thurston County. These are pelagic birds – seabirds – that inhabit the waters off the Washington Coast. They are remarkable birds, having interesting life patterns, and we trust you will want to know a bit about them.

For these two articles Liam Hutcheson is the co-author. As part of developing his year and life lists of Washington birds, Liam has studied pelagic birds and journeyed on the ocean multiple times. His knowledge of him is very current, having been out on the ocean several times this year.

Almost everyone has heard of the Albatross, but have you heard of Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, or Jaegers? All of these, along with many others, are included in the Seabirds category. Offshore Washington is home to a wide variety of seabirds, some of which are only found there. There are 10 regularly occurring offshore species, and many more vagrants. In total, 28 seabird species have been documented in Washington all time.

Most seabirds covered in this article are strictly offshore species in Washington and are only likely to be seen offshore and by boat. However, Washington does have some seabirds that nest on remote coastal islands and, on occasion, some of these and other pelagic species come close to shore, at times in huge numbers.

And there’s one final interesting thing. A number of seabird species seen in Washington coastal waters are spending their “winters” here. They breed at locations in the Central and Southern Pacific Ocean and travel north for their non-breeding months to take advantage of the increased food supply available in our northern summer.

Albatross

These birds are some of the largest birds on Earth. They have very long wings, with a wingspan of 6-7 feet and their wingspan compared to body length provides a characteristic flight profile. Their feeding habit is soaring over the waves picking up small fish and the like. Washington is home to two albatross species, Laysan and Black-footed. The Black-footed Albatross is by far our most common species, sometimes seen in groups of 50 or more. The Laysan is much rarer, only occasionally being seen.

Both bird species are usually found more than 40 miles offshore and are very unlikely to be seen from the beach or any other coastal area. Both these species nest in the Hawaiian Islands archipelago and similar islands, like Midway, and spend their non-nesting life traveling the Pacific Ocean, often flying thousands of thousands in a single journey!

shearwaters

A second and larger group of seabirds seen regularly in Washington coastal waters are the Shearwaters, with six Shearwater species occurring regularly. They are much smaller than the albatross but have a similar flight profile with long wings compared to body length. They also soar over the waves but readily light on the water, too. The most common is the Sooty Shearwater and it is the pelagic species that you’re most likely to see from shore in Washington. In 1987 I (George) observed a most remarkable sight. As I watched from the Ocean Shores jetty, a huge almost never-ending flock of Sooty Shearwaters flew past the jetty and into Grays Harbor to feed. I estimated its size at 1.5 million birds.

Sooty Shearwaters closely resemble another Shearwater species, the much less common Short-tailed Shearwater. These two species are often best separated by head and beak shape, and underwing pattern. The only other dark Shearwater species in Washington is the Flesh-footed Shearwater, a larger darker much more uncommon species, with a distinctive pink bill.

The other Shearwaters in Washington are the pale bellied species of Bulwer’s, Pink-footed, and Manx. The most common of these by far is Pink-footed, often seen in groups of over a thousand. The second most common species is the Bulwer’s, found occasionally the fall and winter months. All of these Shearwater species are spending their non-breeding season here with one exception – the Manx Shearwater.

manx is a bird primarily of the Atlantic Ocean, with only small numbers recently being seen in the north Pacific. These are near shore shearwaters for the most part, seldom being seen far offshore like the other species. It is likely that Manx Shearwaters are breeding on islands off the Washington Coast, although that has not been confirmed yet. This pelagic bird would be a rare sighting from shore, but it is well worth looking for.

George Walter is environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer. He is also the co-author of this column.

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