If you are a birder that keeps a checklist of birds you have seen, you’ll eventually notice a couple of larger gaps of unobserved birds on your list. To see albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, jaegers, skuas, kittiwakes, auklets, and several other marine species, you must travel quite far offshore in a boat–farther than most fishing trips. Special ocean bird watching tours, called pelagic birding trips, or just pelagic trips, are scheduled from Oregon throughout the year. But when is the best time to take your pelagic trip?
Pelagic trip providers schedule trips based on the best likelihood of seeing lots of different pelagic birds, or at a time that targets a particular species. So be sure to carefully read the trip descriptions.
For your first pelagic trip, I recommend a birding cruise during the fall migration. The autumn pelagic season starts in July or August and continues into October, when the weather turns stormy. There are more seabird species in higher numbers in the fall than at other times of year. Many northern hemisphere breeders are returning south from the Arctic or Aleutian waters, including juvenile birds, temporarily doubling the population of fulmars, jaegers, phalaropes, terns, and auklets offshore. But the fall season is not all the same. Different birds move through at different times.
The specialty birds of pelagic trips in August include good numbers of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Sabine’s Gulls, and Red-necked Phalaropes. Warmer waters farther offshore attract migrating Red Phalaropes, Arctic Terns, and Long-tailed Jaegers. If any trip travels farther offshore, say, more than 35 miles, there is a decent chance of finding rare Xantus’s (Scripps’s) Murrelets. These starling-sized seabirds nest on the Channel Islands off southern California and drift north in warm water during the summer. If you join a trip going offshore 60 miles you will likely see Leach’s Storm-Petrels.
While you can often still see most of the August specialty birds in September, there is a subtle shift in abundance. Parasitic Jeagers and Pomarine Jaegers increase in abundance in September, replacing Long-tailed Jaegers. Shearwater numbers increase generally, with the arrival of Buller’s Shearwaters in September. Rhinoceros Auklets increase in numbers, too. Though Black-footed Albatrosses can be found throughout the year, they really start increasing in September.
By the first week of October seabird populations have changed again. Northern Fulmars and Cassin’s Auklets are usually in high numbers. This is the time of year that South Polar Skuas and Flesh-footed Shearwaters are most often encountered. Laysan Albatrosses arrive for the winter, and the first individuals are often seen in later October. Several rare species of albatrosses have been detected in October. Many northern breeding gulls, loons, and sea ducks arrive along the Oregon coast in October, adding to the numerous birds offshore. Weather can be a problem later in the month, ending the fall pelagic season.
Interesting birds can be found in winter, and sea conditions by March often allow pelagic trips that still encounter the winter specialties. Later spring migration in May often has great birds, too, and in breeding plumage. But those are topics for another time.
In summary, pelagic birding in the fall is most popular because of the number and variety of seabirds. Species composition changes continuously so that each month, August, September, and October, features different pelagic birds.