When is the best time to take a West Coast pelagic birding trip?by Greg Gillson - updated September 2012
This is a question I get asked a lot. Without being too flippant, the best time to take a West Coast pelagic trip is… now! Day-to-day variations in bird numbers, location, and variety can be significant, often as pronounced as seasonal variation. On average the spring and fall migration periods have more variety, with fall often a bit better than spring. The spring peak is April and May. The fall peak is August to October. However, there are always numerous seabirds present. Right now there is some seabird out there for which now is the best time to see it.
While many seabirds along the West Coast, from SE Alaska to southern California, are the same, some pelagic birds are more restricted in range or seasonality. Thus, the following summary is based specifically on Oregon.
Pelagic birds year-round
Many Oregon seabirds are found nearly all year, though perhaps less common in midwinter or midsummer. These include Black-footed Albatrosses, Northern Fulmars, Sooty Shearwaters, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Pomarine Jaegers, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled Murrelets, and Rhinoceros Auklets. It also includes bay and nearshore waterbirds such as 3 species of cormorants, 3 species of loons, and Surf Scoters and Harlequin Ducks. A typical pelagic trip should encounter most of these species. As on land, no one should expect to see every possible species. In fact, birding from a boat is sometimes difficult and you may not see something on the other side of the boat or only identified at a distance by others with more experience.
Pelagic birds in fall
Fall migration includes many young-of-the-year of the Arctic, Alaskan, and local breeders. Thus the total number of seabirds in fall is the highest of the year. But each month of the fall includes a peak of different species. For your first pelagic trip, I recommend a trip in the fall. Trips can be short or long, but a trip of 7-8 hours should be considered the minimum, unless a special "beginners" trip, otherwise common species may be missed. If you find you don't do well at sea, you'd rather not be on a 12-hour trip!
July-August is better for Long-tailed Jaegers, Arctic Terns, Sabine’s Gulls, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Total numbers of individuals are often low, however.
Deep water trips in July and August out over 60 miles from shore can offer a number of rare birds not seen closer to shore. Leach's Storm-Petrels, Red Phalaropes, Arctic Terns, Long-tailed Jaegers, and Scripps's Murrelets are regular in deep water. Several rare birds are possible, including Hawaiian Petrel, Cook's Petrel, Wilson's Storm-Petrel or other mega-rarities like Red-billed Tropicbird, Guadalupe Petrel, and others. These specialty trips are infrequently scheduled and appropriate only for seasoned pelagic birders, as they are long in duration and don't stop near shore for common pelagic birds.
September is the peak of total numbers for many pelagic seabirds. This is perhaps also the best month for Parasitic Jaegers and Buller's Shearwaters.
October, especially early in the month, is your best bet for Flesh-footed Shearwaters and South Polar Skuas. Cassin’s Auklets and Northern Fulmar numbers often peak in October. Late October birds may include the first of some more typical "winter" birds like Short-tailed Shearwaters, Ancient Murrelets, and Laysan Albatrosses. Rare pelagic birds have been found consistently on October pelagic trips.
Pelagic birds in spring
Spring is good for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Laysan Albatrosses, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and Red-necked and Red Phalaropes (in breeding plumage). Rhinoceros Auklets are in high numbers and sporting their breeding horns and facial plumage.
Deep water trips out 60 miles or more in spring offer the possibility of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Horned Puffins, Murphy’s Petrels, Mottled Petrels, and Parakeet Auklets. These specialty trips are infrequently scheduled and appropriate only for seasoned pelagic birders, as they are long in duration and don't stop near shore for common pelagic birds.
Pelagic birds in winter
There are fewer typical pelagic species in January and February than in any other month. For instance, there may be few or no jaegers, terns, phalaropes, or shearwaters. Nevertheless, this may be the best time for Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses. Early December is the best time for Short-tailed Shearwaters and Ancient Murrelets, and holds promise of rarities such as Parakeet Auklets. Nearshore waters in winter are filled with gulls, loons, and sea ducks, and may harbor some other surprises, as well.
Winter may have more cancellations, but we don’t go out if the seas are very rough. Thus if we do go out in winter, the seas won’t be any rougher than at other times of year. Water temperatures year round stay from mid 40's to very low 60s (F), so winter trips usually aren’t bitterly cold. And winter is the charter boat's main whale watching season. So trips do go out regularly in winter.
A note on "weather" cancellations
“What do you call the first sunny day that follows 3 days of rain in Oregon?” Monday. No discussion of pelagic trip timing in the Pacific Northwest is complete without discussing the weather. Actually, showers do not cancel a trip--large waves from strong winds do. Strong winds can be associated with either stormy weather or clear weather.
Trips can cancel or go out any time of year. July and August are the calmest months, on average. But winds from hot temperatures inland can cause days of strong north winds, even in these normally calmer months. The winter storms start some time during October and continue through February; one-third to one-half of our trips may cancel during this time. The end of November and beginning of December are our worst weather. Looking at buoy records for this time shows that 75% of trips would cancel during this time. March and April are about 50% successful. Even in August and September, the traditional pelagic trip season, up to 15% of the trips may “weather-out."
If I only take ONE trip this year, when is best?
It all depends on your goals. Do you want to see the most species (the most "bang for your buck")? Then you want to hit one of the migration peaks. There are 3 to choose from: end of September-beginning of October, end of August-beginning of September, and mid April through May. Do you want to see the largest number of total birds? Then early September is probably best. Do you want to see the largest number of species? Then early October may work. Do you want the best weather possible, regardless of the birds? Then July or August will please, more often than not. Do you want to see the most species possible and have the best weather? Then late August is usually best. Again, on average--any one particular trip could be calm or windy, smooth or rough, clear or foggy, have amazing numbers of birds or relatively few. Sea conditions change in cycles, some years are much windier than others.
On the other hand, if your goal is to see a particular species, then go to the annotated abundance checklist and choose a time when your target species is listed as Common. That gives you the best chance. Even a species listed as Uncommon should probably be seen, though often in lower numbers. Species listed as Rare do occur regularly, but in small numbers and not every trip. The longer the trip, the more birds encountered. But you have to balance that against sea conditions and your own susceptibility to motion sickness.
What trips would I, personally, not want to miss?
The first weekend in October has been very good to us. Several rarities have appeared then, including Shy Albatross (twice), Xantus’s Murrelet a couple of times, Manx Shearwater, Brown Booby, and Wedge-tailed Shearwater. It is also an ideal time for Flesh-footed Shearwaters and South Polar Skuas.
I always look forward with anticipation to our early spring trips. March has high numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Rhinoceros Auklets, with Ancient Murrelets and Short-tailed Shearwaters expected through March. The target bird during the entire spring is Laysan Albatross, which is found on about 75% of spring trips. Other trips have rewarded us with Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Horned Puffins, and Short-tailed Albatrosses. Weather is a bit of a worry, but the lure of possible rarities like Mottled and Murphy’s Petrels, Red-legged Kittiwakes, Thick-billed Murres, or Parakeet Auklets is a strong incentive.
The last weekend in August is one I hate to miss. Often the weather is pleasant and the birds abundant. This is the time for Long-tailed Jaegers, Arctic Terns, and lots of phalaropes. If seas are calm sharks will be at the surface and Humpback Whales and Orcas often join the other dolphins and porpoises on our list.
Our-mid-May trips have lots of birds, and the excitement of spring migration is felt at sea as on land. Thousands of loons are still streaming north nearshore. Common Murres are flying back and forth to their breeding colonies. Red Phalaropes and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels are often common. Arctic and Common Terns join Sabine’s Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes in the skies. Jaegers are generally rare in spring, but in their breeding finery when seen. And the Black-footed Albatrosses seem attracted even more aggressively to our chum in spring.
So any time of year is a good time to take a West Coast pelagic trip. Each season offers a different selection of unique seabirds and memorable adventures.