Pelagic birding on the Perpetua Sea Bank, Oregon

Perpetua Sea Bank

Travels by boat with a group of birdwatchers in pursuit of rare pelagic birds.

I like to pass lazy afternoons looking for new places on the Oregon map.  I like to believe there are places in this big state of diverse landscapes that hardly anyone knows about. Places just waiting to be discovered.

Today, I think I found that undiscovered Oregon.  I am on the deck of a boat, in a simple seascape of blue sky and silky aquamarine water.  I have joined a group of birders who charter a boat to the Perpetua Sea Bank, thirty miles off the coast of Newport.

This Oregon – the Oregon from which you cannot see land - is a surprising, even enchanting place.  Where I expected emptiness, I find life. Where I expected an absence of landscape, I find a brilliant ocean seascape of bright sun, brilliant clouds, and water bejeweled with purple and amber jellyfish.  Where I expected a day of solitude looking through binoculars for twelve hours, I found unexpected friends.

Pelagic Birding

Northern Fulmars and Sooty Shearwaters

Someone on the deck shouts out "Albatross, ten o-clock!"  And twenty binoculars move across the bow of the charter boat.  A magnificent bird - wingspan seven feet - curves into the wind above a distant wave.  The tip of his wing glides an inch above the water.  I have heard that seeing an albatross for the first time has an intense effect on people, putting them out of breath or inspiring them in profound ways.  Today I just saw my first Black-footed Albatross, and instantly I understand the special place sailors and poets have for these birds.

Oregon's birders head to the state's deserts, mountains, marshes, coastal estuaries, canyons and forests in pursuit of sightings of the state's birds.  If you open a field guide to birds, however, you may notice that dozens of Oregon's birds live miles offshore. Many of these species rarely come within view of the coast at all.  

Species which may have been seen off the coast of California or Washington have yet to be seen off the coast of Oregon.  It's not that they don't exist out there, but that they have yet to be seen.  Deep ocean Oregon is simply the most inaccessible place in the state to look for birds.   

Some say the last great frontier for Oregon birding is far out at sea, in these deep water, or 'pelagic' zones.  Greg Gillson's pelagic birding tours, which leave from Newport Harbor between 6-8 times a year, are the main event in Oregon pelagic birding.  It is also one of the primary means to break new pelagic birding records.  In 1997, for example, one of Gillson's trips recorded the second North American sighting of a shy albatross.  In 1998, a Brown Booby, rarely seen straying from Mexico north to Southern California, was spotted.  In August 2008, his group spotted a Greater Shearwater and a Wandering Albatross.  Both were first sightings for Oregon.

Pelagic Birding

Birders identify an albatross species gliding over brilliant blue water.

While we are headed out to sea towards the Perpetua Sea Bank, I ask Gillson about the special significance of the place were going.   "The Perpetua Bank breaks up the otherwise gradually descending seafloor, disrupting currents that flow on the shelf," he explains. "These underwater mountains sit right at the interface between the shallow shelf waters and deeper ocean abyss, about 30 miles offshore."

Gillson, who has been organizing these tours since 1994, explains that a strong undercurrent moves north along western North America, but when it comes to Oregon's sea banks, the undercurrent is pushed near the surface.  This brings a high concentration of fish, which attracts seabirds in high numbers.  Those numbers increase during migration, when seabirds move en masse across great distances.

Gillson explains the unique attraction of pelagic birding.  He says, "Seabirds are so interesting and unique that only a very few people would view them as just a checkmark on their list. How do these birds survive the stormy weather? How can they live for months, sometimes years, without ever returning to land? What do they eat? Where do they nest? Most are fascinated to learn that the birds they see on one trip nest in a variety of places...Parasitic Jaegers on Alaska's arctic tundra, Northern Fulmars on Aleutian sea cliffs, Tufted Puffins in burrows on Oregon's offshore islands, Black-footed Albatrosses on Midway Island and other coral atolls, Buller's Shearwaters in New Zealand and Australia, Pink-footed Shearwaters on islands off Chile, South Polar Skuas on Antarctica."

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua jumps into flight.

There is something almost esoteric about sea birding; learning to spot birds that may only be dots on the horizon.  But as a novice birder, I learn the basics of distinguishing the different birds quickly.  All but a few us of have experience with pelagic birding, and every one of them are quick to help us novices make sense of all the different species.  Within a few hours, I have no problem distinguishing a Cassin's Auklet ("looks like a potato being chucked through the air") versus a Rhinoceros Auklet ("looks kinda like a flying football"). 

But the wildlife en route to the Perpetua Sea Bank is more than just the forty species of birds we see.  We see dozens of blue sharks moving just underneath the surface.  Sometimes, the charter boat sails right next to them, and we can watch their graceful movement close-up.  We see other sharks, too - Salmon Sharks, Soupfin Sharks, Mako Sharks.

Nearly everybody aboard is surprised by a Humpback Whale, which surfaces fifty yards from the boat. Almost at the same time, one of the birding guides, Tim Shelmerdine, notices a giant animal lying on the water.  A whale so large that the guide announces he just saw a probable juvenile Blue Whale; the largest animal on Earth.

We see different species of dolphin, Elephant Seals, Albacore Tuna, the bizarre and gigantic Ocean Sunfish, which resembles the head of a fish with a tail, and thousands of jellyfish, in different colors and shapes.  The awe of my first albatross extends to the entire sea.  The surface of the deep ocean is not just an empty canvas of blue on blue. It's alive.

I am a novice birder.  How I decided to get on this boat relates back to an event from February 2009, in which an unusual gull – the Slaty-backed Gull - was spotted in downtown Portland.  The gull is actually quite common, but in Asia.  As happens from time to time with some Asian bird species, this gull migrated the wrong way.  Instead of heading south along the east coast of Asia, this gull crossed the Aleutian Islands and followed the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and finally ended up in Portland.  By showing up floating in the Willamette one day, the bird presented a challenge to anybody who kept a life list - if you can spot it, you can 'collect' a rare sighting of a bird that rarely shows up in North America.

Pigeon Guillemots

Pigeon Guillemots, Yaquina Head, Oregon

By April, I kept hearing that the gull was still hanging around in Portland, and that it was likely it would be gone any day.  Why don't I just bring my binoculars along on my lunch-time jog downtown?  Over the course of almost two weeks, I went out to look for the gull almost every day.  But I realized I didn't have the identification skills to find it, so I enlisted the online help of an Oregon birder who had seen the gull.  I described my sightings to him every day, and even began sending him pictures.

Each time, he emailed me in detail why the bird I had seen was not the right one.  His emails were precise, and his explanations challenged me to keep trying.  He wrote notes such as, "The amount of sun can drastically alter the Slaty-backed's appearance, so that the wet slate so evident under overcast skies can appear pure gray in sunlight."

After nearly two weeks, I decided to try one more time.  I parked my car near the Burnside Bridge and looked up at the street lights on the bridge.  There he was.  Two weeks of instruction, and I had unintentionally entered into an education about the subtleties of seabirds.

On the boat, I was surprised when one of the passengers approached me and said he recognized my name.  "I'm George," he said.  George, who had anonymously helped me learn about seabirds four months ago, explains how he came to enjoying pelagic trips.
"I will have been birding for 60 years. That's when, in 1949, I looked out the window of my parents' farmhouse east of Lebanon, and saw a covey of California Quail. The species became number one on a life list that now totals 556. My mother later gave me a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds. My passion turned to a near-obsession. I'm still obsessed."

George and I stand with our binoculars on the back of the boat, looking out at the water. Each time he raises his binoculars and follows passing birds, he seems to revel in awe.

"Pelagic birding came later for me. I was crossing the Bay of Fundy on the old Bluenose ferry that ran between Bar Harbor, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and saw my first Sooty Shearwater. I was captivated. We saw an estimated one hundred and fifteen Sooty Shearwaters today. I am captivated all over."

Explore more in Cascadia

A backpacking trip to the solitary wilderness in southwestern Washington feeds my love of campfires.

On a road trip to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I compare Oregonian and Californian views on public lands.

On a quiet stretch of Columbia River beach, an unexpected ark sends us to discover the life of the maverick inventor who built it.

On a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula's rugged Pacific coast, I explore four possible future scenarios for rural coastal areas.

Late summer backpacking in a Southwest Washington national forest ends in my terrifying rescue. Includes an interview with rescuer Lauren Dawkins.

Hiking the Oregon Coast from Bandon to Port Orford: Snowy Plovers, hipsters and cops.

On the Oregon coast, I write about my dearest subject: perpetual road travel.

Notes on traveling to Portland, Oregon, laidback capital of Cascadia -- before I moved there.

With a group of pelagic birders and a grumpy sea captain, I pursue a rare treasure.

Frozen rattlesnakes and wolf politics in the fabled setting of the Zumwalt Prairie.

Notes from Tofino, Vancouver Island on the stunning and isolated Clayoquot Sound.

Color and camoflage in nature, from the Hood River Valley area of Oregon.

An interview with a native artist on the whaling controversies and life in Neah Bay.

I travel to the Umpqua Dunes in pursuit of the answers of a mysterious stone tool.

Glowing Mushrooms, deer-meat, stone and a Portland underworld of old ways.

The Oregon Hotel is old, rickety and delightful, and in the geographic center of Oregon.

Native migrations to the Americas, tundra, gyrfalcons and summertime on the Bering Sea.

Field sketches and illustrations from my travels in the state of Oregon.

Travels by boat with a group of birdwatchers in pursuit of rare pelagic birds.

Thoughts on rough roads, carefree trails and backcountry science in Oregon's Jefferson Park.