Searching for Southern California's Seabirds

Cover Photo: Pink-footed Shearwater from the Surfbirds galleries © Paul Donald

By Mitch Heindel


Yes it does have some. Some seabirds for which southern California (socal) is arguably the best place to look. Some stuff dreams are made of. Birds that are on everyone's want list. Just listen to the sound of 'em....Albatross, Tropicbird, Booby, Storm-Petrel, and honorable monikers like Xantus's, and Craveri's.. and yes even Pterodromas! There are actually a fair number of birds which occur in socal regularly, in good numbers, and for which, it could be said, it is either the best, or next best place to look for (er, get) them in the lower 48.

This is intended to be a quickie primer on the various seabirds one can see in socal, with special focus on the "specialties", but each group of regularly seen seabirds is covered. References to abundance are primarily based on the last decade of observations, e.g., current status and information. Most of this is based on about 100 pelagic trips I've led (or been on) in socal in that period.

Socal I define as "Conception (Pt.) to Cortes" (Banks); the areas reached by regularly scheduled pelagic trips. Hopefully, it will help you to better decide when to get on a boat for the species that you are most interested in seeing. Seabirding is good ANY time in socal; there are always interesting things to see offshore here. That doesn't mean you'll see them when you go out though :)!

The best description I ever heard of seabirding was: "Long periods of intense boredom, interspersed with brief flurries of incredible excitement." So, let's get started with a brief overview...


In their appropriate and proper habitat and season, Laysan and Black-footed Albatross are regular. They are mostly "outside" the range of the 12 hour day trips. I've seen about two dozen Laysans (Oct-April, peak in Jan.) in the Arguello Canyon area in the last 8 years. Nov.Y2K over 50 Black-footed Albatross were there one day. People often think you have to go somewhere besides socal to see these incredible masters of flight.... Not true! You just have to get outside the 1000 fathom line and the islands. I'm still looking for a third species. There are two socal Short-tailed Albatross records/sightings in the last 25 years. Arguello is the 'Albatross alley' of socal, but anywhere along the shelf drop-off, or the far offshore banks will have them.

Pterodroma petrels

Pterodromas are exceedingly scarce and unpredictable in socal. Just getting far enough out takes a long time, as the shelf is waaaayyyy offshore save at Pt.Conception. It's usually either too flat or too rough! Though, sometimes, paydirt is struck. Once, an October trip saw half-a-dozen Cookilaria Petrels, a couple briefly alighting in the water, and one flying bow to stern close enough to have netted! I saw the white outer tail feathers from above, on the upper deck looking straight down on it as it blazed past !!

These are the moments you will never forget. I've seen Cook's on 3 or 4 other trips, but never where you could get everyone on them.... Once, one came into the halogen decklights at night, only 15' from me in "broad daylight" at 5 a.m.!

The recent explorations of the Arguello Canyon area on the Condor, (the only [and a good] way to get out there) of course last April produced for many "point blank" views of a Dark-rumped Petrel. Surely more coverage in this area will produce many more Pterodroma records, of this, and of other species.

I have seen Pterodroma sps. on nearly a dozen trips in the last decade, but, a high percentage of those going to proper place and habitat - 1500 plus fathoms.....Some were certainly Murphy's (two April trips), and one was certainly a Stejneger's (Nov.). This is a frontier in socal, with "straight-line" research cruises essentially the only data out there for these little known wind-runners. A couple of the birds I've seen are believed to be of what would be called "mega-rarity" status, but remain hypothetical in their identification.


Of Shearwaters, surely the Black-vented Shearwater can be said to be a true socal specialty. Some 30-50 thousand winter along the nearest-shore escarpments from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Much rarer and more erratic further north. Easily seen from shore, and rare more than 5-7 or so miles offshore. Often abundant off Palos Verdes Peninsula, where thousands easily seen from car at points. See for Palos Verdes seabirding tips. Typically present Oct-April, but some years some return by August, and a few linger to May.

Two other shearwaters not often thought of as socal birds, are regular, and annual in occurrence here in multiple numbers, are Buller's and Flesh-footed Shearwaters. They are typically late summer and fall birds. Buller's likes deeper, outer waters, and fall trips outside innermost islands usually find them. A few are seen in the Sta.Barbara Channel then as well. I have seen days of 700+, and 2500+ of them. Flesh-foots are often with them, and the day of the 2500 Buller's, there were 7 Flesh-foots in with them (Arguello in Oct)! In Y2K, I found 3 Flesh-foots on 3 trips in socal, not unusual in fall. I've seen about two dozen in the last 10 years. They just get lost in the throngs of Sootys.

Key on the colored bill and dark underwings, and you'll get them.... they fly very like Pink-footed Shearwaters. Pink-footed Shearwaters are common from April or May to Oct and Nov., and scarce but present Dec-March. It is not unusual to see 500, or 1000 in a day in the fall in socal. Short-tailed Shearwaters on the other hand are iffy... unpredictable, not annual, but nearly so, and argued about unbelievably when they do occur.

The LAAS Nov. and Feb quickie 8 hr. trips often record them, as do late fall trips to deeperwater areas. As for rarity shearwaters I have seen a couple... Two other sometime LAAS pelagic leaders and I got excellent but brief views of a Streaked Shearwater in the S.Barb. Channel one Oct. A dozen of us saw a Wedge-tailed (dark morph) pass the bow one Oct. day there as well. I've seen a few Wedge-taileds in the last 10 years. They are overlooked amongst throngs of Sootys to a greater degree than Flesh-footeds. If it were not for their unusual flight pattern and characteristics, they would be easy to overlook completely. The long tail and broad bowed wings impart unique structure/shape. I'm not sure the BRC is ready to accept sight records of them yet though!


Storm-Petrels are often common in socal. Four species are not unusual in fall, when they are present, if you can find them. They are by nature highly un-predictable. Besides the Monterey Bay stakeout flock, socal is your best bet for seeing these birds. July to Oct is best most years. Black, Ashy and Leach's Storm-Petrels are all regular, in fairly good numbers, and can be found with regularity in socal. Least Storm Petrel qualifies for socal specialty status, and is probably annual, but, numbers vary. Last year (Y2K) only two were seen by two different leaders on two different trips, and both were SOS's... single observer sightings. Other years many are present, but July to Oct is the time to try for them. I've seen them in Nov. and Feb., near Arguello, during El Nino events.

Of course, at first, the leader will call them as specks on the horizon seeming to appear out of the trough for only a nannosecond, yet he yells with the confidence of a committee member. "Five minutes to Black and Least Storm-Petrels!!!". The boat slugs along, hopes are raised like sails, it seems to take forever, binocs are cleaned of salt spray... Then all of sudden there they are! A line of 'em, they're everywhere all around the boat. Big ones and little ones. Big black nighthawkish looking things, and little tiny teenstie weentsie sparrow or swallow sized "petrelets"! Leasts !!! Leach's are invariably outside the islands, and are the most likely one in winter. I've seen 1000 in a day in Sept., and hundreds in a day in July, outside the islands. Black and Ashy may be found in the channels, and even sometimes seen from seawatch points some years. Note how Ashy seems often to hold the edges of its tail curled up. It really is grayish too. Black is the most common and easiest to get, er see, (biggest) species. If any are around, you'll see them...

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel is a rarity in socal, and is of unpredictable less than annual occurrence. Though, 6/99 to 11/Y2K I found four on four trips. That is quite the unusual run though, and not to be expected. More Phalaropes are called Fork-tails, than actual F-t's occur. One in 10/Y2K on a piece of carcass allowed us to run out of film on it at point blank. In the rarity level department, I have once run into a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, seen by 20 aboard, on a socal pelagic trip (again on the Condor, of course). Another pelagic trip in the 70's recorded one too. They are regular off southern Baja, and probably occur much more often than realized here. Wilson's Storm-Petrel has been seen about a dozen times in socal, and is always a possiblity in storm-petrel concentrations, Aug-Oct especially.

One trip no one will ever forget was Oct 12, 1991, when we found an area of S-P rafts N.W. of Catalina Island, with near as we could figure: 4000 Black, 3000 Least, 50 Leach's some Ashys and 1 Wilson's! Another day in June, in the rain we happened upon a thousand Blacks walking on water and allowing us to drift amongst them!


Red-billed Tropicbirds are the epitome of the "socal specialty". There is no better place to look for them, in the lower 48. They are annual outside the islands. A couple trips July to Oct outside the inner islands, and you should see one, or more. I started the LAAS trip in August to the outer waters south of S.Nicholas Isl., five years ago, and we have yet to miss them, and have more often than not seen 3, 5, or even 7 of them, only once we only found one (19 in 5 trips!). They however cannot be counted on inside the islands, though they often do occur there, as last year (Y2K), one 8 miles off Ventura in Oct.. If no birding trips meet your schedule, get on an albacore trip.

I have only seen for certain one Red-tailed Tropicbird. It was at Arguello Cyn., in late Nov.. About a dozen on board saw it as it flew over us and disappeared. It was perhaps the only one ever seen on a socal organized pelagic trip. I do have other "probables" though...This species is probably resident 100 miles out, if you can get there! Be careful as Red-bills barring can disappear at less than 100 yards. Red-tailed looks like a big gull, slow deep wingbeats on broad round-tipped wings.

In the last decade I have seen well over 2 dozen T-birds. The "rap" about them being "hard to get now" had to do with one place being checked (Pyramid Cove at S.Clemente Isl.) once a year, and missing them for a couple years and quitting going. No one was going to the right places (the proper habitat: the Banks outside the inner islands), and looking! Interestingly some years I'll see 6 adults, and other years, 6 immatures.


Don't expect these on a pelagic trip. You are more likely to see one from a seawatch point than you are from a boat. They are as a group detected less than annually on the ocean in socal. Most are Brown Booby, and they are nearly annual. Recently a Nazca Booby landed on a fishing boat I wished I was on 60 miles off San Diego! So, anything is possible. There are records for Blue-footed and Red-footed Booby, but, Masked is the second most recorded species in the last decade. Almost all have been seen from shore as well. Overall, May through November is the time to hope against hope.

Skuas and/or Jaegers

The regular expected 4 species of the north-eastern Pacific are recorded annually in socal. South Polar Skua and Long-tailed Jaeger are deceidedly fall birds in socal. Though there are spring records of both, they are much rarer then. The LTJ migraates way offshore in spring, and is therefore accidental at that time. I've only seen one in 10 years in spring (75 miles out). LTJ's follow the Arctic Tern migrations, so pay particular attention when you see them. Outside the islands in fall, Aug-late Sept. is best. SoPo Skua is much more often seen in spring, but the window is narrow. The last 5 days of May and first 10 of June are best. They have been seen from shore a number of times at this season at places like Pt.Mugu and Pt. Vicente. They are regular in fall from mid-August to mid-Oct. is best, and outside the islands is better too. Once in the black of night at 5 a.m., Don DesJardin, Arnold Small and I were at the back of the boat, when one came into the lights, just 10' away from us. We stood There jaws agape, lots of exposed whites of the eyes, considering the hour, and all said at once "that was a Skua"! They volunteered me to go tell everyone in the cabin what we just saw in the dark!

Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers are common spring and fall, and a few usually winter, and even a few imm.s often summer, so are the most likely Jaegers you'll see. Both are often seen from seawatch points from shore, much of the year. They are rarest in summer (June-July). Pomarine is the most common most of the time. Peak days in fall (Oct.) you may see a hundred or even 500 (10/Y2K) "Pommies"! Parasitic are always fewer in number. They are regular in winter nearshore, where the Pommies often harass the Black- vented Shearwaters, and Parasitics, the Bonaparte's Gulls.

Pelagic Gulls and Terns

This would be Sabine's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Arctic Tern. The pair of Sabine's and Arctic are often seen on the same trips. Though Sabine's is more common earlier in spring, in April before many Arctics arrive. These two species are common, usually more so outside the islands, though they do occur in the channels in lesser numbers. Sabine's is seen on 12 hour trips in spring mostly in May, and to the first week in June. Longer deepwater trips record them in good numbers in April, further offshore. Same for Arctic Tern. Lots of Common Terns migrate far offshore, so one must excercise caution, and ID all Sterna terns individually. In fall Sabine's and Arctic are both numerous, more so outside the islands still, but more likely in the channels then as well. August and Sept. are the peaks, but they can still be found into Oct. in lesser numbers. The Tern is just about gone by the first week of Oct. The gull may continue in small numbers to Nov. The Kittiwake is present most winters, though some years only offshore, where it always most common. Deepwater trips Nov-April to Arguello record 800-1000, in good years. Formerly more common in socal. May be seen from shore at gull hangouts, harbors, breakwaters, bays, lagoons, etc., after winter storms Nov-March. After major invasion years, some may summer at harbors. On average, very possible Oct-April, more offshore.


Two of these are real socal specialties. SoCal is the best place to come look for Xantus's and Craveri's Murrelets. They are fickle though.... Craveri's is a late summer to early fall post breeding dispersant from the south - Mexico. July to October is principle period of occurrence. If you see an "Endomychura" (I liked this designation for this super-species group) nearshore in July, Aug or Sept., it is probably a Craveri's; far more likely nearshore than Xantus's is, at that time. Often they feed just outside surf or kelp line then. I have not knowingly seen a hypoleuca Xantus's in the last decade.

Xantus's is common but never when you need one. They are easiest in April near the nesting islands. That is most of the channel islands. Up until they lay eggs, they are easily seen within a few miles of the islands. At some moment in May they nearly dissappear and until the young hatch, are most unpredictable. The young are ushered to sea at 2-4 days old, so after mid-June or so (sometimes late May), they become easy to see again. They will not leave the young and are easily approachable with two little fluff-balls, too bouyant to get under, they pop up like corks when trying, at which time you can see the huge feet they have at a couple days old! They then go to sea presumably, and by late summer and early fall, most are gone, and Craveri's is present. Then in late fall, and winter small numbers of Xantus's winter offshore, over areas of upwellings.

Arguello and Redondo Canyons are good "alcid alleys". Ancient and Marbled Murrelets are casual to accidental in socal, so don't expect to see them. Like Boobies, they are as likely from shore, in harbors, or at sea-watch sites. The further north you go the better chance you have for these... Santa Barbara is way better than San Diego for them...Monterey is better than SoCal. I have only seen one Puffin on a socal pelagic, a Horned Puffin in April, at Arguello, seen by a few others as it flew past us stern to bow. There has been little to no looking outside the islands in May-June, when they historically occurred during invasion years.

Common Murre is annual or nearly so, but numbers vary being hard to find some years, and easy others. Much more common further north; in socal peak presence Nov-March. Rhinoceros Auklet is regular in winter, south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and scarcer south of that, but present, especially further offshore. 50-100 have wintered the last decade off P.V.Penin., Nov-March, and are easy on the LAAS 8 hr. trips, and even the 3 hr. public whale watch trips from San Pedro or Redondo Bch. (Redondo better). They are usually seen at point blank.

Often common at Arguello in winter, Cassin's Auklet, the battleship gray flying nerf football, is found year-round, but often not there when you need them. Except at Arguello in the winter where 1000 plus in a day is not unusual. Always over the large krill echoes on the sonar.... often over 2000 fathoms of water! A 9 inch bird making a living in 12000 feet of water! Again April around the islands is good, like the Xantus's. They get scarce in summer, assumedly going to sea with their young. They are present, but scattered in winter, and except for the deepwater, no where numerous. Where you get a few Rhinos or Xantus's, you'll usually have some Cassin's. Note the twisting and turning flight, not staying level like Murrelets. If they had a stinger they'd be a cartoon character.

Pigeon Guillemot is a very easy to see bird in socal. Just get near the islands, from April to August. They are scarce in fall and winter. Common spring and summer, but only very near the islands - most within a mile or less.


Fall is the best time to seabird socal. The most and best chances for the socal specialties is July or Aug. to Oct. The big three; Least Storm-Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, and Craveri's Murrelet are present then. It is also the best time for the rarer Shearwaters, all the Storm-Petrels and Jaegers/Skuas. Try winter or spring for Alcids.

So, there you have it. Now you know when to come to fill all those holes on your want list !! There are about 30 species of "pelagics" or "seabirds" to be found regularly in socal, on an annual basis. The best way to see them is to go on the scheduled socal pelagics, so you have many eyes, some of them good, looking for like targets. But many can be seen on local short "whale watch" trips too. And from promontories and points.

In winter from late Dec., to April, there are short cheap trips (whale watching), nearshore mostly for Gray Whales. They are often around $15, and run from essentially every socal port. Redondo is excellent because they often take you over the Canyon there, where alcids, Black-vents, and Jaegers are regular in winter.

In addition to the winter Gray Whale trips, The Condor, in Santa Barbara runs Blue/Humpback Whale trips in summer and they can be very good too, as they cross the Channel, the most productive inshore area in socal. The captains are getting pretty good at birds, and are darn good people. Let them know what you are there for (birds!). Go to

The LAAS runs a fairly good array of trips which in an average year will net you most of the socal seabirds. Their website is at: I lead many of their trips, a schedule of which is at my website: and go to 2001 schedule.

For real excitement in socal, your best bet for Albatross, Pterodromas, and mega-rarities is a deepwater trip to Arguello Canyon on the Condor. This is the most productive area in socal for whales, birds, and mega- rarities. There are three trips scheduled there currently. Two in the fall, coming up soon, and one in Jan. for Laysan, alcids, and who knows what. These deepwaters are unexplored, and little known, but, for a relatively few number of trips getting here, a very large number of very rare birds have been found. The two fall dates are Sept 28-29 and Nov 2-3. There is Also a Jan. 2002 date for Laysans and Alcids too. These trips leave 11p.m. Friday nite, motor west all night, and you awake in Albatross and Pterodroma country. They allow most of the day over very deep waters 50+ miles off Pt.Conception. Co-leader Bernardo Alps will hold down the cetacean end of things for us. Our official 'tail-gunner' co-leader is the great bird photographer Don DesJardin.

Go to the website to sign up for these, potentially two best socal trips of the year. The April trip had the Dark-rumped Petrel, a couple Laysans, and probable Cook's and Murphy's Petrels. The two prior trips (Jan. And Nov.) also had a couple Laysans each as well! The annual August LAAS Tropicbird trip fills in spring, so one must sign up early to get on it