[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Sometimes there are just magic moments birding. Today I was thinking it was all so ho-hum when along came this beautiful sooty-brown tubenosed seabird making agile sweeping arcs in flight over the kelp beds of La Jolla Cove. I took one look at this bird making switchbacks in front of me and new immediately it had to be photographed!! Close examination of the photographs reveals this is a Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera. It can be distinguished from the closely similar Providence Petrel P. solandri (also known as Solander’s Petrel) by the fully dark underwing including completely dark underside to the primaries and underwing primary coverts. Other distinguishing features include the saber like wing shape, bulky “fat” medium length wedge-shaped tail, and the overall dark brown concolorous plumage except for the pale peppering around the bill base. The strong black bill is also noticeable. This bird flew in agile, graceful high arcs interspersed with slower wingtip touching the water style flights. It circled several times among other birds collected over the near shore kelp bed before disappearing to the south. Based on time stamps from my 118 images it was in view for less than two minutes! All photographs below are shown without adjustments to original color or contrast.
There are currently five accepted records of Great-winged Petrel in California with another one under consideration, the nearest to San Diego coming from Monterey County in 1998. Great-winged Petrel was seen as recently as September 2011, pending acceptance by the California Bird Records Committee, from a Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County pelagic run by Debi Shearwater. This bird would seem to be somewhat later than previous California records which occurred during July through October. The pale peppering around the bill base, in particular the chin, may indicate this is a form of Great-winged Petrel known as “Grey-faced” Petrel P. m. gouldi although juveniles of the nominate macroptera are noted as having pale feathering of the face also. Certainly the gouldi form has been positively identified in California previously and this bird could well be that form also. It seems most likely this is an adult bird because juveniles are only leaving their nests in the Southern Hemisphere in early December.
In the ABA area Great-winged Petrel has only been recorded from California and is currently categorized as a Code-5: Accidental which means there are five or less records in the ABA area. This record would constitute the 6th or 7th record dependent on the acceptance of the September 2011 record. It is the first Great-winged Petrel to be seen from shore anywhere in the ABA area.