[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – In recent years finding Craveri’s Murrelet Synthliboramphus craveri off the California coast has noticeably climbed the difficulty scale. Once found regularly as far north as Monterey Bay, where I first saw the species in September 1998, this species just about vanished from Southern California pelagic reports. Now some very promising, and perhaps more regular, sightings are again coming from Southern California. Earnest pelagic birders in San Diego County waters have now found this elusive prize alcid species at well known offshore banks several years running. In years past the recognized calendar window to search for this species was late summer to early fall. Recent sightings align with this pattern. Following up on a positive report just one week before I ventured offshore San Diego on 25 Aug 2013 with Dave Povey and Jim Pea to see if Craveri’s Murrelets could be refound. We discovered and positively identified three pairs, all well photographed, about 15-25 NM from shore. In addition we found another three pairs of unidentified Synthliboramphus murrelets, quickly flying off while still at some distance from the boat, that remained just silhouettes in the bright glare on the ocean.
Under ideal viewing conditions, or “optimal” photographic opportunities, the more black colored underwing (variable in this species, in fact) and greater extent of black on the face, almost conjoining the chin, are good field characters to identify Craveri’s Murrelet, along with the longer and more thinly tipped bill than Scripps’s or Guadalupe Murrelets. However this species is not easily approached and these field characters can be difficult to almost impossible to document on birds flying away from you. The best opportunity exists on the first approach by boat as Synthliboramphus murrelets often raise their wings with rapid flapping, a sort of nervous response, to the closer approach. This usually signals the birds are uncomfortable and about to hit the launch button and take off! So having your finger ready, firmly planted on the camera shutter, can be very important on the first approach if you want to capture images of the underwing coloration and face. However I think another very good field character for Craveri’s Murrelet can actually be seen on birds as they fly away from you. As the murrelets often turn their heads side-to-side to look back at the boat the small black collar extension on the lower neck side can be clearly seen since the neck is outstretched in flight. This field character is shown below on one of the third pair of Craveri’s Murrelets that we encountered and I photographed – really only in flight this time!
Best options to find Craveri’s Murrelet would be to get on board any pelagic trips offered in Southern California in the late August to early October time frame. Currently trips offshore departing from San Diego, Dana Landing (Orange County), and Santa Barbara, can be found offered through the website SoCalBirding.com. The Craveri’s Murrelet is a key species highly sought after at this time of year on these pelagic trips. The species will be high on the search list by all leaders to help keen participants obtain good looks, and hopefully good quality photographs, of these charming but tricky prize alcids!