Even if you are a very experienced land birder, you are likely to
be a bit overwhelmed on your first pelagic trip. There is a whole new way of
giving and following directions to the bird. The identification of pelagic
birds is somewhat different in that flight patterns and behaviors take on added
importance. You have learned to dress appropriately for land birding, now
get ready for birding on a rocking boat. What sleeping and eating provisions
can you expect on an overnight pelagic? This section provides some hints to
help you get started.
Giving Directions At Sea
Direction - Think of the Boat As A
Forget about starboard and port, the nautical lingo you
learned reading Moby Dick. Birders think of the boat as a clock with 12 o'clock
at the front ( usually ponted) end and 6 o'clock at the back. Facing the front
of the boat 3 o'clock is the middle of the right side and 9 o'clock the middle
of the left.
Birders tend to get excited, so if you and your friend are
standing on the left side and he yells, " I have a bird at 3 flying right",
translate that to 9.
Each time you move from one side of the boat to
the other side, try to remind yourself if you are on the 9 or 3 side.
The best way to express
the distance from the boat is by reference to the horizon. (where the water
meets the sky). A flying bird can be above the horizon or below the horizon. A
sitting or flying bird can be described as half - way, or 3/4 of the way to the
If you are on the top deck and the person describing the location
of the bird is on the lower deck there is a discrepancy. The higher you are the
further the horizon. Where Is The
There are few landmarks at sea. One wave looks pretty much
like another. To give directions to a bird use the following:
- What point on the clock
- Is the bird flying or sitting on the water.
- If flying is it going right or left
- Distance to the horizon
"Sooty Shearwater 4 o'clock, flying right, half
way to the horizon"
"Greater Shearwater 3 o'clock
flying left 3/4 of the way to the horizon."
To follow the directions of another person,
first look where they are looking. Then place your binoculars as close to the
location described as possible and scan a bit in both directions.
You won't see every bird on your first pelagic trip. You
probably won't see every bird on your 100th pelagic trip, but you will get
better at following and giving directions with practice. If you miss a bird,
forget your frustration and get ready for the next one.
A good way to
learn is on the way out of the harbor, work with a friend to practice giving
directions to a gull.
Seabirds in general are not colorful. They exhibit: black, brown,
gray, and white color patterns. On land you may first see a bird as a flash of
yellow or red. At sea you will first notice a bird by the way it is flying. You
need to include other behaviors as part of your identification.
First learn to recognize the flight of gulls
and terns which fly with a steady wing beat except when preparing to land on
the water. On your first trip pay special attention to the flight of the gulls
on the way out of the harbor. The first time the leader calls out shearwater,
there may be hundreds of gulls around the boat and you need to pick out the
shearwater by the way it flies.
Shearwaters (except on takeoff) fly by
intermittingly flapping their wings and then holding them stiff as they glide
or "shear" over the waves. They tip their wings first to the right and then to
left as they ride updrafts between the waves. Even when flying in a fairly
direct line, the shearwater alternates wing beats with glides. Even at a long
distance you can pick out a shearwater from a bunch of gulls by the way it
The Northern Fulmar also uses "shearwater flight". If it looks
like a gull, but flies like a shearwater, think Fulmar.
Alcids and Ducks
fly with steady wing beat. Since they are heavy bodied birds, their wing beats
are much faster than those of the gulls. Alcid wing beats are faster than
those of ducks.
Jaegers are known for harassing gulls, terns and other birds
trying to force them to drop any food they are carrying. This kleptoparaistism
as it is called, causes the bird under attack to fly in an erratic pattern.
Evasive flight is noticeable even at a distance. Start looking for the dark
bird with white wing flashes that is causing the action. Here a jaeger chases
an immature kittwake. Photo by Steve Mirick and used with his
Some birds, most notably the Northern Gannet make spectacular
dives into the water from the air. Terns are also known for plunge diving and
some species of Shearwaters do this as well.
- Surface Diving
- The bird dives while sitting on the water. Typical of
Shearwaters, ducks, grebes, and Alcids.
- Extended Dives
- Alcids, loons, grebes and ducks pursue fish underwater. Alcids
use their wings to fly through the water while the others paddle with their
legs. These birds make extended dives and may resurface some distance from
where they went down.
- Surface Picking
- The bird picks food from the surface of the water. Some birds
like Storm-petrels do this while flying or on the wing. Others birds
(Phalaropes) only pick up food only while sitting on the surface.
Wilson's Storm-petrel is known for pattering on the water while
picking up food.
Books on seabirds use several terms to describe how birds interact
Some birds follow ships often crisscrossing the wake from side
to side. They are hoping for refuse from the galley or looking for marine
animals brought to the surface and perhaps even stunned by the ship's
propeller. This behavior is called ship following or wake
dwelling. Larger birds like the Wandering Albatross may take advantage of
air currents produced by a large ship. In Antarctica an easily recognized
individual Wandering Albatross followed the ship for two days.
birds seem to recognize fishing boats and follow these boats waiting for fish
refuse to be thrown overboard. Most fishing boats seems to have a trail of
gulls following them. Gulls will often start to follow the whale watching boats
until they realize that nothing will be thrown overboard. Harrison and others
use the phrase attends trawlers to describe this behavior.
||Gulls often follow fishing boats waiting for waste to be
|Harrison (2) has this description of Wilson's Storm-petrel:
"Readily follow ships; attends trawlers and cetaceans, attracted to
Leach's Storm-petrel is described in the same source. " Does not
normally follow ships; occasionally attends trawlers."
The same can be applied to mammals. Some
dolphins will ride the bow wave of a boat. This makes them
easier to see and photograph. The Common Dolphin, Atlantic
White-sided Dolphin, Bottle-nosed Dolphin are a bow riders.
There are probably more Harbor
Porpoise in the Gulf of Maine than any other mammal. We frequently see the
Atlantic White-sided Dolphin, but almost never the Harbor Porpoise. The reason
is that the Harbor Porpoise avoids boats and is never a bow rider.
It is also so small that even small waves can hide it.