Saturday, September 06, 2008

Birding the Deep Blue Sea

See "Note on Photos" at end.

On a Saturday in late August, I spent a day with seventy-five people on a sport fishing boat which sailed from Hyannis, Massachusetts. There was hardly a fishing pole to be seen. Unlike many of the vacationers I saw back on the streets of that Cape Cod resort town, the people I was with were not glamorous or stylish, though there was a similarity to their fashion.

Here’s the fashion of most of those people: Take a Vermonter in working attire with lots of earth tones and subdued colors, and some frayed cuffs and worn collars. Add to this a ball cap with some sort of bird or conservation related logo. And most important of all, around the neck is a pair of high-end, high quality binoculars.

I give you this description of the people on that boat because it defines what they are: birders. And the seriousness and intensity of their birding will become apparent as I continue.

I was on a pelagic birding trip. “Pe-LAH-gic” - of or pertaining to the sea - conducting operations upon the open sea. We were in quest of sea birds which can rarely, if ever, be seen from the shore.

The boat had been chartered for the day by the Brookline Bird Club, one of the oldest and most venerable bird clubs in the country. Founded in 1913 by bird enthusiasts in Brookline, Massachusetts, the club today has over 1100 members, most from the Boston area and eastern Massachusetts.

Pelagic birds (sea birds) spend their lives on or over the open waters, often far from the sight of any land. They come ashore only to nest and raise their young; those nest sites are often remote islands or in extreme latitudes. But, if these pelagic birds are seen off the coastal waters of North America, a birder can make another check mark (a tick) on his or her North American life list. If they are seen off the coastal waters of a particular state, such as Massachusetts, they can be ticked on that state’s life list. Some birders are very avid about adding new ticks to their multiple life lists.

Whale watching excursions from many New England harbors will often get far enough off shore to produce pelagic bird sightings. The ferry between Maine and Nova Scotia can be an even better venue for sea birds. Occasionally bird groups do short day trips (four to eight hours) off the New England coast specifically in search of these birds.

A few years ago the Brookline Bird Club chartered a longer trip that produced such exciting results that they now do one a month during June, July, and August. The trips have come to be called “extreme pelagic trips” which go to the “last frontier of New England ornithology.” That sounds like overstatement, hype, and hyperbole. And it may be - but not entirely.

I registered for the trip in late March which made me one of the earlier registrants. The boat is boarded in the order in which one registers, so I was one of the early boarders. That meant that I could claim one of the thirty-nine berths on board. Boarder number forty might not be so lucky. Boarding began at 3:30am, about two and a half hours before sunrise and before one could see any birds. By claiming a berth, I increased the possibility that I would get a couple hours of sleep. To my relief, I did.

I did not reclaim the berth in the evening. I was staying in Hyannis. Many on the boat were going home and faced drives of two or more hours. They needed a place to sleep. We were sceduled to return to port at 9:00pm. It was 10:30pm when we docked.

The boat went where almost no nature related sea trips go - to the edge of the continental shelf, over a hundred miles from the coast. The waters of the continental shelf are relatively shallow (a few hundred feet) and cool (in the 50 degree range). When we crossed the edge of the continental shelf we were in water that was six to eight thousand feet deep and warm; on this day the temperature in the Gulf Stream which flows north along the continental shelf was 74.5 degrees.

With the change in water temperature comes a change in the oceanic fauna, including, potentially, the bird life on and above these warm waters. For example, off the warm coastal waters of North Carolina, a birder can expect to see the Audubon’s Shearwater. A birder would not expect to see it over the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy or the Georgian banks; the range maps in the bird guides only bring it occasionally to the southern New England coast.

The life and habits of many seabirds are very poorly known. Once they leave their breeding ground, they wander the vast oceans where there are few people and even fewer naturalists. The oceans are unknown frontiers when it comes to bird life. New discoveries await. In 2006, the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, not seen for a hundred years, was “discovered.” Early this year, Beck’s Petrel, not seen for eighty years and thought extinct, was reported in Papua, New Guinea.

Closer to home, the “extreme pelagic” trips by Brookline Bird Club have shown that the range of Audubon’s Shearwater extends much further north than previously thought. In the warm waters beyond the continental shelf, we saw this small shearwater skimming along the water’s surface with fast wingbeats and short glides. It was a new tick for me.

Previous trips by the BBC have turned up other rarities, some subspecies of common New England pelagic birds, and at least one first ever sighting. The dates and locations are carefully noted on an ocean chart; if these trips continue, they will gradually add to the understanding of seabird life off the New England coast.

The hard work on a pelagic trip such as this one was done by the spotters, the three exceptionally adept birders who continuously scanned the water with their binoculars looking for birds. They were equipped with headsets and microphones, quickly passing along a sighting to the other spotters, one of whom relayed the information over the boat’s public address system: “Small shearwater at 3 o’clock.” “Jaeger low at 12 o’clock.” There may be scientific value which comes from these trips, but the trips are being paid for by birders who want to see birds they can’t see while standing on shore.

So how did this trip do? Frankly, not very well. There were not large numbers of seabirds and there were no real rarities. On the long trip back to port, I could tell that some were disappointed. But birders know that there are no guarantees. For whatever reason, this trip did not cross paths with very many species or large numbers.

I wasn’t disappointed, however, and I am looking forward to next summer when I hope to do another of these trips. The highlight of the day, for me, was seeing one of the smallest sea birds dance on the water. Come back next week and I’ll tell you about it.

Good birding!

Note on Photos: I was primed to take 'great' photos of the seabirds, only to discover when three hours from shore that I had left my memory card in the card reader back home. When I reduced the resolution, I had room in internal memory for 30 pictures. So I missed a lot of opportunities, and the few photos I did get are not up to my usual expectation. I guess I'll just have to go again next year.

The Greater Shearwater was taken last summer on a whale watch.

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