Focus your cameras on seabirds

by Diana Doyle

Storm-petrels

If you’ve sailed anywhere in the North Atlantic, you’re probably familiar with northern gannets, large white seabirds with black-tipped wings that feed with dramatic plunge-dives.

Last year, a northern gannet showed up at California’s Farallon Islands—if you missed the import of that, on the Pacific Ocean. How did it ever get there? Scientists speculate it may have travelled through the now-open waters of the Northwest Passage, a vagrancy made possible by climate change.

A few years ago, a New Zealand storm petrel—thought to be extinct since 1850—landed on a fishing boat and was photographed. That led to the subsequent discovery of its nesting colony, and the bird is now protected as a critically endangered species. Even more astounding, a new species of seabird was recently discovered off Puerto Montt, Chile, sighted from a cruise ship!

Seabirds are the last frontier of birding and are poorly documented. These elusive birds, which spend most of their lives at sea, are under dire pressure right now from pollution, fishing, and climate change. For example, of the 22 species of albatrosses, 19 are threatened with extinction. All this is happening at a critical time when the ocean’s currents, temperatures, and ice layers are shifting. So scientists and conservation groups need your sightings!

As Blue Planet Odyssey participants sail these under-surveyed areas, they are in a unique opportunity to make a contribution. Each vessel is what scientists call a “ship of opportunity.” You are valuable eyes on the water, to report seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and marine debris.

What’s that Gray-and-White Seabird?

Shearwater

There’s one little problem with seabird identification. You’re trying to pick out field marks from a moving boat, with sun glare, without a size reference, on a fast-moving bird. Even with a good look, most seabirds are frustratingly similar: subtle combinations of white below and gray above, countershaded for the sky and ocean. Field guides, often massive tomes showing myriad plumages, aren’t much help. Sometimes even experts can’t agree on the species.

But that doesn’t mean Blue Planet Odyssey  participants can’t make a contribution. The onboard binder will include a primer on seabird families, so you can experience the excitement of identifying a frigatebird overhead, or a storm-petrel tip-toeing in your wake, or a skua attacking a gull. For those who’d like more resources, see the list of recommended field guides and apps.

Shoot First, Identify Later

s-v Joyant Photo by Tom Wadlow

Digital cameras have transformed citizen science. Now everyone can document and share their sightings, and scientists receive verifiable reports. Ultimately, in the case of seabirds, the impact of Blue Planet Odyssey’s“ships of opportunity” will depend on having a camera onboard.

Every Blue Planet Odyssey vessel should carry a camera. It’s a pittance of an investment in the grand scheme of outfitting. This is a rally that involves citizen science so, just as each boat must have radio communication and safety equipment, citizen science is transformed by a camera. You’ll probably want a camera anyway to capture your adventure!

Fortunately, you may be able to adapt what you already own, or purchase one of the new portable super-zoom cameras for less than a few hundred dollars. Ideally a camera should have the following three components: 1) zoom capability, 2) vibration reduction, and 3) geo-tagging (automatic recording of lat-long, which is optional). A list of recommended cameras and accessories is available for Blue Planet Odyssey participants.

Regardless of equipment, the best camera is the one that’s out and ready! You don’t find birds (or whales or sea turtles…)—they find you. And they will show up at the most inopportune moment, so your camera needs to be accessible and ready at all times.

I’ve learned a few tricks that work well while underway.

  • First, when you bring your camera out for the start of the day, turn it on to let it acquire nearby GPS satellites.
  • Then turn it off to conserve battery.
  • Keep the lens cover off so it is ready.
  • Sit the camera in a protected area of your cockpit, ideally on a scrap of non-skid shelf liner.
  • Then cover it with a hand towel (light-colored in the tropics) to protect it from sun, heat, and moisture.
  • If something interesting flies or floats by, simply toss aside the towel, flip on the camera, auto-focus, and shoot—a two-second process with practice.
  • Always take multiple photos—it may take several angles for a confident identification. If your camera can take multiple images (often called continuous shutter), select this option.

You’re a Citizen Scientist

Photo by Mark Doyle

Presumably you keep a detailed ships log? Most mariners enjoy keeping meticulous records of their position, sea and weather conditions, and so on. Perfect for scientific notes!

Each Blue Planet Odyssey vessel will have a binder of forms to document their sightings. In the case of seabirds, we are emphasizing incidental sightings, which means birds you just happen to see, rather than rigorous several-hour transects. You’ll be busy underway with the logistics of a moving sailboat, but they’ll be plenty of chances to observe the natural world around you. (If you’re a keen birder and you’d like to do daily one-hour transects, we have log sheets for that.)

When you see something of interest, photograph first, then jot down some notes. I recommend having a waterproof field notebook in the cockpit where you can quickly scratch down your immediate impressions.

In the case of seabird sighting, jot down anything you notice about the bird. Some important notes include date and time of the sighting (this will match to the photograph’s data), field marks such as bill or feet color, size and shape (or make a sketch), the number of birds, a description of their flight style, the sea and weather condition, any interesting behavior, and so on.

When you’re off watch, or at the end of each day, you can transcribe your notes onto the BPO observation log sheets in the binder.

Sharing Your Contribution

Calling All Kids Aboard!

A great way to involve children in observing nature is through a camera lens.

Any Blue Planet Odyssey young participant that submits a seabird photograph will receive a colourful personalised certificate of participation.

The original artwork is by Katharine Lowrie, transatlantic sailor on s/v Lista Light and co-author of The Seabird Breeding Atlas of the Lesser Antilles.

I’ve already emphasized that geotagged photographs are the big deal. They are the best way to ensure that observations are documented and that identifications are vetted.

When you get to port, and and have hot-and-cold running Internet, we will help with or confirm the identifications using a network of expert volunteer reviewers. Only then will sightings be logged into eBird, a global database managed by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology (www.ebird.org).

With your permission and credit, your photographs also can contribute to a new crowd-sourced social field guide, called BirdFellow (www.birdfellow.com). Seabird photos are badly needed!

Finally, absolutely keep your cockpit log book. It may contain invaluable details needed later. Who knows—perhaps we’ll create a post-rally montage of Blue Planet Odyssey field notes?

Seabirds need you. With the Blue Planet Odyssey fleet traveling through regions with almost no eBird reports, this is a particularly exciting and unique opportunity. Imagine if a Blue Planet vessel photographed an out-of-range Atlantic or Pacific seabird along the Northwest Passage? That would be big stuff for the riddle of out-of-range seabirds and the implications of climate change. So let’s focus those cameras on seabirds!

Some Recommended Onboard Resources:

  • Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, by Derek Onley and Paul Scofield.
  • Guide to the Offshore Wildlife of the Northern Atlantic, by Michael H. Tove.
  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer.
  • iBird UK & Ireland Guide to Birds App.
  • National Geographic’s Handheld Birds App.

Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle and her husband Mark live aboard a PDQ 34 power catamaran, from which they produce their On the Water ChartGuides series of cruising guides and electronic charts for the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Diana holds a 50-ton USCG Master’s License and has sailed between Canada and the Bahamas.

An avid birder, she is the founder of the SeaBC Sea Bird Count, writes for birding magazines, and is a department editor for American Birding Association.