Boating citizen scientists gather valuable data about seabirds

10/23/2013 | 0

A Brown Creeper finds a warm resting place on Randy Mraz's hat on s/v Emme. The bird clung there for several hours during an offshore trip from Maine to North Carolina.

A Brown Creeper finds a warm resting place on Randy Mraz’s hat on s/v Emme. The bird clung there for several hours during an offshore trip from Maine to North Carolina.

We’re always happy to hear from Diana Doyle, and we’re especially interested at this time of year.

You may remember her excellent articles in the magazine about the Big Green Birding Challenge and about devices that let you add location data to your bird photos. Or you may recognize her as the contributor of the “Tools of the Trade” column in Birding.

What you may not know about Doyle is that she sails a yacht, and she’s the founder and coordinator of the cleverly named SeaBC, or Sea Bird Count, now in its second year.

Like the well-known CBC, the Christmas Bird Count, the little-known SeaBC is a worthy citizen-science project. Its mission, says Doyle, is to benefit seabird conservation by mobilizing the worldwide boating community to document ocean-bird sightings.

Boaters don’t need to be seabird experts or knowledgeable about seabirds to participate. “We have set up a Facebook group (Birding Aboard) and work with a designated eBird seabird reviewer for identification help and to ensure the validity of the data,” says Doyle. Members of the boating community can contribute year-round simply by taking digital photos of seabirds, recording the latitude and longitude, and reporting their sightings.

All SeaBC data go to eBird, where boaters’ sightings become a resource for scientists worldwide, providing critical and seldom-recorded data on seabird abundance and distribution, as well as on ocean migration routes.

This is important, according to Doyle, because seabird knowledge is often described as a frontier science. As many as a third of all seabirds are listed as vulnerable or globally endangered by BirdLife International. At the same time, new species are still being discovered, and species believed to be extinct are being re-sighted. Breeding or wintering areas for many species remain unknown.

“Conservation efforts first require understanding,” Doyle says. “In the case of seabirds, study has traditionally focused on breeding grounds where the birds are easiest to study. Yet seabirds spend most of their life at sea, and the difficult logistics have curtailed understanding of all aspects of their life history. Hence the role of citizen scientists — in this case, boaters who cruise offshore or along the coast.”

Interested? You can find recording forms, posters, and other resources on the Birding Aboard group page on Facebook. – Chuck Hagner, Editor

Why seawatches matter, from the authors of the new Peterson guide to seawatching.

Hitchhikers and seabirds

An Arctic Skua attacks a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Photo © C. Speedie/Wave Action.

An Arctic Skua attacks a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Photo © C. Speedie/Wave Action.

Northern Flicker, Barn Swallow, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Redstart, and Yellow-rumped Warbler were among the perching birds that landed and rode along on boats during the 2012 SeaBC, the first.

It was promoted by three long-distance cruising rallies: the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia (200 boats); the Baja Ha-Ha, from San Diego, California, to Cabo San Lucas (200 boats); and the Caribbean 1500, from Hampton, Virginia, to Tortola (70 boats).

Here’s a partial list of other species reported:

American Black Duck
American Crow
Antarctic Prion
Atlantic Petrel
Atlantic Puffin
Black Guillemot
Black Scoter
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel
Black-browed Albatross
Black-legged Kittiwake
Blue Petrel
Bridled Tern
Brown Booby
Brown Noddy
Bufflehead
Buller’s Albatross
Cape Petrel
Chinstrap Penguin
Common Diving-Petrel
Common Eider
Common Goldeneye
Common Loon
Common Murre
Gray-headed Albatross
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Cormorant
Great Shearwater
Herring Gull
Kumlien’s Gull
Long-tailed Duck
Macaroni Penguin
Manx Shearwater
Masked Booby
Northern Gannet
Northern Giant-Petrel
Parasitic Jaeger
Razorbill
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-necked Grebe
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Royal Albatross
Snow Petrel
Soft-plumaged Petrel
Southern Giant-Petrel
Southern Royal Albatross
Thick-billed Murre
Wandering Albatross
Wedge-tailed Albatross
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
White-chinned Petrel
White-winged Scoter
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Yellow-nosed Albatross