Birds at home miles from shore are targets of seafaring birdwatchers

Halfway between Ascension Island and Barbados, a Brown Noddy perches on a radome. Photo © Ellen Massey Leonard.
Halfway between Ascension Island and Barbados, a Brown Noddy perches on a radome. Photo © Ellen Massey Leonard.

We’ve received some photos of birds that are too interesting not to share.

They were sent to us by Diana Doyle, who in addition to serving as a department editor for Birding, the American Birding Association’s bimonthly journal, is a USCG-licensed captain and the founder of the Sea Bird Count, or SeaBC.

Northern Flicker 20-60 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Photo © LeAnn Marchman.
Northern Flicker 20-60 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Photo © LeAnn Marchman.

The SeaBC is a citizen-science project for long-distance sailors around the world. Participation is simple: Sailors photograph birds seen at least two miles from shore. (If their cameras are not geo-tagged, the birders also take a snapshot of the coordinates displayed by their navigation system.) Then they share their sightings with eBird, so they become a resource for scientists and conservationists worldwide.

“The reports and photographs that are starting to come in are phenomenal,” says Doyle. “Inexpensive portable zoom cameras let scientists tap into the sightings of recreational boats as they transit seldom-birded waters. They can be our eyes on the water.”

Because there is so little coverage of pelagic areas, she adds, the odds are high for birders aboard to contribute notable sightings. Here are a few examples:

• Sailing vessel Aventura IV, with the Blue Planet Odyssey, a round-the-world rally aimed at raising awareness of the global effects of climate change and the state of the ocean, photographed a white-morph Gyrfalcon on an island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in Nunavut. The sighting adds to a lone 1999 historical eBird report of a Gyrfalcon at the same location.

• A sailor aboard the sailboat Themi photographed the Trindade Petrel below about 1,000 miles east of Martinique. (Another Trindade Petrel was reported independently by the Joyant about 900 miles east of Antigua.) Trindade Petrel was recently split from Herald Petrel, and is considered vulnerable.

Blackpoll Warbler on s/v Cinderella about 20 miles off the Florida coast. Photo © Jaye Lunsford.
Blackpoll Warbler on s/v Cinderella about 20 miles off the Florida coast. Photo © Jaye Lunsford.

• Young birders making a two-week transatlantic voyage recorded a Red-billed Tropicbird and Masked Booby closer to Cape Verdes than their expected stronghold in the Caribbean.

• Flocks of Cattle Egrets were documented in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, over a thousand miles from Africa or South America. Cattle Egret has expanded rapidly from its native range in Africa. It was first sighted in Guiana in 1877 and has since spread northward through South and North America. The birds are presumed to have flown across the Atlantic Ocean.

• A birder aboard the sailboat Heretic contributed sightings of a Cape Petrel farther north than expected in the Indian Ocean, a Brown Noddy hitchhiker off the South African coast (above), and a Pomarine Jaeger near St. Paul Rocks, in the central equatorial Atlantic Ocean.

Hitchhiking landbirds have also been seen. Doyle says there have been reports of Bobolink, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Barn Swallow, Mangrove Swallow, Caribbean Martin, Northern Flicker, and Blackpoll Warbler. The sightings reinforce recent tracking evidence that songbirds can migrate long distances over the ocean and are not all storm waifs.

According to Doyle, the SeaBC is anticipating exciting reports from Blue Planet Odyssey vessels sailing to Tokelau and Vanuatu, another season of attempts through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, a sailboat cruising the Scandinavian Arctic, and OceansWatch Donna Lange’s solo circumnavigation.

Trindade Petrel, a thousand miles from shore. Photo © Michael Sammer.
Trindade Petrel, a thousand miles from shore. Photo © Michael Sammer.

The SeaBC is a Clean Wake Project of the Seven Seas Cruising Association, an environmental program of the Ocean Cruising Club, and a project of the Blue Planet Odyssey.

For intimate views of puffins, shearwaters, and other birds of the sea, nothing beats a cruise on a historic Maine schooner.

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