Notes on Pelagic Birding


The incredible diversity of birds includes pelagic species, birds that spend most of their lives far out over the ocean, coming to land only to nest and raise their kids. When you consider that some 71% of the earth’s surface is ocean, it makes sense.

The adaptations required for ocean-dwelling are impressive: you have to get by without fresh water. You have to be able to find food on or below the surface of the water. You have to be able to cope with extreme weather events. And an amazing number of species have done exactly those things.

Brown Pelicans Monterey Bay, California

Brown Pelicans Monterey Bay, California

When WC says “pelagic,” he doesn’t mean birds that live on shore, but go to sea to find food, like these Brown Pelicans.

Brandt's Cormorant, Monterey Bay, California

Brandt’s Cormorant, Monterey Bay, California

Or even cormorants, like this Brant’s Cormorant, which might stay out at sea for a night or two.

Pelagics live on the ocean. Black-footed Albatrosses, for example, take 3-4 years to reach sexual maturity. They spend those three years entirely on the ocean, never once coming to land.

Black-footed Albatross, 44 miles off shore at Monterey, California

Black-footed Albatross, 44 miles off shore at Monterey, California

This is a 2-3 year old bird, who since leaving the nest has lived entirely on salt water. The naricorns, the structure on top of his bill, allow him to live entirely without freshwater. His wings are adapted to extended flight, inches above the waves. Albatrosses are primarily surface feeders.

By contrast, Common Murres are consummate divers, sometimes to depths of 100 meters.

Common Murre, non-breeding plumage, Monterey Bay, California

Common Murre, non-breeding plumage, Monterey Bay, California

Common Murre chicks can swim and dive long even before they can fly. Murre chicks leave the nest by jumping into the water, and then make an epic swim with a parent some 30-50 kilometers offshore to feed and grow. Murres use a different means of excreting excess salt, using two oversized glands below the eye.

WC’s personal favorite pelagic is the Sooty Shearwater, a plunge-diver. It has a spare, elegant flight, a fighter jet to the more ponderous albatrosses.

Sooty Shearwater, Monterey Bay, California

Sooty Shearwater, Monterey Bay, California

The Sooty is often seen in large flocks, but the flocks are sadly diminished. Where earlier seen in flocks of thousands of birds, it’s now dozens.

Sooty Shearwaters, Monterey Bay, California

Sooty Shearwaters, Monterey Bay, California

To photograph pelagic species, except during nesting season, you have to go where the pelagic species are – the ocean. WC recently made a couple of pelagic birding trips with the undoubted champion of pelagic birding, Debi Shearwater. She’s been doing it for 43 years and has a reputation as a no-nonsense, highly knowledgeable guide. She is exactly as advertised.

Pelagic birding is hard. The boat is bouncing around on the waves, the birds move quickly and sometimes erratically, and are often distant. Pelagic bird photography is very hard, with all of those complications and the added problem of trying to find the birds in the lens while trying to stabilize the camera. The harsh light isn’t any fun, either. Anyone who wants to criticize WC’s pelagic photography efforts is invited to take a 500mm lens – and not WC’s either – out in two meter swells with cross-chop and see how they do.

If you want to be serious about birding and bird photography, you have to go where the avifauna are. And visit the other 71% of the world. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

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