A Brown Noddy claims a random perch halfway between Ascension Island and Barbados. Photo: Ellen Massey Leonard
A Brown Noddy claims a random perch halfway between Ascension Island and Barbados. Photo: Ellen Massey Leonard

Birding Aboard ‘SEABC’ Has Sailors Reporting Unusual Birds

Word is getting out among sailors worldwide to help report back on the birds they see at sea—and they are spotting some unusual birds, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the Arctic’s Northwest Passage.

The ‘SeaBC’ is a citizen science project coordinated by long-distance birdwatching sailors from around the world.

Reports are contributed to Cornell University’s eBird database, so boaters’ sightings become a resource for scientists and conservationists worldwide. Participation is designed to be simple for non-birders juggling navigation and boat-handling. They are simply asked to photograph any birds seen at least two miles from shore, followed by a snapshot of their navigation display’s coordinates if their camera is not geo-tagged.

“The reports and photographs that are starting to come in are phenomenal,” says founder Diana Doyle. “Inexpensive 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.”

A tiny Blackpoll Warbler, a migrant between Canada and South America, rests in the cockpit of S/V Cinderella about 20 miles off the Florida coast. Photo: Jaye Lunsford
A tiny Blackpoll Warbler, a migrant between Canada and South America, rests in the cockpit of S/V Cinderella about 20 miles off the Florida coast. Photo: Jaye Lunsford

Because there is so little coverage of pelagic areas, the odds are high for a ‘birder aboard’ to contribute a notable sighting. Here are a few examples:

Sailing vessel S/V Aventura IV, with the Blue Planet Odyssey through the Northwest Passage, photographed a rare white morph Gyrfalcon cliff-nesting on an island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in Nunavut. Their sighting adds to a lone 1999 historical eBird report of a Gyrfalcon at the same location.

A 24-year-old, who crossed the Atlantic with his father on S/V Themi as part of the Atlantic Odyssey fleet, captured stunning photographs of a Trindade Petrel about 1,000 miles east of Martinique. A Trindade Petrel also was reported independently by S/V Joyant about 900 miles east of Antigua. Trindade Petrel is a recently split species, considered vulnerable with uncertain global population and range.

Two homeschooled children, ages 10 and 11, logged all the birds they saw during their two-week transatlantic, scoring a Red-billed Tropicbird and Masked Booby closer to Cape Verdes than their expected stronghold in the Caribbean.

In that same fleet, S/V Gemme and S/V Fleur de Sel documented flocks of Cattle Egrets in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from land. The Cattle Egret has had one of the most wide-reaching and rapid expansions from its native range in Africa, spreading northward through South and North America since first sighted in Guiana in 1877. They are presumed to have flown across the Atlantic, given that immature Cattle Egrets will disperse up to 3,100 miles from their breeding area. So Lanzarote to Martinique is just a jump across the pond!

Reports of tropicbirds, boobies, noddies, gulls, terns, auks, puffins, fulmars— along with photographs of difficult to identify shearwaters and albatrosses—make up the bulk of the Birding Aboard project. These include reports such as Black-footed Albatrosses off the Alaska coast, summer breeding flocks of Dovekies in Arctic waters, Iceland Gulls in winter off New England, migrating Phalaropes off Newfoundland, Yellow-nosed Albatross off South Africa, Cory’s Shearwater off Morocco, and Fea’s Petrel off Cape Verdes. All these reports help fill in distribution and abundance data in underbirded areas.

There are also reports of hitchhiking land birds. These sightings reinforce recent tracking evidence that tiny songbirds are able to migrate long distances over the ocean and are not all ‘storm waifs’.

Michael Schrimpf, eBird reviewer for pelagic reports who confirms the more difficult SeaBC identifications, says of the project: “The response we’ve gotten from boaters is phenomenal—it’s great to get reports from spots on the map with very low coverage.” When asked about SeaBC’s use of photographs, he added: “The photographs are invaluable. Most importantly, they let us assist in identifying the bird. The main goal of these photos is documentation—folks shouldn’t worry about getting a ‘professional-looking’ picture.”

The SeaBC is a Clean Wake Project of the Seven Seas Cruising Association, an Environmental Programmof the Ocean Cruising Club, and a Project of the Blue Planet Odyssey. For more information, visit:www.birdingaboard.org and Cornell University’s eBird database:www.ebird.org

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