Focus your camera on sea birds

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This article was published in the Blue Planet Log magazine (Issue 3 – December 2013)

Seabirds are the last frontier of birding and are poorly documented. Keen birder and founder of the “SeaBC” Sea Bird Count, Diana Doyle, explains why scientists and conservation groups need your sightings!.


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 participants in the Blue Planet Odyssey and other Odyssey events 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?


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 you can’t make a contribution. I’ve created an onboard binder you can download [link] 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.[link]

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 Odyssey’s“ships of opportunity” will depend on having a camera onboard.

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).

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!

I’ve created some handy forms[link to this] you can use to document your 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 observation log sheets.

Sharing Your Contribution

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.

If you don’t have a camera with a geo-tag facility, you can just end each photo stream with a photo of your chartplotter showing lat-long.

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 (

With your permission and credit, your photographs also can contribute to a new crowd-sourced social field guide, called BirdFellow ( 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 Field Guides and Apps

Below are a few space-conscious resources for those who would like to have a seabird field guide on board. For avian enthusiasts, a much longer list of birding resources is available at the Birding Aboard Facebook Group under the link “Files”.

  • 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 (2000). Also includes whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles as seen from a boat.
  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer (2006). Covers rarities, so effectively spans a much larger area than North America.
  • National Geographic’s Handheld Birds App App version of their paper field guide.
  • iBird UK & Ireland Guide to Birds App. Available in regions including U.K., North America, Hawaii.
  • The Michael Morcombe and David Stewart eGuide to the Birds of Australia Free app.
  • WhatBirdNZ Free app.
  • Free Merlin Bird ID App
    Free, Instant Bird ID Help for 350 North American birds
    Answer five simple questions about a bird you are trying to identify and Merlin will come up with a list of possible matches. Merlin offers quick identification help for beginning and intermediate bird watchers to learn about North America’s most common birds. Merlin draws upon more than 70 million observations from the eBird citizen-science project. It customizes your list to the species you are most likely to have seen at your location and time of year.
  • BirdLog App
    For experienced birders, an easy way to submit your SeaBC sightings directly to eBird using the BirdLog app.


Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle is the founder of the SeaBC Sea Bird Count, writes for birding magazines, and is a department editor for American Birding Association.

She is leading the Sea Bird Logging Program for the Odyssey events.

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