Among the most elusive birds on earth, pelagic seabirds spend their entire lives on the open ocean. Our writer hops on a boat to track them down.
Dave Curriecuts up herring on a small metal table at the stern of the boat. Wearing blue latex gloves, he picks a single fish out of a box, places it on the cutting table and chops the whole thing into six or seven sections, throwing them overboard one piece at a time. He uses a sidearm toss with an upswing at the end, sending each piece on a high arc up into the blue sky then down into the blue sea.
Between sky and sea is a skittering mess of seabirds—herring gulls mostly, and a few great black-backs, which are the world’s largest seagulls—each of them trying to catch a prize.
It’s early on a Sunday morning, and we’re in Nova Scotia waters, 20 kilometres off the Sambro Island Lighthouse, just south of Halifax Harbour, on a seabird field trip hosted by the Nova Scotia Bird Society. Dave, who is president of the society, isn’t on a chartered lobster boat merely to feed the birds, but rather to attract rarities that spend their lives wandering the seas far from land—the pelagics. There are 15 bird watchers on board with him, including Mike King, who happens to have amazing eyesight, and knows his pelagics.
The birds of the open ocean have a vast and nearly empty plate to dine on. Many soar aloft, watching for small fish scared out of the depths by a predator from below, boats throwing slops over the sides, and swarm-like gatherings of other seabirds, which signal that there’s food in the water.
Dave Currie is creating a feeding frenzy off the back of the boat to see what rarities he might attract from far out at sea.
“Cory’s shearwater incoming off the port bow!” Mike raises his binoculars to confirm his sighting of the large pelagic, and 15 other sets of binoculars turn toward the port bow. The bird is here in a few seconds. For one birder, it’s his first Cory’s shearwater sighting in 35 years of searching.
“Fulmar, two, straight off the stern and coming this way! Now they’re gone into the sun. Wait. Wait. Here they come off the starboard side!” says Mike. The fulmar looks like a small gull, but unlike gulls, and like all pelagics, it drinks seawater by desalinating it through a nasal tube on top of its beak.
Fulmars range across the oceans 2014of the Northern Hemisphere, come ashore only to nest on cliffs and then are gone. They don’t start breeding until they’re eight or 10 years old, and have a long life for a bird—some have been recorded breeding on the cliffs of Scotland past 50 years of age.
Among the birders on the boat, most could be considered pelagic experts, and two are authorities (specifically, biologists Dr. Ian McLaren and Dr. Eric Mills). Four of the passengers, this scribe included, would be lucky to distinguish a sooty shearwater from a flying chimney pot.
“Incoming jaeger!” Mike is pointing off to the northeast. There are at least a dozen birds coming in from that direction, and even before the binoculars go up, he’s identified one as a pomarine—one of three possible species of jaeger (pomarine, long-tailed and parasitic) in North Atlantic waters.
The jaeger tries to snag a free lunch. Jaegers and their cousins, the skuas, survive not so much by fishing but by scaring other birds into giving up their catch. A gull will quickly regurgitate its meal to get a jaeger to stop holding its tail in mid-air.
It’s a carnival on the water. Dave lowers a mesh bag of herring and mackerel chum off the stern, and sponges soaked in cod-liver oil. The smell of the oil dissipates and travels on the wind, hopefully attracting birds from farther away.
“Red-necked phalarope, two of them,” says Dave casually, pointing at two bobbers shoreward. They settle on the water at a discrete distance from the burly birds with the big appetites. Phaloropes nest in the Arctic and winter in the tropics, and it’s one of the rare species of birds where the female has the bolder courting colours and actively pursues the duller, smaller male. She lays her eggs on the marshy tundra and heads south, leaving the male to incubate the eggs and raise the young.
The birding action subsides for a bit, sandwiches come out, and group chatter turns toward what a rich morning it’s been. A young man named Bruce says he’d give five bucks to see a skua, just to top it off. Everyone agrees, with a lame sense of hope. The boat loafs in the swell, engine on idle.
“Skua incoming! South Polar skua! Yes, a South Polar skua on the port side, way off just above the horizon! See?” It’s the hawk-eyed Mike, yet again, who spots it first. The bird is nearly over the boat before the binoculars go up. It circles overhead, flashing the white on its wings, and looks to see what the gulls cough up. It circles again, close enough to touch. There’s a gasp on the boat. This could be the only South Polar skua many of us will ever see.
South Polar skua range the great oceans of the world, up and down the Pacific and the Atlantic, and into the Indian Ocean. They nest in Antartica, where they often feed on young penguins. Only a great storm will drive them near land.
Dave takes off his surgical gloves; he cleans the cutting table and polishes his glasses as best he can. The skipper sets course for Sambro, turns on the autopilot and sits with the passengers. Everyone is a bit stunned by the blinding sun and the display of life on the open ocean. The list keepers among us have mentally noted the individual species and the numbers of each. But they haven’t counted the gulls swarming around the boat’s stern. They were the bait.