The forecast was for a high tide and big seas and that is what we got. The blow came from the south-east and with torrential rain storms factored in, it would likely set about slinging some of those normally far offshore birds a little closer. These conditions could mean only one thing for me, sea watching.
Sea watching is not that popular here, birders tend to spend their free time birding the bushes more than the ocean. Sea watching has to be learned and it can only be done through endurance. Sure you can plonk your bottom down and stare at the sea and you may well see a few birds but, if you are not suffering then it is likely that the birds you are seeing are not hard to see at any time. Sea watching generally requires special parameters involving the location, weather, tides and season. When they align it can be very good. That is not to say that sometimes unlikely conditions won’t throw up surprises, when the fish run they do.
For those who have never sea watched and would like a little insight then read-on. If you know your way around a lens cloth, where the lea of any rock would be in any given wind and can identify blobs at distance purely on their flight method, then go make some coffee/tea and come back for the lousy photos later.
Ideally you should sea watch in comfort. From a vehicle can be good, in a purpose built blind even better but show me one in Canada, I doubt you can. Once you’ve picked your spot, bee aware of where the bird track is. This is the line that most of the passing sea birds take as they pass your point. The line is generally consistent but can vary in width depending on wind direction and strength. The easiest way to define the track is to look at the most obvious, common bird, usually Northern Gannet.
Equipment is important and a scope can be invaluable but, if the conditions mean the visibility is well within the range of 10x binoculars stick with them but keep the scope set up in the car, if you feel you can comfortably use it on a distant bird. Quite often the birds will be hard to track from a rocking vehicle, it can be much better and more revealing to keep to the bins, you’ll get more of the essentials that way. If the visibility is reasonable then by all means go with the scope as a first choice.
Keep a camera handy if you can. With the availability of digital photography, especially through a 300 times plus lens, it is possible to get record shots of some birds that you might not get the key details of through either bins or a scope. Digital photography really has changed sea watching and birding in general, also there is the possibility that a rarity will fly past and you’ll have the back-up of some sort to go with the visual.
Don’t over reach, some birds are too far to ID – many will become identifiable with experience, but not all. Count them, age them if you can and put them on eBird, it’s important. Don’t expect to see everything that is out there, you won’t, also be sure to take little breaks. Concentrating for long periods is not easy, hence the popularity of reality shows and the like, and so by having a little break from time to time you will keep sharper longer.
Now on with the post: So I got to Baccaro Point at 10:00 and the place was rocking with Northern Gannets, their wings were just about brushing the shore they were that close. I set up with the wind blasting at the passenger side of the car and the rain coming in the open window not quite hitting my shoulder. Ideally I’d have liked to have been next to the Lighthouse but there was no snooze button on the fog horn and my ears wouldn’t cope (I know the fog horn is essential, I’m just jesting). Set and settled I started to scan and within seconds a Dovekie skittered through the troughs just offshore, a Nova Scotia tick and a great view in the circumstances, this was going to be good.
Over the next two hours and fifteen minutes, interspersed with notebook writing and coffee, (I’d already consumed the chocolate mints on the way), I duly logged everything passing, opting to estimate Northern Gannets but making a mental note that probably less than 5% were immature birds. I also took the photos in the rain and gloom from a rocking car and while suffering from greying hair. I’m including the best of the shots here so you can practice the identification of shapes more than plumage!
This list is not systematic but placed so that Facebook gets one of the better shots to show.
Black-legged Kittiwake – 202.
Razorbill – 67
Northern Fulmar – 1
Pomarine Jaeger – 2
Parasitic Jaeger – 1
Unidentified jaeger – 8 (two individuals here, probably Parasitic.
Dovekie – 62
Long-tailed Duck – 3
Northern Gannet – 400
Common Loon – 3
Red-throated Loon – 2
Unidentified loon – 1
Unidentified alcid – 20
White-winged Scoter – 1
Surf Scoter – 1
Black Scoter – 5
Sanderling – 1
Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls – yup.
Great and Double-crested Cormorant – yup.
Cory’s Shearwater – 1
Great Shearwater – 2
Unidentified shearwater – 2
Black Guillemot – 5
Common Eider – 300
OK, so the photos really are rubbish but you can ID the species (mostly) and such things really can help. Better stuff (visually) from the next post.