There are some birding disciplines that just don’t grab people’s imaginations. Sure they can appreciate watching bright, spring warblers or pretty ducks and even, to some extent, majestic flocks of wheeling shorebirds but, say you are going to peer out to sea for a couple of hours in lousy weather and that the views you will get make it hard to rule out a passing fly and they are mystified, good thing otherwise the sea watching spots would be more crowded and that would be no good at all.
I did my first sea watch some time in 1981, it was at Spurn in East Yorkshire and I quite enjoyed it (Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Manx and Sooty Shearwater and an Osprey plus ducks, geese, loons, grebes, terns, gulls and alcids). Since then I have watched when I can and now, living in an area offering exceptional sea birding, I partake as often as circumstance (the weather) dictates that I should, I’m lucky for sure. Mostly sea watching is as the name describes except that, with experience (gained only by sea watching) you get to need less of the birds to know what they are, you also learn to set your range and only exceed it when the species you are looking at is an easy ID at range.
Changes in equipment have seen a change in practices, especially with the advent of digital photography. The images you can reliably get, of birds way out to sea, not only aids their identification but also lets you click and count, I’ll explain: The point of sea watching, well the two points, no make that three. Among the many points of sea watching are the desire to see, identify and enjoy bird species not encountered too often, and the hope that you might see a rarity. Counting is also a primary function, ageing when counting too, else how do you have any idea how robust a breeding season has been if you don’t report say 60% adult, 40% immature Northern Gannets?
The sea also throws up surprises such as unexpected species on calm, seemingly listless days; passerines belting past and offering an ID challenge, distant shorebirds and even hawks or owls, steadfastly heading for land after crossing their least favourite habitat, the sea. The seabirds themselves also become easier when digital photography is allied to a sea watch. A distant jaeger might be tough to ID while moving, but freeze it and look at it on the PC with a mug of something hot to sip, and suddenly the ID is much less of a challenge, and eBird reports can be liberally decorated too, just to prove the point.
I’ve talked about sea watching technique before. Get comfortable, find the track the birds are taking the most often, watch at a fixed point, take regular breaks and, if you get distracted, scan in a sweep using the direction of the passage (usually the same for everything) to get back to where you were so you don’t miss anything. Pretty simple really as long as you stick to the golden rule mentioned earlier, don’t look further than you can comfortably identify something, small terns will need to be nearer that gannets!
In a group make sure you are all looking at the same place by dividing up the sea into areas so that anyone can reference an area when they have something, otherwise disaster lurks!
Here is a classic example of not communicating properly, as I understand it there was a burial at sea! http://www.wansteadbirder.com/2013/08/red-billed-tropicbird-at-pendeen.html
Now a few example doc ID shots of nothing rare but, just so there is a decent photo for Facebook, I used a pretty Atlantic Puffin off Nova Scotia at the beginning of the post.
Northern Gannets are helpful on a sea watch, often showing where fish might be, they also show the track many birds will use when passing your sea watching spot.
In rough conditions you won’t get great views of mid distance birds. Here are a couple of young Black-legged Kittiwakes well offshore. If these had been Sabine’s Gull you’d have no trouble presenting them as confirmation of the ID, although their capture might be subject to more camera shake than normal!
Loons usually fly above the horizon, so for counting purposes, and ID, you can grab a snap and tally up later.
Rather than just lump sea ducks as scoter species, a quick shot gives you the ID you might not have time chasing in the field. No problems with these Black Scoters.
Perhaps the easiest sea duck to call, even at range, but a good passage photographed and counted later is more accurate.
A trio of Surf Scoter female/imm types, note the pale belly.
A string of Common Eider, but what is that lurking in second place? A bit of a tweak in photoshop resolves it as a male Hooded Merganser, and you can count the eider up too.
A little mystery with no prizes given. Sometimes a photo with no context is tough to call, this one should not trouble you too much.
Just a final thought on digital sea watching, if you photograph say a line of ducks and you miss the little sawbill in the middle that later turns out to be a Smew, do you tick it?
Two excellent guides that are worth splashing the cash for, if you are a committed sea watcher and not some namby-pamby robin-fondler type (no offence) are to be found in the links below. The first gives a nice review, the second is a link to the Natural History Book Shop just so you can look at the cover and a bit of spiel.