While anchored out on Winyah Bay, S.C., on a fall day, Diana Doyle spotted a great black cormorant on a piling in the channel. Though not a rare bird, it is harder to find than many others in the cormorant family, so Doyle judged it a good day for bird-watching.
An avid birder, Doyle, founder of Birding Aboard, is hoping others will join her and her husband, Mark, in spotting, identifying, recording and reporting the seabirds — coastal and pelagic — they encounter while cruising this spring and summer.
Authors of the “Managing the Waterway” cruising guides, the Doyles have participated in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count while they cruise their PDQ 34 power catamaran, Semi-Local, but any time is a good time to spot and record birds, the Doyles say.
They and their fellow travelers in Birding Aboard count from the water — a mile or more offshore — and scan the horizon for birds with such colorful names as black-browed albatross, brown noddy, royal tern, red-footed booby and ruddy turnstone. “There are hundreds of coastal and pelagic species worldwide,” says Doyle, a former political science professor, a bird-watcher for 40 years and commodore of the Seven Seas Cruising Association.
The Christmas Bird Count recruits tens of thousands of volunteers each year, but most of them are landsmen and women. “[Audubon] gets lots of reports from Connecticut,” Doyle says. “There are a lot of bird-watchers in Connecticut. [Ornithologists] want more reports from Iowa and more reports from the water.”
Doyle says most cruisers already have the basic tool of bird-watching: a good pair of binoculars. They also need a field guide to help them identify birds and a “tally sheet” — a form for recording what they see. Tally sheets, a list of popular field guides and instructions for reporting birds online to Cornell University’s laboratory of ornithology (www.ebird.com) — the central clearinghouse for the CBC count — are available at www.birdingaboard.com.
Doyle says the numbers, distribution and range of seabirds remain poorly documented. “It’s called the last frontier of birding,” she says. In fact, scientists discovered a new species of seabird, Bryan’s shearwater, last summer in the Hawaiian Islands, and a new species of storm petrel last September at Puerto Montt in southern Chile. “There are new species still being discovered, so it’s crucial to carry a digital camera with you,” she says.
If a bird is a rare or new species, the photo can help document that. Doyle says photos also can help identify birds. She says new birders don’t have to worry about positively identifying every bird they count. The tally sheet makes allowances for uncertain identification, and even the inability to identify a bird at all. Birders can post photos of birds they don’t recognize at the Birding Aboard website to get help from other cruisers. And when birders report sightings online, they can reference a photo on Flickr or Picasso so the lab can confirm the ID.
Although bird counts aren’t exact enough for strict scientific conclusions, information compiled from them for decades helps scientists see trends: population declines in particular areas, large-scale shifts in numbers of birds, changing geographic ranges. “Over time [the counts] do provide helpful information,” Doyle says.
Although the Audubon bird count takes place in December, Doyle says cruisers are encouraged to report seabird sightings year-round. She is not sure how many cruisers joined the annual count last December, which was a first for Birding Aboard. Three distance rallies — the 250-boat Atlantic Rally for Cruisers from the Canary Islands to St. Lucia; the 200-boat Baja Ha-Ha from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; and the 70-boat Caribbean 1500 from Virginia to Tortola, BVI — were involved in the count, passing out tally sheets and instructions to entrants who wished to participate.
Birding Aboard is encouraging youngsters who cruise with their families to get involved with spotting and identifying seabirds, and it is issuing young birders an annual certificate to encourage them to keep birding. “If young people participate, that’s great because we’re passing on to them an interest in the environment,” she says.
Doyle says Birding Aboard would like to start a June bird count as well to involve northern boaters and gather data on northern seabirds. She is hopeful that Birding Aboard will draw devotees — cruisers who will enjoy the challenge of exploring their avian environment. “Most people wouldn’t be on boats if they didn’t like the outdoors and seeing new things and seeing new life,” she says. “This encourages them to take a closer look and share what they’re seeing.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.