Monday, February 21, 2011
Virtual seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon
What are these people doing? Looking for Gray Whales at Boiler Bay State Wayside near Depoe Bay, Oregon!
Good viewpoints for whales are positioned not too far above or away from the water. Not surprisingly, good places to view Gray Whales are also good places to view nearshore seabirds. And Boiler Bay is perhaps the best seawatch site on the West Coast.
But if you don't know what to expect, you may be disappointed.
On the rocks near the water you may find Black Oystercatchers, as in the photo below. Click the photo for a view that would approximate what you would see with binoculars. [I suggest you right-click and "open link in new window," so it doesn't take so long to reload the page using your "back" button.]
Time spent scanning for seabirds is called a "seawatch." Seawatches are not very successful with only binoculars. It usually requires a higher-powered (20-60x) spotting scope to bring the birds closer into view.
In fact, the photos presented here are all designed to show you what you would actually see with binoculars or a spotting scope on a seawatch. I took these photos in August 2009, just to see how bad photos of seabirds from shore would be (in general, bad, just as I surmised). Not magazine quality, are they? But they prove useful in teaching about seawatches.
Just beyond the first breakers you may see cormorants. In the photo below, a Pelagic Cormorant leads a Brandt's Cormorant. Click for a view such as you would see with binoculars.
You may also see Common Murres quite near shore. Such as in the photo below. Again, click to view the photo as it would appear with binoculars.
And here is a photo of a Pigeon Guillemot out about 1/4 mile. Click on the photo to make it appear as you would see it in binoculars.
On a seawatch, most of the birds are quite distant and views are usually no where near "field guide quality." It takes practice to identify seabirds and to learn what field marks you can see at a distance. By watching nearer, known-identity, birds fly away, you can learn flight shape and characteristics that will allow you to put a name on more distant birds.
Your binoculars aren't much use for birds more than a half mile distant. But with a spotting scope, you can identify birds 3 miles at sea or more.
For instance, take a look at this fishing boat about a mile offshore. Click the photo to give you a fairly accurate view of what you would see with binoculars.
Do you see the bird just behind the boat? If you watch the flap-and-glide progression of this long-winged bird, you could guess it was a shearwater. However, you need more optical magnification. So, click on the following photo to see what you might see with a 25x spotting scope.
You can see the long-winged bird flying right-to-left. The left wing is pointed right at us, so we can't see it. What we see is the underside of the right wing. The white underwing linings are clearly seen, identifying this bird as a Sooty Shearwater!
Here is another photo of a pair of Red-necked Grebes flying south about 1/2 mile out. Click the photo to see what view you would have of these birds with binoculars only.
Oh, that speck would be hard to identify with binoculars only, wouldn't it?
A lot of time on a seawatch is spent scanning with binoculars, then switching to the more powerful scope when you find something. Scanning with the scope has too small of a field of view--you'll miss more birds than you'll find if you scan with your scope. So find the birds with your bare eyes or with binoculars, then switch to higher power.
For instance, once you spot those flying "specks" in the above photo, get on it with your scope and you'll see something interesting. Click on the photo below to see what you would see with a spotting scope.
Now you can see the white face and white secondary wing patch identifying the two Red-necked Grebes in the lower left of the photo.
But notice what else appeared in our virtual spotting scope view? In the upper right of the photo is a bird flying left with pointed wings bent sharply at the wrist. The throat is pale and the head appears slightly raised on a short neck. Can you make it out? That's a Marbled Murrelet.
So, to answer your question... yes, seawatchers identify distant birds with only minimal pattern, shape, and flight style clues. Even with spotting scopes the views are not very good. But scopes do allow you to see small specks of birds about 3 miles offshore or farther, depending upon atmospheric conditions.
Here are some hints to make seawatching more successful.
1) Go at dawn. Seabirds are nearer shore first thing in the morning, then move off. By 2 hours after sunrise activity may be mostly over for the day. In May, that could mean that all the action is over by 8 a.m. On the West Coast, the sun comes up behind you, giving you the best light at dawn.
2) Scan with your naked eye or with binoculars. Only when you find something do you switch to your spotting scope.
3) Go seawatching during spring and fall migration, April-May and September-November.
4) Go during really nasty weather. Those big November windstorms often push seabirds near shore. Go between downpours. Dress warmly. Protect your optics. Head for a hot bowl of chowder afterward.
5) Practice, practice, practice! Identify close seabirds, then watch them as they fly away. What do you see as they get farther and farther away? Learn seabird patterns, shapes, and flight styles.
Andy Frank took some photos of Ancient Murrelets at Boiler Bay in December.
[This article is co-published on the Pacific NW Birder blog.]