I’ve always followed pelagic birding news and photos shared in bird-watching forums, never imagining that someday I’d go to sea to watch these birds, as my knowledge about them was limited. When I read about a pelagic bird-watching effort off the Kerala coast, it made me think seriously about venturing into the sea. Preparations began by gathering information about many factors – boats, safety factors, life-jackets, sea-sickness remedies, and many other criteria which need considering before tackling the sea. Public transportation from Udupi harbour to St. Mary’s island was available, but not suited to our purpose. Finally, with a friend’s help, my first pelagic birding trip materialised – I and a few of my friends hired a small fishing boat for our first foray off the Mulki coast. After half a day, we were forced to return, as we hadn’t carried enough fuel for the boat. Also, one of the birders was sea-sick.

Though we saw no pelagic birds, we saw many gulls, terns and dolphins; despite being unsuccessful in that sense, this trip was a good learning experience and helped me prepare for future pelagic birding attempts. This trip also stoked up interest amongst many of my friends; within a few months, we attempted more pelagic birding trips, joined by bird-watcher friends from Bangalore.

It is hard to convey our experience in words: the boat ride, spending the night in the vast, open sea, seeking pelagic birds, and watching the drama of skuas harassing terns, was an exhilarating feeling. The open sea was not a habitat I’d been exposed to and hence, the dynamics were new – we usually saw birds from a distance, or sometimes, passing swiftly by our boat. At other times, there were scores of birds flying around the boat, sometimes mixed fishing parties too. With the bird and the boat moving away from each other, the time at hand to identify the birds or understand their field character is extremely short.

Most of us on that fishing boat were armed with cameras and binoculars. Thousands of images were taken, filling many GB-worth of memory cards; they proved invaluable indeed, in confirming the identities of several birds which had passed well away from our boat.

Bridled Tern(3)

Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus

Pomarine Jaeger(2)

Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus
The problem while on a boat is that one never has a firm footing, unlike when birding on land. Not only does it affect your balance, the rolling and heaving of the boat as it rides the waves makes it impossible for you to even hold your binoculars or camera steady. Because the birds are in constant motion, and you move with the boat, dipping towards waves or steadying again to roll over to the other side, if you don’t hold on to something or aren’t seated firmly with the necessary support, you may even be thrown overboard!Due to the challenges of photographing from a rolling boat riding a choppy sea, missed opportunities are many. But, the open sea presents an equal number of surprises and plenty of opportunities; I consider the open sea one of the last frontiers of bird-watching.
 Referring to books and images taken by bird-watchers
In this pelagic environment, birds constantly seek food resources. There are two common food sources, the first one being fishing boats which use drag-nets. These drag-nets, as they plough through the water, churn up animalcules from the sea’s depths, to the surface. You see sea birds foraging in the wake of these boats, gliding and circling effortlessly around them, swooping-down from time to time to pick up scraps from the water. Sometimes, these birds settle momentarily to gobble a morsel before catching up with the boat again, using seemingly leisurely wing-beats.The second food source is when birds hit shoals of fish. When they discover a moving shoal of fish, there are just a few birds initially, but within minutes, their numbers swell. They send out visual signals far and wide, across the vast, open sea, and you see birds arriving in all earnest, to partake in the feast. There are Bridled Terns, Common Terns, Greater and Lesser-crested Terns, shearwaters and skuas. This seems to indicate that thanks to their acute vision, pelagic birds keep an eye on other birds around, and are familiar with their behavior when encountering a shoal of fish. The flock follows the shoals of fish, diving into the waves from above.
Common Tern(7)
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Lesser Crested Tern(7)
Lesser-crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis
Greater Crested Tern(7)(1)
Greater-crested Tern Thalasseus bergii

Each bird has its own way of feeding on the fish: while Bridled Terns, usually found in scattered ones and twos or small parties sometimes having large gatherings of 50-100, pick-up fish from the surface, Common Terns do not hesitate to plunge into water. Shearwaters usually maintain a more close-knit group, swimming the churning waters, dipping their heads to pick up fish from beneath the surface. You often see one of these shearwaters patter along the surface of the water with their booty, to distance itself from you, as you request the boatman to steer closer to get a better look.

The congregation gets more interesting with the arrival of the skuas. You rarely see skuas feeding by themselves, as they are given to a life of piracy – avian goondaism if you will – by harassing helpless terns. Be it the Common, Lesser-crested or Great-crested Tern that has just acquired a fish, skuas chase them relentlessly, showing great agility as they pursue the victim, twisting and turning to match the tern’s every move.

Arctic Skua chasing Greater Crested Tern(7)
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus chasing the Greater-crested Tern Thalasseus bergii

Unable to withstand the harassment, the terrified tern disgorges the contents of its stomach, which it had probably swallowed a few seconds ago, to escape the attack from the skua. No sooner is the fish voided by the tern, than the skua expertly rolls on its wings to catch it a few feet below the departing tern, well before the fish hits the waves. This drama, witnessed barely a few meters from your boat, allows you to watch every move the skua, a master showman, makes till the end. These parasitic skuas (also called Arctic Skua), never fail to impress you with their strength and forceful presence.

Arctic Skua(8)
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus
Wilson’s Storm Petrel is by far the smallest of the pelagic species – a dark, sooty brown bird with a distinct, white rump-patch. The wings look blackish, and what is unusual is that the white feathers of the rump appear to spill over and extend underneath both sides of the tail-base, as can be observed in this image.
Wilsons Stom Petrel 2
Wilson’s Storm Petrel Oceanites oceanicus

This species has long, stick-like legs that hardly look strong enough to support the bird, but they do aid the bird in pattering along the water surface. This pattering is very characteristic of the species.

Wilsons Storm Petrel 1
Wilson’s Storm Petrel, foot pattering

Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel is small, dark brown bird. It has a fluttering flight, unlike the Wilson’s Storm Petrel’s direct, gliding flight. It too patters on the water as it picks planktonic food from the ocean’s surface. A lifer for me was the Masked Booby, sighted off the Udupi coast; these are mostly reported in summer, from this coast.

As you bird-watch all day, you can see bird habits change through the day – in the morning, the birds are constantly on the wing, scanning the surface of the water with the prospect of finding food. But in the afternoon, most birds seem to settle down on the water in twos or small congregations, which may even swell to considerable numbers.

We came across a Pomarine Skua, which was a victim of long-line fishing. Long-line fishing is a commercial oceanic fishing technique which uses a long line, called the main line, with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines called snoods. A snood is a short length of line, attached to the main line using a clip or swivel, with a hook at the other end. Hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks can hang from a single line (source: Wikipedia). In India, there are top-driven programmes promoting this technique, to train fishermen mainly targeting Tuna fisheries.

Pomarine Skua(12)
 Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus, photographed with a long-line fishing thread hanging from its beak

This is perhaps the first documented instance of an avian casualty due to this fishing practice, from Indian waters. Since pelagic birds of the region are less studied, this could perhaps be more regular than it seems.

Six pelagic bird-watching trips along the west coast, from Udupi, Mulki and Mangalore, resulted in a few new records for Karnataka, thanks to the efforts of all the participants and those who helped directly and indirectly in conducting these pelagic surveys.