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Hitchhikers and the SeaBC

Last year I shared the concept of a “SeaBC” on the ABA Blog. The SeaBC Sea Bird Count is a citizen science project organized by a group of long-distance birding sailors from around the world, inspired by popular, long-standing land-based counts such as Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and the Census Bird Count (CBC) in the U.K.

We’ve learned a lot in the two years since inception. We knew that seabird identification would be tricky. Yeah, they’re gray and white, moving fast, and you’re dealing with boaters first, birders second. That’s a separate aspect, where we’re trying to get GPS-enabled zoom-lens cameras onto citizen science sailing events, such as the upcoming round-the-world rally, Blue Planet Odyssey.

What I didn’t expect was the lure of avian hitchhikers. Nothing converts a non-birding boater to a birder-aboard like a land bird visiting 20 or 50 miles offshore. Those drab tubenoses off on the horizon just don’t light a yachtista’s fire like a tiny songbird that alights on their boat. Avian hitchhikers have become the “spark bird” for many long-distance boaters to participate in the SeaBC.

BRCR

A Brown Creeper hitched a ride for several hours on Randy Mraz’s warm fleece hat during s/v Emme’s offshore passage from Maine to North Carolina.

 

SeaBC'ers aren't only in U.S. waters. Behan Gifford on s/v Sailing with Totem photographed this Barn Swallow resting on her son’s book as they sailed off  Borneo.

SeaBC’ers aren’t only in U.S. waters. Behan Gifford on s/v Sailing with Totem photographed this Barn Swallow resting on her son’s book as they sailed off Borneo.

There is something incredibly special about a land bird visiting your boat out at sea—and why a common species, like an American Redstart or Northern Flicker, suddenly becomes a spark bird.

You have to put yourself in the place of these boaters. Imagine being alone, typically with your spouse or a friend, on an small vessel in the vast emptiness of the ocean. You’re alone on a 40-foot fiberglass world, 10 to 100 miles offshore. Many of us, land-bound, cannot imagine being in a place where you see no other signs of human life, and you see so far you can see the curvature of the earth.

So when a connection to land happens, and a warbler or a woodpecker visits, it is a special moment. These avian hitchhikers are the SeaBC’s perfect ambassadors, the spark birds that turn offshore sailors into offshore sailors looking at birds.

Forty miles is a long way offshore for this Golden-crowned Kinglet, resting off the South Carolina coast.

Forty miles is a long way offshore for this Golden-crowned Kinglet, resting off the South Carolina coast.

 

LeAnn Marchman on s/v Tovarisch hosted this Northern Flicker clinging to their cockpit enclosure 20 miles off the New Jersey coast.

LeAnn Marchman on s/v Tovarisch hosted this Northern Flicker clinging to their cockpit enclosure 20 miles off the New Jersey coast.

 

And these hitchhiker reports from boaters matter.  The ocean landscape is changing. Over ten years ago, sailing off Martha’s Vineyard in the fog, we came across a huge ocean wind farm. We know from oil rigs that land birds, including neotropical songbirds, migrate over large bodies of water. Just as on land, are there better or worse places for these high-rise rotating blades?

The ocean is the new frontier for wind farms, like these turbines off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For scale, that sailboat's mast is about 55 feet high.

The ocean is the new frontier for wind farms, like these turbines off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For scale, that sailboat’s mast is about 55 feet high.

During fall and spring, as hundreds of yachts move southbound and northbound along the coasts, they see a sample of this migration. Might there be patterns to their reports? We’re only in our second year, but we’d like to get all yachts reporting their avian hitchhikers, just as the North Sea Bird Club gleans data from offshore oil rigs <http://abdn.ac.uk/nsbc/>. Who knows, we might start to see some patterns to the pushpins. In the meantime, every bird that lands on a boat helps spark a new birder at sea.

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Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle

Diana Doyle writes the Tools of the Trade column in ABA’s Birding magazine, where you might have noticed that her hometown seems to change with every issue. That’s because she lives full-time aboard a 34-foot catamaran.
Diana Doyle

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