By Jim Williams
My all-time favorite kind of birding is done on boats on oceans. I’ve taken several trips off the California coasts, but until a couple of days ago only one Atlantic trip, that out of North Carolina. Pelagic birding cannot match whale-watching for popularity, so one day last week Jude and I boarded a whale-watching vessel in the Gloucester, Mass., harbor, and hoped for birds. The chances were pretty good. The whalers go out as far as 35 miles, depending upon where the whales are feeding. That’s a lot of water. We saw five species of pelagic birds: Greater, Cory’s, and Sooty shearwaters, and Wilson’s and Leach’s storm-petrels. The shearwaters are bigger birds, their slender wings almost four feet tip to tip. The storm-petrels are the size of Purple Martins, but with longer wings. They’re all gorgeous
flyers, usually no more than a foot or two off the water, riding the air currents created by wave movement. Pelagic birding guides chum, tossing bits of fish overboard to attract gulls which in turn can bring the true ocean birds within viewing distance. Whale-watching captains don’t chum. You takes your chances. It turned out to be a good day. It would have been even better two days later when the storm named Bob blew by. It surely carried with it birds usually seen to the south. But no tourist boat filled with tank-topped adults photographing whales with their cell phones was going to do that. (There’s something odd about taking pictures of whales with cell phones.) The bird pictured is a Sooty Shearwater, one of two of our five pelagic species generous enough to sit beside the boat for a few moments. Usually, you’re doing your ID work from 300, 400, 500 feet away.