Did you know that large portions of the Caribbean Sea have never (or almost never) been visited by birders? It’s true; the largest habitat in the Caribbean is the open ocean or pelagic zone, containing many species rarely found in other areas, yet it is also the least birded. Interested in taking your birding adventures to the sea? This article is for you.
What are pelagic birds? Pelagic birds are seabirds that spend most of their time (except when they are nesting) on the ocean away from land. Examples of pelagic birds include albatross, petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, skuas, jaegers, tropicbirds, and certain terns. Birders and scientists often know much less about the pelagic birds in their region than other species, meaning there are still lots of exciting things to discover. Scientists don’t even know what species occur in many places because no one has ever searched in those areas. Caribbean pelagic species are no exception. While the warm water Caribbean Sea may not have as large and abundant populations of pelagic birds like famous cold water regions such as California or the northeastern United States, the Caribbean still contains a number of interesting and important pelagic species. These include the endangered Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma hasitata), an endemic Caribbean breeder, Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri), Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), White-tailed (Phaethon lepturus) and Red-billed Tropicbirds (P. aethereus), Sooty (Onychoprion fuscatus) and Bridled Terns (O. anaethetus), noddies, and other species.
What is pelagic birding? Pelagic birding is any birding that is done away from land in the open ocean. There are various definitions, but eBird Caribbean considers any birding done at least 3.2 km (2 miles) from the closest land to be pelagic birding. Although most seabird breeding sites in the Caribbean have been documented (see wicbirds.net), there is currently not much pelagic birding occurring in the Caribbean, and thus little is known about when and where pelagic species occur away from land. Emphasizing how much we still need to learn, Anthony Levesque and Frantz Duzont took a pelagic birding trip near Désidade Island, Guadeloupe, this past April and found the first record of Cape Verde Shearwater (Calonectris edwardsii) for the Caribbean! (Click here to see their eBird checklist and photos) According to them, they found the bird at a shoal east of Désidade Island regularly known to have large numbers of birds, making it a good place to look for interesting pelagics. At first, they suspected that the shearwater might be an unusual subspecies of Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea). However, calm water allowed them to closely observe the bird swimming on the surface and take some excellent photos, which demonstrated that the bird was actually a Cape Verde Shearwater. Other trips by Anthony, Frantz, and other eBirders to the site have found Wilson’s (Oceanites oceanicus) and Leach’s Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa), three species of jaegers, and more (click here and here for eBird Caribbean checklists).
Interested in doing your own pelagic birding? You don’t even need to take birding-specific boat trips to see pelagic birds. Ferry rides or fishing trips provide great opportunities as well (fish and pelagic seabirds often occur together). Pelagic birds have their own habitat preferences just like land birds. Knowing where to look will help you find more birds and species. So little is known about pelagics in the Caribbean that you will probably have to work out for yourself where these sites are. Possibilities include areas where marine productivity is higher than the surroundings. Such areas include marine upwellings (often found where strong currents hit the edges of underwater banks or sea mounts) and countercurrent systems. Such places may also attract fish and whales, so it may be worth going on whale watching boats or asking local fishermen. Another option available to many tourists interested in Caribbean pelagic birding is to look for pelagics while aboard cruise ships. Cruise ship birding offers several advantages in that cruise ships spend large amounts of time at sea giving you plenty of opportunities to observe pelagics, they often travel through parts of the ocean that are difficult to access by small boat (e.g., the open ocean between islands groups), and birding from a lounge chair on deck does not require much extra effort on your part.
Because pelagic birds are often only seen from far away (the ocean is a big place), field marks may be hard to see, and identification often involves careful observations of behavior and shape. It’s highly recommended that you carefully study your field guide before you leave. And bring your camera; the distributions of many pelagic birds are poorly understood especially in the Caribbean, so providing photos and video for your observations is very helpful, especially in record review. As Anthony and Frantz have shown, there are new discoveries still being made. You may be the next person to document a Caribbean first, and providing detailed notes and photos on anything unexpected is especially important.
On land or on the sea, eBird Caribbean thrives when data are entered with specific and accurate locations. The ability to associate complete checklists of birds with specific locations is essential for understanding species’ habitat associations and geographical patterns of occurrence, helps eBirders find birds, and ensures that their lists are correct in My eBird. Birding at sea is somewhat different from birding on land, since marine habitats are much less obvious than those on land. Factors such as water depth and temperature, upwelling, steepness of the ocean bottom, salinity, and currents may be important determinants of where pelagic birds are likely to occur. And while a woodpecker or hummingbird may live its entire life within a territory of one square kilometer or less, all pelagic birds must move among ephemeral feeding areas. For pelagic birding, the ideal process for submitting checklists is keeping a series of short-duration counts that represent a “track” of the course taken offshore. This will allow us to begin associating the occurrence of pelagic species with the various factors that influence their distributions on the open ocean.
eBird pelagic protocol The pelagic protocol applies to checklists that are made farther than 3.2 km (2 miles) offshore. Closer to land (e.g., when leaving the harbor or birding by boat near shore) please use other eBird protocols and existing hotspots, where appropriate (see below).
The pelagic protocol indicates that you are recording birds more than 3.2 km (2 miles) from the nearest land. The protocol is a traveling count of 1 hour or less. Do your best to record (using a GPS or BirdLog) or estimate (using average ship speed) the distance traveled, and try to account for potential backtracking or changes in speed. Be aware that knots use nautical miles, and each nautical mile is about 1.1 statute miles (or 1.85 km). eBird Caribbean distance fields use kilometers or statute miles. There are times where you may be stopped, in which case the distance traveled may be very short or even zero. If you’re anchored, use the pelagic protocol, record your distance as zero, and enter the full duration, even if longer than 60 minutes. At the end of each count period, start a new checklist and plot your point at the beginning of each transect. It is strongly recommended to put water temperature and depth in the checklist comments, along with visibility and wave height, as these are important variables. Repeat this process throughout the trip until you return to within 3.2 km (2 miles) of shore. If you have previously submitted pelagic checklists that match this protocol, please do update them in eBird Caribbean.
Zero species checklists Following the pelagic protocol may result in some (or possibly many) of your checklists having few or zero species, especially if the count periods are short. This is fine. In addition to knowing where birds are present, eBird Caribbean needs to know where birds are absent, and this requires checklists that document bird absence. So please submit all checklists, even those that record zero birds. eBird Caribbean will value your careful observations regardless of the number of species!
Individuals seen repeatedly Often, a recognizable individual bird will be seen across multiple checklists. In such cases, it is recommended that you include the bird in your count (which is really a survey of the birds in the area at that time) and consider marking it as a continuing bird in the species comments. Please do not omit the bird entirely from that or subsequent checklist periods, even if it follows the boat all day.
Work as a team Anytime you do a pelagic trip and are lucky enough to have other birders with you, try to find other eBirders aboard so that you can help one another in keeping track of the birds and submitting your lists appropriately. Ideally, you should chat with the leaders before departing to ask if there is an effort by the leadership team to keep eBird Caribbean checklists. Finding and counting birds offshore is a challenge, so working as a team really helps!
Plotting location Plotting locations accurately and precisely is among the most important aspects of eBird Caribbean, and should be stressed at sea and on land. On organized pelagic trips and even on ferries and whalewatch boats, it is often possible to get precise coordinates from the captain. Note that most smartphones have GPS functionality that does not require cell service, so with a GPS app (like Motion-X), one can get coordinates offshore from your smartphone. Note also that BirdLog works just fine offshore; choose “Create Offline Checklist.” With this option, appropriate species lists cannot be accessed by the app unless you have started a checklist in the same county or state you’ll be visiting. Submitting a list from the area of the harbor on the day before the trip or on the morning as you depart is one way to get an appropriate checklist to use while offshore (otherwise you will have to use the full taxonomy). Be careful with your coordinates; decimal degrees work best in much of eBird Caribbean, and the file upload process requires this format. Data can also be submitted online using Degrees, Minutes, and Seconds (DMS), but degrees and decimal minutes need to be converted. A couple helpful conversion sites are:
A great example of eBirders using the pelagic protocol successfully is a boat trip by Jeff Gerbracht and other birders from Freeport, Bahamas, to the Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas, in 2012. Observers divided the trip into 30 minute counts with each checklist’s location recorded at the starting point. The results of their trip can be seen in the eBird Caribbean map below of Bridled Tern (a very common pelagic) for southern Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Their trip can be traced by the diagonal line of sightings from Freeport, Bahamas, towards Miami, Florida; and the second north-south line just west of Andros, Bahamas. Note that these checklists are still essentially the only at sea eBird Caribbean records in this part of the Caribbean! Most parts of the Caribbean show a similar lack of checklists, emphasizing the value of any pelagic records for eBird Caribbean. The results of this trip can be explored in more detail at this link. Click on individual bubbles to access individual checklists. Explore eBird Caribbean records for other Caribbean seabirds by changing the species at the top of the page or by picking an appropriate option here.
eBird pelagic hotspots and historic data When using the eBird pelagic protocol above, locations will be plotted precisely and accurately, so it’s best not to use hotspot locations with checklists that follow the pelagic protocol. However, if you have historic lists from past pelagic trips, or you were not able to follow the pelagic protocol above for some other reason, please at least try to use pelagic hotspots when possible. At this time, very few pelagic hotspots have been created in the Caribbean. If you cannot find a hotspot at the correct location, create a personal location, or if the location is regularly visited by yourself or other birders, you can recommend that a hotspot be created. Remember: don’t use hotspots with checklists that follow the pelagic protocol, since you already have more exact location information.
States, provinces, and counties offshore Within eBird Caribbean, we use a strict closest point of land (CPOL) rule to assign a country, state (province), and county to offshore observations that are within 200 nautical miles of land; observations outside of this area appear in the Location Explorer and eBird Caribbean as the country (and state) “High Seas” with code XX. As long as you plot your points accurately and keep your lists short, eBird Caribbean will assign them automatically to the correct region. This standard matches U.S. Federal law and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as listing guidelines of the American Birding Association and other similar bodies around the world. Nate Dias explains the policy and some of the nuances.
Plotting rarities For extremely rare birds, it is very important to get specific information on the location. If you take specific location coordinates for a rare bird, please enter that in the species comments so that it is always clear exactly where the rarity was seen. In such cases, recording habitat information such as water depth and sea-surface temperature is also recommended. You can also consider creating an additional eBird Caribbean checklist specifically for this rarity, which can be an “Incidental Observation”, just to make sure it’s plotted exactly where you saw it on the map, and that it gets tagged with the appropriate state and county.
Recommended checklist protocols for visits to seabird breeding colonies, land-based seawatches, eBirding coastal seabirds, and other “non-pelagic” eBirding If your pelagic trip takes you close to an active seabird breeding colony, you might consider a visit to collect data. As in all situations involving waterbirds, eBird Caribbean recommends using either the Caribbean Waterbird Census (CWC) Area Count or CWC Traveling Count observation types when possible. BirdsCaribbean has additionally developed detailed protocols for surveys of breeding colonies and a manual for surveys, which will shortly be available for download on their website. If you have the time, following the more detailed BirdsCaribbean protocol is recommended as it provides important information for seabird conservation work. BirdsCaribbean protocol data should be submitted to both BirdsCaribbean and eBird Caribbean (submit the data to eBird Caribbean under whichever protocol fits the data best). If you plan on visiting seabird nesting colonies, be warned – great care is needed as the presence of humans in the colony can greatly increase mortality from predation and exposure.
Don’t worry if you can’t participate in a professional pelagic trip or don’t have the opportunity to travel far enough from land to use the pelagic protocol. Many interesting species can be seen from land or close to shore, and land-based or near shore checklists provide eBird Caribbean with much valuable information on seabirds. Seawatches are a popular way to look for seabirds (including occasional pelagics) from shore. Successful seawatches are typically located at points, capes, long jetties or piers, and other places that extend farther into the ocean than the surrounding land. This allows observers to get close enough to see seabirds that normally do not come close to land. Telescopes are often needed for seawatches, although binoculars will allow you to identify many of the closer birds. The Stationary Count protocol works well for this kind of birding. Birding from a boat near shore can also be very interesting. Use the CWC Traveling Count or CWC Area Count protocols where appropriate. Otherwise, Traveling, Area, or Stationary Counts can all be used. Remember, any information you can provide eBird Caribbean in the form of checklists is helpful.
You can also contact Will Mackin (email@example.com) and Ann Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org) directly with questions about Caribbean seabirds (including pelagics).
Good luck and remember to submit your sightings to eBird Caribbean!
Team eBird, Doug Weidemann, and Ann Sutton
Special thanks to Anthony Levesque and Chris Haney for comments and suggestions on this article, and Ted Lee Eubanks for use of the photographs.