Mountains in the Deep: Exploring the Central Pacific Basin






Birding on the High Seas

A brown noddy has plucked what appears to be a piece of algae from the water just offshore of Palmyra Atoll. Photo: Scott France

A brown noddy has plucked what appears to be a piece of algae from the water just offshore of Palmyra Atoll. Image courtesy of Scott France. Download larger version (1.1 MB).

May 13, 2017

Scott C. France
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

A trio of Masked Boobies passes by the ship off Jarvis Island. Photo: Scott France

A trio of Masked Boobies passes by the ship off Jarvis Island. Click image for credit and larger view.

Like many biologists, my interest in nature does not stop when I leave the deep-sea "office." I love exploring the natural world on land as well. When we first met, my wife introduced me to bird-watching – and I love it! Not only is the diversity of birds fascinating and beautiful, but the mere act of looking for birds focuses my eye on the natural world around me and allows me to see so many more animals, plants, and insects that I might have overlooked.

When I have the privilege of heading to sea for research or exploration, I look forward to the opportunity to explore the local birds and natural settings in remote ports (a highlight on Tutuila, American Samoa, was the Flying Foxes, fruit bats the size of small herons!). On a typical day in the remote ocean, spotting birds is difficult.

The Pacific Ocean is a vast space – most of the time, water surrounds us to all horizons with no land in sight. While there are seabirds out there, they are usually hard to find because their relative density is low. They aren’t congregating on the open ocean, but are constantly flying or gliding in search of food. When they are present, they may be hard to find because they are either flying low to the water and disappearing behind the swells or because they are far off and moving fast and, therefore, easily overlooked.

 

While diving off Palmyra Atoll, this white tern, a.k.a. fairy tern, made a flyby of the ship.

While diving off Palmyra Atoll, this white tern, a.k.a. fairy tern, made a flyby of the ship. Click image for credit and larger view.

Lesser Frigatebird.

Lesser Frigatebird. Click image for credit and larger view.

On this expedition, I've actually been surprised by the number of seabirds I have seen since we left American Samoa. But I'm even more fortunate because on three occasions we are conducting remotely operated vehicle dives very close to islands that host seabird colonies: Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef.

I've spent enjoyable time before breakfast and after the dives patrolling the deck, taking photos of Fairy and Sooty Terns; Brown and Black Noddies; Masked, Brown, and Red-footed Boobies; Frigatebirds; and Shearwaters. Being outdoors looking for the birds has put me in the right place at the right time to also photograph visiting pods of dolphins! Thank you birds!

 

A pair of juvenile Brown Boobies landed on a mast on the bow and warded off others who wanted the perch

A pair of juvenile Brown Boobies landed on a mast on the bow and warded off others who wanted the perch. Click image for credit and larger view.

Red-footed Booby.

Red-footed Booby. Click image for credit and larger view.

 

May 13 is both International Migratory Bird Day, which highlights the importance of migrating-bird stopover sites and their habitats, and Global Big Day, an event that brings together birders from around the world. Go outside, observe the birds, and appreciate nature. If you are inclined, share your findings. I’'l be doing my part out here in the Central Pacific!

 

A flock of noddies resting on the sea surface offshore of Palmyra Atoll. We saw hundreds of noddies flying just above the water surface, occasionally dipping for a meal, before this rest period.

A flock of noddies resting on the sea surface offshore of Palmyra Atoll. We saw hundreds of noddies flying just above the water surface, occasionally dipping for a meal, before this "rest" period. Image courtesy of Scott France. Download larger version (4.6 MB).

Sign up for the Ocean Explorer E-mail Update List.