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Offshore

My work as a hydrographic surveyor has taken me all around the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the waters off NW Australia. Usually there has been little opportunity to birdwatch but occasionally there has been time on deck......

Further links / trip reports for individual trips can be found lower down on this page. Click on the pictures below to see more detail about each area:

Click for link to the Mediterranean Click for link to the Barent's Sea Click for link to the Indian Ocean / Australia Click for link to Ormen Lange and Northern Norwegian Sector Click here for link to Southern North Sea North Atlantic
The Mediterranean Barent's Sea NW Australia Ormen Lange  Southern North Sea North Atlantic
Birding on the Tamar field off Israel Black Sea, March 2010 Offshore Gabon Shtokman, Barent's Sea Visible migration, Gibraltar Straits, Spring 2011 Danish and German sector, November 2011
Eastern Mediterranean Black Sea / Med Gabon Shtokman Gibraltar Straits Danish and German Sectors



Observations have come from all kinds of survey and construction vessels I have worked on. Most  work has been related to the oil and gas industry but there have also a number of other projects including treasure hunting and salvage. The amount of time spent on deck has varied enormously but the norm has been very little - it is far from one long pelalgic birding trip! Many of the chance sightings I've had make me wonder just how much gets missed.


There are a surprising number of "land birds" seen offshore on oil platforms and vessels; often more passerine species than seabirds are noted during a trip to work - at least during the migration seasons. Any haze, cloud or rain can bring "falls" of migrants onto the decks, waders do not land often but will regularly circle a vessel at night before moving on at daylight.


                                osprey 

This Osprey was photographed as it rested on the aft mast some 10 km NW of Ibiza in the Mediterranean in April 2005. The picture was taken using binoculars as a telephoto lens - no easy task as I had to hold onto the forward mast with my thighs whilst reaching around the mast with binoculars in one hand and digital camera in the other - with the vessel constantly rolling this was something of a challenge!

Gas flare
Gas flares often cause birds to become disorientated and can at times cause a lot of mortality

Birding offshore presents some problems, one of which is that any land birds are seen totally out of context and habitat, often making identification surprisingly difficult. However, it also provides some interesting insights into migration and the adaptability of many species of bird.


Northern Wheatear gets doubly unlucky Vagrant Red-breasted Flycatcher...killed by paint?

Male Commob Crossbill being fed by female
Male common Crossbill being fed by female, Ormen Lange, June 2009
For more details about this and other highly unusual feeding behaviour click here


Terrestrial birds finding food
A "bird table" consisting of some biscuit crumbs flung onto the roof of a 20' container on deck once attracted two unlikely species feeding side by side - a Little Stint alongside a Lesser Whitethroat! On other days during the same trip more likely visitors to this food supply included Song Thrush, Chaffinch and Brambling. One surveyor turned birder famously "planted" a tree on deck on which he hung fruit and other food for exhausted migrants - even after the leaves had fallen off the bare branches continued to attract all kinds of birds....




More typical perhaps that flocks of Common Starling or Jackdaws raid the rubbish skips for food - although this behaviour is perhaps limited to rigs as ships do not tend to have open skips on deck. These birds can in turn provide food for owls and raptors. I have experienced a Long-eared Owl swooping low over the deck to snatch a Starling in each talon before flying back up to its roost site in the crane to devour its prey. Other such sightings have included Kestrels hovering in the updraughts around the bridge pouncing on exhausted Robins sheltering on the deck below, or Sparrowhawks weaving in between containers, winches and other gear on the deck to catch unwary Bramblings.....

Movements of birds are regularly accompanied by movements of insects, or perhaps it is the other way around. Frequently birds that land onboard manage to catch these insects - often prey items larger than they would normally take. Moths such as the Silver-Y moth are regular in the North Sea during the summer and autumn and can provide a source of noursihment for tired migrants.

Migrant moths such as this Silver-Y may help birds survive as they cross the inhospitable waters of the North Sea
Migrant insects such as this Silver-Y moth may help birds survive as they cross the inhospitable waters of the North Sea.


However, many birds that land on offshore installations and vessels die. Already in a weakened condition when they come onboard they succumb to starvation, dehydration and exposure. This male Common Redstart is just such an example:

Common Redstart

Birds turning up inside cabins...
Some birds find their way inside the vessel and I have entered my cabin to find a Northern Wheatear sitting on my bunk or a Barn Swallow flying around in panic. The most remarkable incident was perhaps a Yellow-browed Warbler which suddenly turned up on top of my computer monitor one night - I caught it easily in my hands and slipped it outside again.

Other odd experiences have been wandering out onto the deck at night only to have a Dunlin run over the deck towards me, stand next to my boot and look me up and down before scuttling off a few metres in a surprising display of tameness. A Bluethroat onced perched on my foot on the back deck of a vessel off SW Portugal and there have been countless other episodes concerning more run of the mill species.


Passerines alighting on the sea
Somewhat surprisingly I have seen species such as Woodpigeon and Fieldfare actually land on the sea before taking off again on several occasions. One would have thought they were doomed to a watery death should they land at sea.....However, passerines landing on the sea is no new phenomenon - in 1899 off the coast off Northern Virginia a Chuck-will's-widow (a North American Nightjar-like species) was observed landing repeatedly on the sea - and watched scoffing warblers. Read more about this fascinating account here in the Auk archives.

In volume 48 of British birds (1955) there is also a mention of a Skylark and some Starlings landing on the sea, only to take off again, apparently none the worse for wear. In contrast to my own experiences this article states that the birds were not actually seen to land deliberately on the sea.


Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater

Not just birds.....
During survey operations we often see other marine life such as whales, turtles and others.

Pilot whales
Pilot whales

Turtle
Turtle (Australia)


Sunfish
Sunfish (Mediterranean)





Click on the pictures below to see more detail about each area:
Click for link to the Mediterranean Click for link to the Barent's Sea Click for link to the Indian Ocean / Australia Click for link to Ormen Lange and Northern Norwegian Sector Click here for link to Southern North Sea North Atlantic
The Mediterranean Barent's Sea NW Australia Ormen Lange  Southern North Sea North Atlantic
Birding on the Tamar field off Israel Black Sea, March 2010 Offshore Gabon Shtokman, Barent's Sea Visible migration, Gibraltar Straits, Spring 2011 Danish and German sector, November 2011
Eastern Mediterranean Black Sea / Med Gabon Shtokman Gibraltar Straits Danish and German Sectors



North Sea - link
This section covers both the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea to the north of it. Most of my time at work has been spent here, although in recent years less and less time has been spent on deck looking for birds. This section contains three sides covering different areas of the North and Norwegian Seas.

Citrine Wagtail
Citrine Wagtail, North Sea, 07 September 2011
Click on picture for more details and images


Blue phase Northern Fulmar
Blue phase Northern Fulmar

Barent's Sea - link
Only a few visits thus far but very promising....

Brunniche's Guillemot

Mediterranean - link
Several visits over the years has led to quite a number of sightings.

Baltic Sea - link
Not a lot of time spent here - but it was here I found out not just birds fly over the Baltic but bats too.....

Indian Ocean / NW Australia - link
Late November - December 2005 and early January 2006. Sea teeming with life and plenty of birds at times.

Davis, California - link
February 2006 - "Coffee break" birding at its most frustrating.

Gulf States Medley - link
April 2008 - "Crewchange Mayhem" tour of the Gulf States, most birding in downtown Mobile, Alabama

The North Atlantic- link
May 2008 - Offshore between north of the Shetlands and NW of Faroe Islands

The Black Sea - link
March 2010 - Superb migration experience and once in a lifetime Yelkouan Shearwater experience

Offshore Gabon - link
June-July 2010 - Daily Wilson's Storm-petrels

Shtokman, Barent's Sea - link
September - October 2010 - Superb offshore birding and surprise passerines

Straits of Gibraltar and Balearics - link
March-April 2011 - Visible migration under extremely windy conditions

Southern North Sea (Danish and German Sectors) - link
November 2011 - Nocturnal migration and bird strikes. Owl bonanza!

Birding Rio de Janeiro - link
February 2012 - Frustratingly little time in a city full of new birds.

Birding the Russian Black Sea - Link
April 2012 - Some good birds and spring migration along the Russian Black Sea coast

Turkish Black Sea - Link
May 2012 - More Black Sea birding

Western Australia - Link
August-September 2012 Pelalgic Birding around Goodwyn A and North Rankin

North Sea Medley - Link
April/May 2014 - A whistle stop tour of the southern Norwegian Sector - plenty of migrants.

Danish Sector - Link
May 2016 - First trial of Canon Powershot superzoom camera and migrating hirundines






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