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   Seawatch Junky
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Seawatch nightmares
Seawatching Essentials Seawatching Essentials

Seawatch Junky
Seawatching is a form of birding that does not appeal to everyone, but to a chosen few it represents birdwatching at its best and for others it is perhaps the only bird related activity in which they participate. 

Here is some classic seawatching
philosophy, the stuff that goes on in a seawatchers head during hours of staring out to sea.
Relentless hours of  seawatching have resulted in the following pearls of wisdom / insanity. Thanks to all the birders with whom I have spent many "happy" hours looking for and talking about seabirds.

Seawatching at Skogsøy
Seawatch junkies in action.
Photo: Harald Totland

The "its dead now" syndrome
All too often the common consensus among a group of seawatchers is that there is nothing more to be gained and it is time to leave, when in fact this is blatantly not the case at all. The group has fallen into the classic "seawatch junky" trap whereby it takes more and more exciting birds to keep the seawatchers happy. During first phase of a seawatch almost everything that passes is new for the day and therefore seems more interesting; after the this the returns per hour tend to decrease. Thus it is not inf
requently one gets the misguided impression that passage is slowing down and that fewer birds are passing. People get bored and leave, certain that better stuff will be found elswhere. Many times I have experienced others leaving only to have a series of good birds pass after their departure.

This phenomenon can be stopped in its tracks by logging birds per hour and keeping track that way - sometimes passage really does die off and it can be safe to leave. At other times the numbers of birds passing show quite the opposite and that there is in fact an increasing trend - despite the opposite impression.  Another trap for the unwary is the so-called "dead hour".

The dead hour
This is a period that can in fact be of varying length but is part of the harsh reality of seawatching. For some reason seabirds often seem to pass in waves, with frantic activity, even mild panic, among observers being replaced by tedium. In certain places and at certain times of year the dead hour can actually be predicted quite accurately. This is because certain species tend to pass at more or less the same time every day. At my local seawatching point in south west Norway the dead hour in spring often starts somewhere between 08:00 and 09:00 and may last until 10:00 or 11:00.

Unfortunately the only way to beat the "dead hour" is to have a detailed knowledge of the seawatching location. If one is new to an area there is no way of knowing what to expect. During the first year or two at Skogsøy I missed out on untold numbers of divers and other birds due to the dead hour.

A product of the dead hour can be positive discussions about aspects of birding or life in general. However, it can just as easily go horribly wrong - click here to see the kind of thing that can be spawned from the dead hour.

The "dangerous to leave" syndrome
Closely related to the dead hour and the competative side of seawatching is the "dangerous to leave" concept. This syndrome can affect less experienced seawatchers birding as part of a group. They may well feel they have seen all the target species that day and will want to continue birding elsewhere. However, they find themselves unable to leave until the others do so.....certain in the knowledge that should they turn their backs to go some seabird mega is sure to pass.

No matter how dull things are seawatchers affected by this syndrome are unlikely to tear themselves away until the group collectively decides to go. Needless to say this gives the opportunity for one to stay (or sneak back later) in attempt to grip the others off. Always a gamble.....

How many times do you see the same bird over the course of a season, or indeed many seasons?

After seeing countless thousands of Gannets, Fulmars, divers or whatever species it is that passes a particular seawatching location observers often wonder about  how many times they have seen the same individual. Seabirds are often long lived and may well pass the same observer on a number of occasions, either during spring and / or autumn migration or whilst making food or weather related movements.

The competition of finding the "good stuff"
Competition among a group of seawatchers is generally a good thing - it keeps concentration up and means that most birds that pass are spotted. However, things can go too far and result in the exact opposite happening. This can be illustrated using an example from my local seawatching point where there is a well-defined White-billed Diver "track". In an effort to be the first to get onto an incoming diver observers start looking further and further south. This results in them looking down the coastline rather than out to sea where a lot of other species are passing and hence can slip past unoticed.

There is a series of small islands (skerries) immediately offshore; these are an invaluable source of reference when guiding others onto interesting birds. The southernmost of these is now known as "jukseholmen" (something that does not translate well from Norwegian but means "cheat island" or something along those lines), anyone picking up a bird south of this point is giving himself away as not "playing fair" - and indeed looking foolishly far to the south.

Mad headgear is always a help
Eccentric headgear is almost a necessity....

What is the percentage of birds that "get away"?
Often a bird is picked up by accident as it heads away, or is discovered close in whilst pouring tea or looking for something to clean lenses with. On other occasions they are only picked up by the sound of their wingbeats as they pass overhead. This seems to happen to a certain degree irrespective of the number of observers - how much passes without being seen? It seems only comprehensive radar studies could possibly answer this question.

Is seawatching (or birding in general) good for you?
This one came from a dead hour caused by the #1 seawatching nightmare - fog.

Most normal people seem to think seawatching/birding is a healthy interest which gets people out and about and physically active in the fresh air. At face value parts of this assumption may seem correct and may even be true for some people BUT there is the flip side. Basically speaking if, and only if, you have reached rock bottom and have nothing left to live for then birding may well be good for you - a focal point,  a reason to get out of bed in the morning and possibly even a way to meet people or be recognised for something.

However, birding can easily put one in the rock bottom position to start with - how many "birding widows" are there out there? How many birding-related divorces? Once bitten by the bug it can be more difficult to control than class A drugs and will suck people into a downward spiral, alienating them from friends and family - how often have we heard (or said) the line "can't party tonight, got to be up early tomorrow". Not to mention the effect of performance at work where a promising weather forecast or reports of passing seabirds can have a negative impact on performance / attendance.

It can seem innocent enough but birding carries a real risk of addiction and this risk should not be taken lightly. Don't start birding seriously until you have nothing left to live for.

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