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Seawatching Essentials

This section will be added to during the course of 2006, come back for more seawatching tips!

This section deals with techniques rather than equipment and keeping warm which is deal with here

Author concentrating hard on passing White-billed Diver
Author looking for White-billed Divers, 15 passed the day this was taken
Photo: Geir Jensen

Nevermind the Weather!
This might sound crazy, but the thing with seawatching is to expect the unexpected and
it can be extremely difficult to predict whether or not a certain weather forecast will result in plenty of passage. Good (seawatching) weather can sometimes produce nothing whereas a seemingly poor forecast can result in plenty of birds. Obviously onshore winds will tend to push more seabirds in close, however, sometimes one gets the impression that birds fly into the wind irrespective of direction, such than even offshore winds can turn up surprises! In other words - if you get the chance to seawatch then do it.

Check the sky
During migration periods many birds, especially divers, gulls and waders often pass high up in the sky - more so with a tailwind. Concentrating on the sea is good for finding the auks and shearwaters which rarely stray up into higher altitudes - but doing this exclusively will miss the high stuff and on some day in some locations this may mean MOST of the birds that are passing.

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet - one of the mainstays of seawatching in NW Europe

Use binoculars
It seems many seawatchers turn up and start staring through their scope at distant specks on the horizon; this is of course fine if all that is passing is going a long way out, or if the observer really wishes to have a challenging day...

Telescopes have a limited field of view so if one is alone there is little chance of seeing everything if only the scope is used. Using binoculars gives a much better field of view and if one uses 10x  magnification then the majority of passing birds should be picked up. Of course, the range at which birds pass will vary from location to location but at Skogsøy I use binoculars to find the birds and the scope to clinch ID if necessary.

To me it is better to miss out on the distant specks than the skua flying along the cliff top.

Ideally, if there is a group of seawatchers then at least one can cover closer in with binoculars.

Time Keeping

Depending on the type (and seriousness) of the seawatching being undertaken keeping time can be quite important - a robust and preferably waterproof timepiece is recommended. It is a good idea to have a backup as recently illustrated by myself when a wristwatch battery ran down - unfortunately my backup, a mobile phone, also ended up in a puddle the same day and I ended up having to use the time on my camera to keep track of things....

Timing counts of migrating birds can reveal all kinds of interesting patterns in their movements. An example can be found here

Normally an ordinary wristwatch or mobile phone will suffice. However, circumstances may dictate more unconventional timepieces be used - as illustrated below by Skogsøy pioneer Alf Tore Mjøs.

Alf Tore keeps time!

Hot drinks
A thermos of warm drink is often a necessity. A common mistake is to pour out a full cup of steaming brew - only to forget it in the excitement of passing flocks of birds, or spill it in the ensuing panic - thus wasting valuable warmth and fluids. The loss is even worse when one has carried the thermos a considerable disatance and do not have the luxury of replacing it.....

Northbound Great Cormorants
Northbound Great Cormorants / storskarv. Photo: Alf Tore Mjøs

Keep both eyes open
It takes a little practise but it is quite possible to keep both eyes open when watching through a telescope. There are two advantages to mastering this technique, one is that it is less tiring on the eye that would normally be shut, the other is that there is a better chance of  spotting birds passing close to the observer.

Keep an eye on squalls
The higher winds and precipitation associated with squalls often affects birds. Understandably they don't seem to like flying through them and often go around the well defined edges of these usually quite localised events. Rather than packing up and heading for home it is often a good idea to watch squalls approach. On some days squalls can produce most of the action.

Passing squalls are worth watching
Passing squall, 14 May 2006

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View to the north at Skogsøy
View to the north at Skogsøy early on a calm May morning

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