Wednesday, 3 September 2014

On the seven seas - or just the Barent's sea

I am still out at sea, doing a bird survey. That means birding every day,  but not in a way that necessarily increases my Big Year list very much. However, when you are out there, there is always hope. One seabird I did hope to see during this scientific cruise was the Sooty shearwater (grålire). This year however, has been really poor for them in the waters I am at the moment. Normally on cruises like this, I see a couple of hundreds of them around. But this year, I have only seen two. Luckily, one of them was just when we were almost touching the coast with our ship, and thus within territorial waters so it could be ticked on my Big Year list. Just below the famous North Cape cliff, one was passing our ship and joining a group of fulmars (havhest). This day was a pretty good birding day actually with long tailed skuas (fjelljo), great skuas (storjo), an unidentified phalarope (ubestemt svømmesnipe) feeding at sea as well as no less than 9 Manx shearwaters (havlire) – the highest number I have ever recorded in one day in Norway actually.

Sooty shearwater (grålire) just passing our ship once - but that is all that is
 needed to be included on my Big Year list.

When we are doing bird surveys like this, especially in the autumn, sometimes land birds also land on our ship. Some are regular migrants going about with their normal migration such as snow buntings (snøspurv), redpolls (gråsisik) or wheatears (steinskvett), but now and then something slightly more spectacular happens. Through the years, I had the fortune to be visited by Red-breasted flycatcher (dvergfluesnapper), Citrine wagtail (twice – sitronerle), Rough-legged buzzard (fjellvåk), Wood warbler (bøksanger), grasshopper warbler (gresshoppesanger) and turtle dove (turteldue) just to mention a few. The fun and exciting things about seeing a passerine far out at sea onboard the ship, is the same as on a remote island – you never know what it is before you get a proper look. I am still waiting for the snowy owl (snøugle)....

The other day was such a day. When waking up in the morning, I heard rumours from the crew that there was a sparrow onboard. The crew is competent in many things, but identifying small brown birds is not one of them, so it was with some excitement I started to search all the corners of the ship. Our ship isn’t very big, but I have often been surprised how well the birds manage to hide themselves here. I didn’t find any bird until many hours later, when I again was sitting on the bridge counting seabirds. Suddenly a medium sized bird dropped down from the roof of the bridge and dissapeared towards the stern of the ship. I hurried out, and down on the trawl deck and finally caught up with the bird – to my surprise it was a nice juvenile Red-backed shrike (tornskate). The position of the ship, you can see from the map – it is pretty much in the middle of the ocean. According to Google maps, 272 kilometers north of nearest mainland – the northernmost coast of Norway.

The yellow pin is the position of our ship at the sightign - 272 kilometers north
of Norway! The Red-backed shrike (tornskate)  is supposed to migrate in the
opposite direction of the North Pole - to Southern Africa.

The shrike was not new for my Big Year list, but it was exciting to see. That said – seeing these birds so way off course and so far out from any land is always a mixed pleasure as I know that the birds will die in a day or two. Small birds have a pretty fast metabolism, and they need more or less constant access to food. On our ship – far north in the Barent’s sea there is not much insects to be found. The bird lingered on the ship for the whole day, but wasn’t seen again. I did write a small piece on it for the cruise diary of Institute of Marine Research (IMR), and the NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting) picked up the story and also made a small article about it as well as a radio interview. So in a way – the bird has now got eternal life ….

Red-backed shrike - tornskate onboard our research vessel FF Johan Hjort.

Despite a very warm and sunny autumn in Norway, the fall migration is on full swing back home. Soon I am off this ship, and will resume my Big Year exercise – Can’t wait!

New birds: 1

Total: 280  

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