Karnataka Pelagic Trip 2011

My first task after I got the opportunity to go Pelagic birding was to Google the term  "Pelagic"! As an active amateur birder I had heard the term before and seen reports on few of the trips from Kerala and Karnataka. I knew they went out in a boat and looked for birds, but I had no idea on what Pelagic actually meant.

Well, the ever dependable wikipedia gave me the necessary enlightenment. Pelagic zone means the surface of a water body which is not close to the shore. And so, Pelagic Birding meant looking for birds which live mostly in the Pelagic area. Uh, huh. Got it. These birds live over the ocean surface coming to the shore, usually on uninhabited islands, only for breeding. Amazing nature! And now I had a chance to see it first hand.

Still, I was not sure what to expect from this expedition as I stood on the wharf, smelling strongly of fish, at Malpe Port looking at the smallish fishing boat which was to be our(about 22 of us!) home for 2 days and a night. The 3 man crew, one substituting as cook as well, looked at us with some bemusement as we piled our bags containing cameras, books, binoculars, snacks at one end of the boat. Different kind of catch, this!

As we headed out of the port, we got to see Western Reef Egrets perched all along the rocky coastline. Pretty soon, we were out in the open sea and got our first thrilling sightings of Pelagic birds, the Parasitic Skua and a Great Crested Tern.

It is indeed a whole new way of birding out there. As we keep scanning the mostly deserted waterscape, suddenly we would hear a shout from the lookouts scanning the water at the bow. "Tern" or "Petrel", as the case may be.  All of us would then scramble for our respective binoculars or cameras.

If it is a Tern flying over, well, we have to be quick, as amazingly even in this wide open space they disappear from our vision within seconds of the first sighting. If it is Petrels as was the case most often on our trip, we have to scan in the indicated direction carefully to spot the small black dots dancing on the waves. But, if we are lucky, it may be a floating debris on which we will find a perfect model of a Pelagic Bird which will pose to our hearts content as we bob around, with the engine switched off, just few feet away from it. After such brief darshans of our feathered friends, we would slink back to our respective spots until the next call to wake us up from the semi-slumber. "Petrel at 3 0'clock"!!!

On this trip, I had been quite hopeful on seeing other sea creatures such as Whales. I had entertained visions of seeing these majestic animals spouting water and swishing their fins as they swam past our boat. Alas, they had other plans for that weekend. Hopefully next time. However, we got to see the sea snake  and large schools of jelly fish several times.

Nighttime was quite an experience, especially when all the lights were turned off to pitch darkness.  We had hoped for some nocturnal visits with maybe a few birds perching on the boat as is possible, I believe. We were not lucky enough. Early morning though we got a surprise visit from a Bat, which upon finding our Boat decided to hitch a ride all the way to coast instead of flying the 80 odd miles. As we headed back to the coast, the highlights were a large flock of Petrels, Skua harassing a tern and a sudden flyby of a Masked Booby.

Overall, it was a good, adventurous trip. We were lucky that the sea was calm on both the days and all of us managed without any extreme sea-sickness. Our cook did a great job with just  a stove and few vessels for cooking, even providing tea both evenings. Truly, an experience to be cherished for ever.

Some more images from the trip can be viewed here.

A short video which gives you an idea on how it is from the boat.

Bird list from Dr. Subramanya report :

1. Swinhoe's Storm Petrel: encountered first at 10.61 Km from Malpe Port, 58 birds seen in all during the trip
2. Parasitic Jaeger: first seen at 12.50 Km from the Port, 27 birds in all, with several instances of their marauding attacks on Great Crested Terns
3. Great Crested Tern: first seen at 16.03 Km from Port, 78 birds in all
4. Bridled Tern: first bird seen at 16.88 km from Port, 95 birds in all
5. Common Tern: 2 birds seen in all, the first one seen at 16.91 Km
6. Wilson's Storm Petrel: 98 birds seen in all during the trip with the first one encountered at 20.48 Km
7. Masked Booby: Solo seen on the second day when we were about 12.31 Km from Malpe Port. The bird that we observed was a juvenile with a distinct white collar behind a dark brown head. The bird departed swiftly with two Skuas in hot pursuit.
8. Gulls : 3 birds identity to be confirmed

A related blog on this trip by L. Shyamal: Adrift