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Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Pelagic Birding – March 2012

This was the missing link!

I have traveled across India in the last decade to shoot birds. The Mountains, The Deserts, The Sea Shores, The Islands and the Jungles. All.

But, I had never done anything like this before! In fact I had not even given it a thought. Simple. Hire a boat and just go out into the sea and watch birds. Unique experience. Extreme birding in the company of some of the most knowledgeable birders India has ever produced!

“Bridled Terns” dive bombing the sea off Mangalore Coast.

I just can’t wait to go out into the sea again – Pelagic birding…!! Subbu wrote…

Dear all,

We went out to sea again on the third West-coast Pelagic Birding expedition on October 15-16, 2011, off the coast of Udupi. Thanks to Shivashankar Manjunath of Karkala (Shiva) for making excellent arrangements, that 20 of us could have a great time watching those species that usually loathe to get anywhere close to the coast. What’s more?: we were blessed with a calm sea and near fair weather to gawk at some of unbelievable lifers.

Setting out from Malpe harbour, we travelled about 70Km out into the sea, stayed overnight - drifting about, as we slept on the boat and to caught-up with birding next morning at day-break. We were back at port by about 4.00 pm on 16th October.

Watching those pelagic birds as they materialize within one’s viewing distance from virtually nowhere in that vast expanse of trackless sea, where even the ubiquitous fishing boats were a rare sight, was an exhilarating experience. If you expected that there was a bewildering array of bird species to gloat over, you are mistaken: we observed just 11 species and just over 400 of them in all. Our list of birds sighted and observed on the trip included:

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

Besides, these pelagic birds, we had surprise encounters with three landbirds:

9. Wagtail, unidentified, chanced upon at about 12.50 Km

10. Barn Swallow: 37 birds in all, the first one seen at 18.33 Km from Maple and individuals seen as far out as 63.65 Km in the sea. Clearly, these were no wanderers, but migrating individuals flying across the sea to head landwards.

11. Pipit, an unidentified individual, encountered at 62.59 Km.

And a Bat!!: This medium sized chiropteran was a surprise visitor, that came from across the sea at about 7.00 am on our way back on 16th October at 62.58 Km, promptly landed on our boat and travelled all the way back to Malpe with us. The species is yet to be identified.

Most of us on that fishing boat that took us around in the sea were armed with cameras and the images of birds that we came across were taken in thousands in all, with GBs in memory cards tumbling like nine pins, and they proved to be invaluable in confirming the identity of several of the birds that passed well away from our boat.

A sample of these images that remind us of some the best birding moments can be seen at:

“Udupi Pelagic”

What was special in this trip? Not those spectacular aerial chases of Parasitic Skuas harassing helpless Great Crested Terns, but it was actually watching Wilson Storm Petrels for the first time, and it was an unforgettable experience:

Wilson’s Storm Petrel is by far the smallest of our pelagic species and was the most numerous of all species that we observed. This is a dark sooty brown bird with a distinct white rump patch. It has short, rounded wings and long legs that project beyond the square-tail while in flight.

One of Shiva’s photographs captures the underside of the Wilson's Storm Petrel which clearly shows the dark brown underside:

“ Wilson's Storm Petrel”

The wings look blackish and what is unusual that you observe in this image is that, the white feathers of the rump appear to spillover and extend underneath on both sides of the tail base.

This is a species which has long nimble stick-legs that hardly look strong-enough to support the bird, but they do aid the bird in pattering along the water surface like the coots, before they get airborne. Such pattering is very characteristic of the species. As we noticed in one of “ Nanda Kumar’s images” the inner webbing of the bird feet is pale yellowish and that shows–up clearly even in the reflection in the water: this is something that no bird fieldguides clearly illustrate.

These petrels were usually seen in ones, twos or in small parties of up to about 8 birds. Quite often, you see them flocking in small numbers about a feeding site. From a good distance, they look all bunched up together, fluttering their wings that are held above their bodies in a wide-V formation or even holding them near horizontal with every bird trying to feed on the water surface. At such times, they look like a group of fluttering mud-puddling butterflies. Also, while feeding, they appear to remain stationary with rapid fluttering of wings that gives them a hovering effect, but at other times, their rapidly fluttering wings keeps them airborne - their feet barely touching the water as they patter forward. This gives an effect that these petrels are actually walking on the surface of water - as they keep dipping their beaks into water to feed on floating food and pick up small prey which could mostly probably be planktonic One of these petrels that we observed was feeding on what appeared to be dead fish.

Also, this trip yielded three new records for Karnataka- recorded for the first time off Karnataka coast: Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel and the Masked Booby – which were lifers for me too.

The bunch of us who went sea-faring included: Amit Bandekar , Arun Nandavar, Dipu K , Ganesh Hebbar, Gopal Bhaskaran, Harsha J, Jayaram Jahgirdar, Kesavamurthy, N anda Ramesh, Rajesh Shah, Sandeep Murthy, Seshadri K.S. , Shiva Nayak, Shyamal Laxminarayanan, Sudhir Naik , Prasanna Parab, Prashanth Badarinath, Prashanth S, Vinay Das and Your’s truly . The trip log with GPS tracking was mainatained right through by Sudhir Naik .

I just can’t wait to go out into the sea again – Pelagic birding…!!



Boat route map of the “Udupi Pelagic” sent by Prashanth Badarinath

The above trip report from “Subbu” inspired me so much that I called him and requested to be included in his next trip!

And promptly Subbu forwarded the following mail from Shiva to me:

Another Pelagic birding is planned on 3rd and 4th March. We will be staying over night in the mid-sea on 3rd March night. Pls note, there is no/toilet facility/ on this boat. The cost per head would be 2.2k for two days (boat ride and food expenses on board). If you are interested please contact or me. -Shiva,

My first Pelagic Birding Trip was on! I was looking forward to see some birds that can only be seen at sea. Shiva was the anchor. With Subbu’s help I somehow managed to convince Shiva to find a boat with a toilet ☺

On the 3rd of March 2012, Subbu and myself took the morning flight (7.15 am, Jet Airways) from Bangalore to Mangalore. On the flight, Subbu made me swallow a pill that would help avoid sea sickness. This pill has to be taken one hour before you board the boat, Subbu explained…

In Mangalore, at about 9am, Subbu and myself met up with the others who had signed up for this trip. Some from the Mangalore area and others who had traveled from far. Most had come from Bangalore (overnight journey) in a Mini-Bus.

9.30am. As soon as we were all on board, a gentleman came on board and welcomed us, he asked us for a list of all our names and phone numbers and made us pray! One sentence he uttered during the prayer stuck with many of us – he said – “May all your anxiety come true”! - what?

“Our boat – Star Queen”!

As the boat slowly took to sea, I was able to kind of connect with all fellow “Pelagic Birders” …

Pelagic Birders!

Abhijith Bhat, Karthik Bhat, Shashikanth Kotian , Deepak J Anchan , Atanu Mondal, Atul Jain, Dipu K, Jainy Maria, Joy Ghosh, Mohan Kemparaju, Prashanth Poojary, Praveen J, S. Subramanya & Vinay Das..

Apart, there were four crew members (sea men), one captain, one cook and two helpers.

15 minutes or so into the sea the boat was rocking heavily. As the boat mounted one large wave after another it felt like we were being thrown in the air – up and down and tilting left and then right we went for the next 32 hours or so – right into the sea and back! Atanu, Joy and Jainy got sea sick and had to be in the sleeping position all the time. They would suddenly spring to life when a rare bird name was called, go click, click, click and quickly regain their horizontal positions!

My first thought was to pack up the camera and hang on to life ☺ . Soon the enthusiasm of fellow birders took charge as I heard one shout after another – Skua, 12 O’Clock, Tern 3 O’Clock and so on – enough to keep my boat afloat! Most of the birds would appear as a dot in the sky and then if we were lucky would fly by the boat and then disappear. Sometimes we would see a single bird perched on anything that floats in the sea!

In between frequent shouts of bird sightings and some crazy hand-held shooting from a rocking boat where it was not possible to stand still for even a moment without support, we had some very lively and intense discussions on birding and exchanged stories about birders! Someone pulled out the largest book I had ever seen on Pelagic Birding. Great learning for me indeed. That evening as we watched the sunset from the boat in the sea, my first, I felt very happy. Thanks everyone, I simply enjoyed the trip!

One end of the boat had the wheel and the controls, the other end was the make-shift kitchen where hot food was prepared Lunch, Dinner and Breakfast! In the center of the boat was the black-hole. Every now and then one or two of the four crew members would disappear under.. they would discuss something in a language I did not fully understand… it looked like they would pump-out some water and go back to sleep! At one point there was a discussion on how much fuel was needed to achieve our goal?

In the night, the generator came on, all the lights were turned on to make the boat look bright and then left to drift as we all went horizontal. Every inch of available space was taken! I lay awake for a long time watching the clear (tilting) sky, somehow the stars looked closer!

Roof of the Boat with a view!

At first light on the 4th Morning, in the sea, that familiar shout again – Skua, 1 O’Clock and I was back on the roof attempting to shoot! Dipu, Praveen, Siva and Vinay were simply the best. Nothing missed their keen eyes as they kept records on every single sighting! On the whole, one could not have asked for a better “Pelagic Birding” experience! .. and to think my previous two birding trips were in the desert!!

Our boat returned safely back to the Mangalore Port well before sunset! Thank God none of our anxiety had come true ☺ . From the port, Atul, Subbu and Myself drove to the airport and were in Bangalore well before dinner time. Just one night out – and the experience of a lifetime!

And that was not the end! Some very intense discussions on the ID’s went on for a while. Praveen called it -> Post Pelagic Dilemma (PPD)! Below are some excerpts:

From: Praveen J Subject: Re: Finer details of Pelagic Mangalore March 3-4 Date: 5 March 2012 7:54:50 PM GMT+05:30


From Shiva's unprocessed images - a possible Persian Shearwater which crossed the boat.

best rgds


PS: To see how it actually looks - here is a close shot to compare

“ Persian Shearwater”

From: Mohan Kemparaju Subject: Pelagic images - 3/4/ March 2012 Date: 6 March 2012 12:24:19 AM GMT+05:30

Hi All,

Now im confused between South Polar and Brown Skua?

Praveen is that a place holder for all pelagic images? I wanted to see all the previous images, INW has only a small subset i think.

More images to follow, nothing great, but only from an ID-discussion point of view



From: Vijay Cavale Subject: Please ID Date: 6 March 2012 3:52:59 PM GMT+05:30

4 images attached

From: Praveen J Subject: Re: Please ID Date: 6 March 2012 4:05:11 PM GMT+05:30

Quiz !

Here is what I think

a. Broad wing base, long but no tail point feathers,thick beak: Pomarine Skua

b. Thin beak, smaller head, two pointed tail feathers: Arctic (Parasitic) Skua

c. This is the same mystery Skua which is now tilting towards a Pomarine iso South Polar

d. Great Crested Tern

best rgds


From: Dipu K Subject: Re: Please ID Date: 6 March 2012 4:35:06 PM GMT+05:30

Agree! Unfortunately, looks like we dont have a South Polar Skua, but only a "Dark phase" Pomarine Skua, not illustrated in any guides :-)



From: Praveen J Subject: Re: Please ID Date: 6 March 2012 9:29:31 PM GMT+05:30

The first Skua is a Pom. to me - though tail is not visible, it seems long without tail feather projections - thick set beak. Sandwich - yes - poor guy.


Vijay's Common Tern has an ivory tip to its bill.

I quote what Heinz Lainer says in Birds of Goa

"The author found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tell Common Terns from White-cheeked Terns under the conditions prevailing during offshore migration time.Even birds at rest can be baffling.A fieldscope with thrity-fold magnification is not sufficient to distinguish the Common Tern with certainity from White-cheeked Terns if they are in non-breeding plumage, which they mostly are. However, a high resolution 60x magnifying fieldscope will show at short distance that most,but not all,White-cheeked Terns have a tiny ivory-coloured tip to their bill that is much smaller in extent than the Sandwich Tern's, a fact that is mentioned among all the authors only by Ali & Ripley (1983)"

I am going after this bird now....

best rgds


From: Praveen J Subject: Re: Please ID Date: 6 March 2012 9:37:55 PM GMT+05:30


I cant get the EXIF information from the image, but i saw a similar image from Shiva's collection (3/3/2012, 12:35PM).

However, the bird in flight from Shiva's collection clearly indicates a white (vs grey) rump and hence that images are of Common Tern. If it is, then we can imagine how flawed the White-cheeked Tern ids from Goa could have been - thats the only place in Indian coast where this species has been well-reported.

best rgds


From: Praveen J Subject: All Skuas Date: 7 March 2012 10:10:26 PM GMT+05:30

Vinay has sent me the list of species - I took priority on the Skuas for now, tried mapping them to each of the photographs from Shiva. The names of the photograph is according to the species we marked in the field & time recorded by Vinay.

(Note, Shiva's camera has a slight offset from Vinay's time)

The species name given might still be contentious - these are based on consensus in the field.

Attached also an excel with the timings as recoded by Vinay & my remarks. For a first go,we need to identify which of these birds need further scrutiny and then dig up more specific pictures based on time.

best rgds


On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 7:39 PM, Praveen J wrote:

Dear all,

Hoping to combine & conclude the discussions...

We have lots of problems with Skuas and Dipu summarised clearly what we know now. This is being taken up further to have ids for all the Skuas in the trip. Lets keep it aside for a while.

I dont think we have any problems with terns. Here are some snaps from Shiva's collection which hopefully should be able to help.

a. Sandwich Tern - broken lower mand. on perch. Long beak, yellow tip to upper mandbile visible. 3/3,10:47

b. Sandwich Tern -Same bird Vijay has posted (in flight) with broken lower mand. Long beak, yellow tip not visible though, the black on the head extending as a tuft,not very evident in Shiva's pic due to the angle. More prominent in Vijay's pic.Longer tail. 3/3, 10:31

c. Common Tern - On perch. black beak has a minute ivory tip which is mentioned for White-cheeked Tern in some books.However, it is most likely not diagnostic as this bird is a Common Tern identified by clear white (vs grey) rump in flight,for which we see the next picture. 3/3, 12:35

d. Common Tern - flight -same bird as "c".

e. Gullbilled Tern: 3/3: 10.00

f. Capsian Tern. 3/3: 10.03

g. Great Crested Tern: Same on Arctic Skua chased. 4/3, 8:58

I did not add Bridled Terns. I remember a sighting of Lesser Crested Tern close to the harbour - but I don’t find any pics in Shiva's collection.

If you have a different opinion on any of these, please do write.

best rgds


On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 4:25 PM, Dipu K wrote:

Now, not very sure which bird is what!

But the one with broken lower mandible looks like a Common Tern to me as mentioned in some other mail. I dont know if the below discussion is about the same bird.



On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 4:20 PM, Praveen J wrote:

Quick check - did not cross verify...

10.31 seems to b a Sandwich which had its lower mand. broken.

On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 3:35 PM, ShivaShankar wrote:

03/03, 10.31 is Common I believe. 04/03, 10.25 is Bridled.

On 3/7/2012 3:26 PM, Vijay Cavale wrote:

Thanks Praveen,

Such a wonderful Dilemma! I totally agree that much needs to done in our pelagic area. So happy to have experienced one little bit of it with all of you!

So, our Sandwich happens to be a Common, our Common may be a White-cheeked and our Skua's could be inconclusively Pom, Arctic or Brown? and I cannot find any Lesser Crested Tern images in my entire pelagic collection!

Below two IDs Please :-)

03/03, 10.31, 04/03, 10.25

On 07-Mar-2012, at Wednesday 7 March 2012, Praveen J wrote:


Welcome to Post Pelagic Dilemma (PPD).

Europeans are lucky in a way that they can practice Skuas from the headland itself - in much decent plumages than this. We get them only at sea and a large part of them are the ones which are neither here nor there. Even then, you put one of them in our boat and indicate that each of the Skuas are also going to be photographed for verification - it would be interesting to know how many of them would call out confidently.

Btw, I hope everyone is aware that our suspected South Polar (which anyway it is not!) has been ided as Pomarine as well as Arctic ! Both sides have convincing arguments for their case too :-)

best rgds


Also, here is another excellent report (this trip) from “Subbu” :

Dear all,

This is just to add to Shiva’s posting on the recent Pelagic Trip off the coast of Mangalore. As usual, Shiva handled the logistics and thanks to Vijay Cavale, for a change, the boat had all the basic amenities, including a functional toilet. Our breakfast, lunch and dinner was cooked on the boat.

I must say that it was birdwatching at its best. As with all other pelagics on the west coast, we experienced the real joy of birdwatching . The birdwatching spirit and camaraderieship of those on the boat was exemplary and we birded amidst excellent arrangements.

Needless to say, that we had an amazing outing watching some of those avian wonders – those that can only be seen out in the open-sea far-off the coast. The birds we watched included:

1. Parasitic/Arctic Skua Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus)

2. Pallas Gull (Larus ichthyaetus)?

3. Brown-headed Gull (Larus brunnicephalus)

4. Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)

5. Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

6. Lesser Crested-Tern (Sterna benghalensis)

7. Great Crested-Tern (Sterna bergii)

8. Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

9. Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)

10. Bridled Tern (Sterna anaethetus)

11. Persian Shearwater (Puffinus persicus)

The highlights of the trip included the sighting of:

1. Pomarine Jaeger/Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus): possibly the first record for Karnataka

2. Possible Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma monorhis)?

Any amount of description of being out in the open sea and encountering some of these pelagic jewels does not match the sheer thrill and pure joy of experiencing it in person. The open pelagic habitat is one of the most productive ecosystems on earth owing to the remarkable abundance of nutrients it holds amidst it depths. While on a pelagic birding trip, as we experienced and quite often, you will have the whole sea to yourself, with not a single ship or even a fishing boat in sight and there you are - searching till the horizon from the deck of your boat for birds on their wings. You have no idea what is in store for you next in the vast endless dark deep blue sea bound by a `circular’ horizon. The element of surprise and possibilities of encountering a species that you have never seen before in your life, will never cease to thrill you right through the trip. Some of those moments are there to be cherished for a lifetime. In that, never ever compare pelagic birding to the normal outings you have on land with the firm ground under your feet: the rocking boat, the swell of the sea, and moving birds as they grow distance between you and them, present an immense challenge that you are usually not prepared for and has its own charm. Thus, birdwatching in the high seas is an awesome experience. As the trips draws close to its end, you have this overwhelming feeling that you never want the trip to end.

The moonlit March night was very pleasant and it did chill-us before daybreak. Once the moon went down late in the light, the very clear pelagic sky was a stargazer’s delight: with the absence of light pollution, even the fifth magnitude stars were shown bright.

Did we have any difficulties on the trip? Well, we did have three causalities due to seasickness: Atanu, Jainy and Joy – despite the adequate precautions we had taken to avoid seasickness. Although, they remained stretched out on their sleeping mats and sulked under the blankets for a greater part of the trip, their intense suffering out of retching stomachs did not dampen their birding spirits, when it came to watching and photographing pelagics that came close to our boat. No sooner Dipu’s voice went up announcing the sighting of a pelagic species on the sea, our seasick trio, sprung-up from their sleeping mats as if they had been made of coiled spings, grabbed their cameras with long lenses, clicked-images-away to glory and promptly plonked back on their sleeping mats - as if it was all game on a seasick pelagic day. Often it was so comical to watch them in the act.

As with previous pelagic excursion, I returned to port in awe of the experience I had for two days, and I am already looking forward to go out to the sea on the next opportunity I get. Although the actual pelagic trip ended on 4th afternoon, we were beleaguered with, as Praveen put it, the Post Pelagic Dilemma (PPD) of pouring over hundreds of images from well over several thousands taken in all - to verify and settle the identities of some of the pelagic species we watched during the trip, especially those that did not offer us a decent shot or had confusing plumage and get-ups.



On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 11:55 PM, ShivaShankar wrote:

It was fantastic Pelagic birding off coast Mangalore.

 Started at 9.30Am on the 3rd March, sixteen of us returned to shore on 
4th evening. Unlike the previous Pelagic trips, this time we had more
 comforts. Spacious boat with toilet facility and roof-top for shade. We
 had GPS loggers, logging the path we had taken. The farthest point from
 the land we had reached was 48kms. In total we had traveled about aprox
 150kms. At night the boat was not anchored and we drifted approximately
 20kms towards south (we were close to Kasargod). The sea was little
 rough on first day and relatively calm on the second day.

During this survey we sighted 

Bridled Terns – 236, 
Skuas - 31 (Nearly same number of Arctic & Pomarine , several unidentifed )
Persian (?) Shearwater – 1,
Swinhoe's Storm-petrel - 1, 

Caspain, Gullbilled, Common, Sandwich & Great Crested Terns, 
Pallas & Brown-headed Gulls 

( thanks to Vinay Das, Dipu and Praveen for making the above notes )

Thanks to Abhijith Bhat, Karthik Bhat, Shashikanth Kotian , Deepak J
 Anchan , Atanu Mondal, Atul Jain, Dipu K, Jainy Maria, Joy Ghosh, Mohan 
Kemparaju, Prashanth Poojary, Praveen J, S. Subramanya, Vijay Cavale and
 Vinay Das for making this trip successful. Thanks to all for your 
contribution to *S.A.Hussain Memorial trust*. Thanks to Prashanth
Poojary for his help in arrangements.

Two lifers for me from this trip!. I cant wait for another trip before this monsoon. 


Please visit  “Indiabirds!” for bird images...

Vijay Cavale
March, 2012