Extreme birding – Pelagics

If you are interested in expanding your bird knowledge and seeing species rarely seen near land, then a trip out to the deep ocean is worth it. The pelagic zone begins at the low tide mark and extends out to the open ocean. It is an ecosystem largely dependent on the phytoplankton inhabiting the upper levels of the sea where most ocean organisms live.

Shy Albatross
Shy Albatross

However, it is not for the faint-hearted – or those who suffer from sea-sickness. Even on larger boats the open ocean can be quite rough and you need to hang on tight!

But the experience is worth it to be up close and personal with the likes of Albatross, Giant Petrels and Great-winged Petrels along with the delicate Fairy Prions and Storm petrels. These birds glide effortlessly across the wave tops. Species such as the Wandering Albatross have wingspans exceeding 3 metres – a majestic sight to see. The flight control that they demonstrate is truly remarkable. Rarely flapping their wings, gliding and soar at wave top height, changing direction or altitude with just a flick of their feathers.

Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross

To me, though, what is way more remarkable are the tiny Prions and Storm Petrels. Seeing such small and apparently fragile birds more than 40km from the nearest land is truly astonishing. How do they survive and thrive in such conditions?

Watching such delicate birds as the Wilson’s Storm Petrel and the Fairy Prion dancing across the water in search of food is wonderful to see. Note that these images were taken over 40km from the nearest land, south of Port Fairy in Victoria. How do such tiny birds do it?

The Fairy Prion weighs around 100g and has a body length on around 25cm and a wingspan of only 55-60cm. And yet you will see flocks flying close to the surface, often with legs dangling as they delicately dance across the surface feeding. In strong winds they soar up.

Fairy Prion
Fairy Prion

Even smaller than the Fairy Prion is the Grey-backed Storm-petrel which weighs in at less than 50g and has a body length less than 20cm. You will see them gliding and dancing across the waves, even in rough weather. A fantastic sight to see.

Grey-backed Storm-petrel
Grey-backed Storm-petrel ‘dancing’ across the waves

Apart from the Albatrosses, you are likely to see other large ocean-going birds such as the Great-winged Petrel and the Northern Giant Petrel. Much larger than prions or storm-petrels, these birds glide effortlessly above the waves.

Northern Giant Petrel
Northern Giant Petrel
Great-winged Petrel
Great-winged Petrel

All these ocean-going birds are referred to as tubenoses because of the tubes on the top of their bills. You can just see them in some of the photos above. Pelagic seabirds drink salt water and then excrete the excess salt via these tubes or specialized glands or tubes. The glands also draw out just enough water to dissolve salt into a highly concentrated saline solution, which runs out through the bird’s nostrils.

Gannets can also often be seen far from the coast, but they are not pelagic as they return to land every night. These birds are great to watch as they dive vertically from quite a height to catch unsuspecting fish.

Gannet
Gannet

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