On September 25, the members of The Bird Watchers of Kerala who undertook a boat trip from Azheekal in Kollam into the deep sea were in for a big surprise. First, they spotted a carcass of a whale “in a highly decomposed state,” recalled Praveen Jayadevan, a scientist with Bird Count India. But the bigger surprise was spotting a flock of Wilson’s Storm Petrels pattering over the water. “There were thousands of birds,” he says, adding, “there’s no documentation of such a large flock. A congregation was spotted earlier off Kannur waters but these numbers were far more than that.”
The group was on a trip called pelagic birding, which allows bird watchers to study birds that live on the waters and come to land only to nest. The group of 30 boarded a fishing trawler early in the morning. “Our aim was to document sea birds,” says CR Anoop, a bird watcher and wildlife photographer, undertaking his 11th pelagic trip. They spotted the Storm petrels a little over 30 km into a calm sea off the South Alappuzha coast. “The Storm petrel is a small bird and generally flies solitary or is found in small groups of three to four. It is very rare to see them as a tightly knit flock,” says Anoop.
Wilson’s Storm Petrels feed on floating animal debris like dead fish.
Praveen, who quit the corporate sector last year to take up full-time birding, says the bird “does not fish for food but feeds on floating animal debris like dead fish. They are one of the commonest sea birds and have a huge population with an estimated global population of eight to 20 million birds. They breed in Southern oceans, close to Antarctica and migrate during the austral or Southern winter (May to August) to the Northern hemisphere.”
Anoop explains that bird count, especially on the sea, is taken not only with photographs but also visually. A photograph helps in confirming the identity of the bird, since there are minute differences between some of the similar species, for example the Artic Skua and the Pomerine Skua. It is important to have photographers and people with binoculars in the group.
The missing Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel
One of the significant species absent from the pelagic trip was the Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel that breeds in the northern Pacific Ocean, says Praveen. All past pelagic expeditions from the Kerala coast in September had encountered several individuals of that species. Another pelagic trip conducted on the same day from Kannur spotted two Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel.
“We still do not know the migration patterns of many of our sea birds, which is why every pelagic trip adds substantial new information about our birds”, says Anish Sasidevan, who coordinated this expedition.
Some of the birds spotted in the expedition were the Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua), Bridled Tern, Little Tern, Common Tern, Great Crested Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and Flesh-footed Shearwater.
Praveen Jayadevan has been granted the title of Fellow of the International Ornithologist Union