Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seawatching: The Basics

Seawatching is one of the most challenging types of birding, usually involving sitting on some exposed headland in windy conditions, trying to identify seabirds offshore, many of which are difficult to identify even with good photos! This challenge is part of the attraction of seawatching, and the rewards for the keen seabirder are sightings of pelagic seabirds usually only seen well offshore. Indeed, if pelagic trips aren’t your thing, seawatching is probably the only way to see many deep ocean albatross, petrel and shearwater species.

The challenges of seawatching can also put people off, and judging by the relative lack of records, the WA coast is seriously under-seawatched! So, in the hopes of encouraging a few more WA birders out there to take up seawatching, we present this guide to the basics of seawatching. Experienced seawatchers probably won’t find anything new in here, but we hope that newer and prospective seawatchers will find this guide useful, and get you thinking about heading to your nearest headland after the next storm!

Before heading out

Find a site
Or several sites! Reading trip reports and previous sightings, searching the web, and asking other birders will usually suggest some worthwhile sites. Some sites worth trying include:

Perth (see also our previous blog post)
• Woodman Point
• Point Peron
• Rottnest Island
• North Mole (though note the mole is now fenced off in the best seawatching conditions)
• Cape Naturaliste near Dunsborough
• Bunker Bay (near Cape Naturaliste)
• Cape Leeuwin near Augusta
• Torndirrup NP near Albany (esp. Cave Point Lighthouse, the Blowholes carpark)
Further north
• Red Bluff near Kalbarri
• Red Bluff near Carnarvon
• Point Quobba near Carnarvon
• Steep Point near Denham

If you're feeling more adventurous, you might like to pore over maps and look for your own site! Look for geographical features that stick out to sea, like headlands or points, and if possible find a location that offers at least a little elevation and some sort of shelter from the wind to help you to keep your scope and bins steady.

Cape Naturaliste, a well-known seawatching site near Dunsborough. Note the relatively calm sea that betrays relatively poor seawatching conditions on the day of this photo - the haul from a 2.5hr watch was just 20+ Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and a single Brown Skua.

Watch the weather!
One of the great things about seawatching is you never know what you might see; there’s always the chance of something exciting turning up. The flipside is that, even at the best seawatching sites, often nothing turns up, sometimes for short periods, sometimes for an entire watch! The best way to maximise your chances of seeing good birds, and minimise the chance of seeing nothing, is to follow the weather and choose a day with optimal weather conditions for seawatching. These can vary a little from site to site, so a little research or enquiring with local experts is useful for determining the best local conditions. Generally speaking though, strong onshore winds (the stronger the better!) are the most conducive for bringing seabirds close to shore, though on the south coast W'ly and NW'ly winds associated with strong low pressure cells can also be productive. Near Perth, sustained winds averaging 25knts or more are usually required to bring many seabirds in, but further south at sites like Cape Naturaliste, some common seabirds (e.g. Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross) can often be seen in much lighter winds. Websites like SeaBreeze are useful for providing wind forecasts.

Get reading!
Forewarned is forearmed and all that, so reading up on species likely to occur wherever you're watching is valuable for familiarising yourself with likely species to (hopefully) allow you to better ID them from shore. Even if you're reasonably familiar with the regular species you're likely to see, it's useful to familiarise yourself with less common species. If you're just starting out, reading up in a standard field guide will probably give you enough information to work with, but if you become more interested in seawatching (and seabirds in general), then specialist seabird books are a very worthwhile investment. For the south coast of WA and the southern half of the west coast, we recommend of Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters by Derek Onley & Paul Scofield, and the Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife by Hadoram Shirihai, which between them will cover the majority of seabirds seen in this area. Further north, Shirihai will become less useful, and one of the regular field guides (covering noddies, boobies etc.) is probably the best supplement to Onley & Scofield. If you don't feel like buying these books for yourself, both have recently been acquired by the BirdLife Western Australia library and are available to browse (or borrow if you are a BLWA member) at the BLWA office at Peregrine House, Perry Lakes


Phone a friend
Seawatching is one form of birding that is almost always better with a small group of friends. Seawatching in a small group has several advantages. Firstly, several pairs of eyes gives you a better chance of picking up birds passing by, particularly if you're watching from an elevated position when there can be a lot of ocean to scan! Also, having multiple observers can help to sort out any tricky IDs, and is definitely valuable for getting unusual records accepted. Lastly, if things get quiet, then a bit of chatting is an excellent way to pass the time until the birds pick up again! And plenty of noisy banter is unlikely to scare off birds on a seawatch, not like that time you just know you’d have had crippling views of Noisy Scrub-bird if your birding companions had been able to keep their chatting under control!*

*Note the preceding story is fictional. Any resemblance to actual people or events is unintended………..

Find an expert
Whilst this won’t always be possible, one of the best ways to learn your seabirds is to go seawatching with an experienced seabirder who can help identify the birds you see. Just try not to get too envious/annoyed/depressed (delete as appropriate) if your expert starts to identify distant dots that you can hardly make out even through your scope!

Consider a pelagic trip
While you may see some birds close to shore on a seawatch (depending on your chosen site), the majority of birds will usually be seen at long range. In these situations, identification is often helped greatly by familiarity with the shape, flight pattern etc. (the 'jizz') of a species. One of the best ways to see seabirds up close and get to know them is on pelagic trips, which travel well offshore to see pelagic seabirds. Not only are these trips a good opportunity for amazing close-up encounters with albatross, petrels and other seabirds, but because there will almost invariably be a couple of expert seabirders on board, it is an excellent opportunity to learn to identify these birds. Pelagics in WA are currently run out of Hillarys Boat Harbour in Perth, and Emu Point Boat Harbour in Albany – for more details and to check dates for any upcoming trips, check the BirdLife WA calendar page or email John Graff (

A typical view of a Flesh-footed Shearwater (Puffinus carneipes) photographed on a seawatch.

Another view of a Flesh-footed Shearwater, this time from a pelagic trip!

Look at a ‘scope
Along with wader-watching, seawatching is one of the areas of birding where a spotting scope really comes into its own. You will be able to see seabirds with your bins, and probably ID a few that come reasonably close, but if you can get your hands on a decent scope, you’ll appreciate the closer views and the ability to identify more distant birds. The optical quality of cheap scopes has improved greatly, so you can probably pick up a very serviceable scope and tripod setup for not much more than $500.

On the day

Time it right
It’s widely considered that the best time for seabirds is the first few hours after sunrise, particularly if there have been strong winds overnight. So if the conditions have been good (for seawatching!) overnight, or are predicted to be good throughout the day, then getting there early will often give the best results. However, there can still be seabirds all through the day, particularly if strong winds start to develop later in the day, so if you can’t face getting up early, don’t despair!

Different species seabirds will respond to conditions in different ways. In general, true pelagic seabirds avoid land and - apart from a few major prominences like Cape Naturaliste - will only be visible when driven close to land by sustained, very strong winds. However, some less fussy species seem happier to hang around inshore during and after storms. These ‘inshore’ possibilities include jaegers and skuas, Cape Petrel, Giant Petrels and Arctic Tern (check tern roosts like Ocean Reef Marina after storms), and even Wilson Storm-Petrel which sometimes feed in fishermen’s burley trails during rough weather.

A Cape Petrel (Daption capense) photographed close inshore at Woodman Point - one of a small group that remained around Woodman Point for 3 days of stormy weather in early June 2012, demonstrating that it is not always essential to seawatch in gale force winds to see some of the more 'inshore' species.

Rug up!
The best seawatching conditions are windy, no matter what the season, so it’s highly recommended to wear warm clothing. The strong winds that bring seabirds close to shore are often associated with cold fronts and/or strong low pressure cells, which also tend to bring rain, so something waterproof is also a good idea! If you’re going to be watching from the south and southern west coasts in winter and spring (the best time for subantarctic seabirds), then full seawatching dress will probably include thermals, long sleeved shirt and long trousers, jumper, anorak, gloves, thick socks and a beanie! Even in summer, or in the north of the state, a long sleeved shirt and long trousers are a good idea (for sun protection if nothing else), and you might still be grateful of a jumper packed in your bag!

The author and friend model typical seawatching gear for southern WA at Bunker Bay, June 2012.

Pack some water
Not just for the obvious reason that spending long hours exposed to the elements might make you thirsty (indeed a thermos of your hot beverage of choice is not a bad idea either!), but also because the strong winds blowing off the ocean that are great for seawatching are also excellent at blowing salt spray all over your optics! To prevent damage to your optics, it’s a good idea to clean off the salt spray as you go, rather than letting it dry on the way home, leaving salt encrusting the lens. One of the best ways to do this (assuming your optics are waterproof, which they should be for seawatching) is to pour a little bit of fresh water to rinse the salt off, then pour the water off. Do this once every hour or so during a seawatch, and your optics are likely to thank you down the line!

While watching

Mark your points
If you are seawatching with others, it’s a great idea to agree on a reference system at the start of your watch to make it easier to get others onto any bird you might see. This is often much easier said than done when faced with large tracts of featureless ocean, but any islands, buoys etc. can make useful reference points. Throwing a clock face over small points (e.g. buoys) points can also help – e.g. bird is 2 o’clock from the buoy. Another useful technique when watching from an elevated position is to describe the birds position in relation to the shoreline and horizon – for example, bird is ¾ of the way to the horizon.

Unless birds are large and obvious (like albatross or gannets) or close to shore, they will be difficult to pick out with the naked eye, so constant scanning with your optics will greatly improve your chances of picking up passing birds. Whether to use your scope or bins is often the subject of debate, but generally scanning with bins is the better option. Scanning with bins has two major advantages; firstly they will almost invariably have a much wider field of view than your scope, so you are more likely to pick up birds. Secondly, if you can’t see a bird with your bins, you’re unlikely to be able to ID it even with a scope, so scanning with bins makes it easier to concentrate on birds you have a chance of IDing, rather than chasing dots on the horizon. The main downside to scanning with bins is that when you find a bird, you then have to locate it again with your scope which can be frustrating!

Take notes
Not on everything you see (unless you want to practice your note-taking!), but taking notes on any unusual sightings is useful for helping to identify the bird later. Even if you are confident of the ID, if a record is unusual then good field notes may be crucial in convincing others of your record. This is particularly so with seawatching, when it can be very difficult to get decent photos of an unusual bird, and it is unlikely to stay around for others to confirm unless they are with you at the time! Useful features to note (if you can see them) include plumage details (as well as overall colour), particularly upper- and underwing patterns, bill colour and shape (often only discernible on relatively close birds), and a comparison of size to other birds if possible. With seabirds in particular, notes on flight style and ‘jizz’ are also very important, particularly for more distant sightings where plumage details are difficult to make out.

Learn to let go!
The views of a bird on a seawatch are rarely optimal, and identifying birds seen is a serious challenge. On any watch, even an expert seawatcher is likely to see a number of birds that can’t be identified to species. If you’re just starting with seabirds, the majority of birds may go unidentified (at least to species). This can be particularly frustrating if (for example) you know the bird is something special (a prion for example), but you can’t pin down the species!! Be ready to accept that this will happen on seawatches, and be ready to leave such birds unidentified (e.g. as prion sp. in the previous example). However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have endless fun with other birders talking about ‘the ones that got away’ on your seawatch!

Give it time...
Anything can turn up on a seawatch, even on relatively quiet days, so having taken the time to get to a seawatching site, it’s worth sticking at it for an hour or so at least even if things look quiet – you never know what you might see. The flipside to this is that if after an hour or two you haven’t even seen many common species, then it’s probably time to think about coming back another day!

The author proves it’s never too young to take up seawatching, near Cape Leeuwin, September 2004. Note the evidence of inexperience in clothing selection, and the poor choice of site, eschewing the nearby Cape Leeuwin in favour of this location well into the next bay. Probably explains why records from the day indicate that the only seabirds seen were 5 “unidentified albatross sp.” and 10 or so “smaller dark birds, possibly petrels”


  1. Gday, just curious if you could help me identify a bird.

    I was down at Cape Naturaliste doing the short walk between the lighthouse and Sugarloaf and was mesmerized by the flock of small black and yellow birds closer to the Sugerloaf side. Didn't manage to get a photo using our camera, but they looked so pretty!

  2. Awesome blog! I'm trying to get birders excited about seawatching in Hawaii.