Bird Watching on the Water

An amazing part of boating is the ability to watch wildlife that you would not ever see. Watching seabirds is a rewarding pastime. To watch them from a boat takes very little but a keen pair of eyes and lots of curiosity. There are though a few of the things that can make your experience even better and you may become addicted.

⇒ Birding Equipment on the Water

Pelicans on The Water WorldBirder

Watching birds on the water from about is often easier than finding them on land. Water birds in general are typically larger than other kinds of birds and they are very easy to spot. Adult seabirds have some form of black, white, or a combination of both. It's much easier to find birds sitting on water and out in the open then when they are hiding in trees on land. Even with all of this though a good pair of binoculars is a good idea to get a closer look for species identification or watching their certain behaviors. Make sure your binoculars are watertight. If you knock them overboard make sure they have a good float attached or an extra that can help you keep from losing them. Some binoculars end up with lenses that are fogged from the inside and that is nearly impossible to fix. There is also the swell of the boat to contend with and it's not always easy to keep traditional binoculars fixed on a small object when you're going up and down. There are certain brands that make them motion compensated, which means they will stay steadier without losing your target. They may cost a little more, but if you're a serious birder, you will definitely appreciate the difference.

A small boat is what you would need if you plan on spending a day on a lake. Canoes, kayaks, rowboats and skiffs will allow you to be in low enough water to identify birds and to navigate the shallow and vegetated waterways were birds usually seek cover.

⇒ Bird Identification Guidebooks

When you are birding it is always good to have some kind of identification guide. Many different kinds are made, but there are certain things that you need to consider when choosing a good one.

- Pictures versus illustrations: whether you prefer a drawing or a photo is just a judgment call. The important thing that you must consider with either kind of image is that all of the different seasonal plumage is for winter and summer birds and the different geographical plumage is of the bird are shown. In addition, whatever book you choose to identify should make special note of the physical differences between male versus female and adult versus juvenile. In the case where there may be a lot of species that look very similar, like goals, you need a guy that calls attention to certain portions of the animal that are used as a species identification. For example the color of feet, the tail shape, etc. This can help you from staring blankly at six pages of gray and white goals with no clue as to where to begin.

- Range description: this is a map and description of where bird is likely to be found. Make sure you pay attention to both location and the description of the location type, as a bird in the book may be found in the general area, but not in the kind of habitat where you see your mystery bird. The range section also comes with the months of the year where they can be found in a certain area. This is an important part of making a proper identification.

- Behavior and habitat: the better the description of what a bird does, sounds like, the more confident you can be that you found your right bird. Birds like cormorants, for example do not have waterproof wings, but spend time on rocks and buoys drying themselves with their wings outstretched. This kind of specific information lets you know what a bird might look like since you may be a novice and then make it quickly clear which unique species are family a burglar looking at.

- Similar species: a good guidebook takes a species of birds that are most commonly mistaken for the bird on the page, and goes into description of the specific things to look for that make them unique and different. This gives you a much clearer idea of whether you found the bird you're looking for, or give you a good idea of where you need to keep looking when you realize you are wrong.

- Common versus comprehensive: identification guides come in one of two forms. Some may work with every species that is ever been seen in a region even if they are unique and every once in a while. The other will show you only birds that are commonly found in an area, but they provide a much deeper and more descriptive level of information about the life history and behavior of the species that they cover. Look for a book that is a level of information that you are comfortable with. Beware of books that miss certain species. There are some that have both kinds of books on hand, but begin with the more in-depth book featuring common birds and then move to a more comprehensive book when the species that you are looking for evades you. If you happen to be birding at sea, be certain that the book has a strong seabird section. Since terrestrial birds are the focus of many books, use more generic guides as they will often gloss over the topic of seabirds and you will end up with a lot of unknowns.

- Apps: while books were once only the option, there are other great birding apps that now provide not only pictures but song clips as well. If you're not sure which one you want look for free trials to see which ones are easiest for you to use. Remember apps often require a strong signal connection, so they do not work well when you're out at sea but may work on a lake with good cell reception. They can be quite handy if you can get them to work.

⇒ Where to Look for Water Birds

Water birds can be found in many different areas, but there are certain places to go that will help you find good numbers.

Flock of Seagulls Birds WorldBirder

- Find the food: whether your bird is a seaweed eating vegetarian that likes lakes for deep diving fishermen, going where the food should be is a good way to catch glimpses of many bird species. Freshwater vegetarians can often be found around edges of lakes, where the seaweed is thick and the cattails for edge vegetation can hide them from potential predators. Wading birds like storks and herons are found in shallow water edges, both open and wooded. They sit and wait patiently for prey to swim by. Seabirds that are good fishermen will be found in the highest concentration areas of fish. These large schools when they hit near the surface are called baseballs and often have a large number and variety of birds that take advantage of the fish buffet.

- Consider habitat needs: if you do not find birds you want in their usual dining grounds, consider their habitat needs, particularly during nesting season. Some birds will hide their nests in shoreline bushes or reads and are not easily discoverable. Other species, like goals and other seabirds, like finding treeless, remote islands where they can rest and nest on the bare rocks. Wading birds seem to nest on high treetops and wetlands near larger bodies of water. Shorebirds like sandpipers spend their time on beaches and nest in the tall grass or rocky areas around them.

If you are new to birding you may be tempted when you find a close match to a bird you have never seen before to assume that it is something exotic. This is especially the case when you find something in the book that looks similar but it is not exact. We suggest you follow the old adage, if you hear hoof beats, look first for a horse, and not for the zebra. If the book you are using brings you to something exotic, look for a similar species first. Consider that the bird may be in the middle of a shift between summer and winter plumage and may not look like the picture. Look to see if specific species is known to crossbreed and make a hybrid. If you still come up empty make note of the characteristics you're using to make your identification. Take pictures and consult an expert.

⇒ Types of Water Birds

Throughout the world, birds can vary greatly. But with certain exceptions, water birds come down to a few families. Here are the basics on which bird family to turn to in your book when you see a new water bird:
Royal Albatross WorldBirder Seabirds: these birds live either in the ocean or at the beach. Some, like gulls can live here as well. They are usually white and gray, or black-and-white. Most diving fish predators are either all-black or have a black-and-white belly. The common pattern is used by both birds like penguins and animals like killer whales to hide from their prey. Underwater they are white like the light when you look up but from up above they are black like the dark depths when you look down. Here are some of the more common families:
Gulls: they are mostly white with gray or black markings, rounded tail and wings.
Terns: they are mostly white with gray or black markings, V-shaped tail, pointed wings.
Alcids: they are black-and-white like a penguin, and live in the northern hemisphere.
Penguins: they live in the southern hemisphere they are black-and-white and flightless.
Pelicans: they have a large beak with a pouch for holding fish.
Albatross/tubenoses: they look like a large gull but with a barrel shaped tube to help expel salt from the body.

⇒ Shore Birds and Waders

Sandpipers: they are small, long legged, and brown. They live on the beach with narrow, thin bills and feet that are not webbed.

Herons: they have long legs and long next that are curved and retract in when in flight and they have narrow bills.

Storks: they have thicker bills then a heron or a stork and they are often taller as well.

Cranes: they are long waiting birds that look like herons, but fly with outstretched necks.

Ducks and geese: these are common water birds as a have short necks like ducks and long necks like geese. They are known for their webbed feet and wide, spoon -like bills. They have a wide variety of plumage, and ducks can be further identified by whether they are dabblers, which stay afloat with bottoms in the air while they eat or they are divers.

The world of birding it is a very fascinating place, and water birds can be an easy and rewarding way to experience the birding adventure. Seabirds are rarely scared of boats so you are often able to approach them rather closely while you're on your boat and have a long look at a flock when birding by boat. Taking up this hobby is a great way to become more aware of your surroundings and help you and your passengers develop a greater respect and knowledge of your marine environment.