I’ve written already about the pleasures of pelagic birding—that is, getting on a boat and looking for birds far out at sea. I truly love pelagics, but I have to confess: It's tough and not for everyone. You’re perpetually on the edge of seasickness. You get sunburned. It’s hard to go to the bathroom.
But what if I told you that there's a way to see all (or many) of the cool seabirds you can see on a pelagic trip, but with the safety, calmness and accessible bathrooms of land? My friend, there is. Let’s go seawatching.
It’s as easy as it sounds: make your way to the shore of a large body of water and look for birds. (I use the word “sea” a lot, but you can “seawatch” over lakes and reservoirs, too.) However, the simplicity of that explanation belies the great pleasures that come with seawatching. This is relaxing birding. It’s meditative birding. It’s just you, a scope, the "sea," and some great birds.
What birds, you ask? Well, let’s start with some very cool ducks. In winter, fowl descend onto U.S. coasts to escape iced-over northern waters. These visitors are some of our oddest and most beautiful of all ducks. Funky Harlequin Ducks. Common Eiders. Three kinds of scoters. All sought-after species, each best seen from a rocky shore.
Now, let's take it up a notch and talk about alcids. Alcids are, basically, flying penguins: primarily black and white birds that spend most of their lives at sea diving after fish. In summer, they’re rarely seen from shore unless you’re near one of their breeding colonies. (Do yourself a favor and get to a breeding colony sometime.) But your chances are much better if you're seawatching in winter. On the East Coast, you can commonly see Razorbills, Thick-billed Murres, adorable Black Guillemots, and, if you’re lucky, the adorable-r Dovekie. Alcid diversity is even greater out west, where you can contend with several species of murrelet and auklet, depending on where you are.
Finally, there's the really rare stuff: tubenoses. In the right conditions, or with a lot of luck, the same shearwaters and storm-petrels that you’d pay big money to see from a boat are visible from shore. I’ve seen Great Shearwaters while eating a lobster roll. A Pomarine Jaeger once whizzed right over my head. You can tick those birds off the life list while staying safe and dry; it doesn’t get better than that. Add to the list a ton of gulls, cormorants, gannets, and grebes, and you’re in seawatch paradise.
So now that we know what’s out there, let’s talk about how to see them. Like all birding, seawatching is seasonal. Alcids and sea ducks are most common in winter, while shearwaters and storm-petrels are most easily found in the summer. So, know what to look for based on when you’re birding. And make sure to brush up on your IDs. Seawatching rarely gives the same kinds of close, prolonged looks at a bird that are possible when looking at a warbler flitting between the same two branches. A particular bird may be in view for only a few seconds. That challenge, coupled with the fact that different species can look very similar, means that the better prepared you are before you start seawatching, the more successful you’ll be. (Actually, that’s good advice for any kind of birding!)
Next, find your spot. This is critical, because not just any shore will do. You’ll want to find a place with a little altitude so you can look down onto the water and not just stare into the flat horizon. If you’re at the beach, you’ll want to stand on some rocks or a dock. Best of all, find a headland, a piece of land that stretches far out to sea. A spot like this will give you a commanding view, and get you closer to the birds.
Good seawatching spots are rightly famous. At Point Pinos, on the southern end of Monterey Bay, birders have recorded more than 300 species on eBird; same goes for Cape May, in far southern New Jersey. My favorite spot is Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where I’ve spent countless hours gazing at the rolling Atlantic while scrounging up change for another lobster roll. Find a good seawatching spot of your own and you might never leave.
One thing: You’ll need a scope, or you’ll need to borrow a scope. You can seawatch with binoculars, but, I mean, your arms will get tired. Plus, you’ll need all the magnification you can get because the birds are likely to be very far away. If you’ve invested in a scope and tripod, now is the time to use it.
So once you’ve found your headland and got your scope set up, here comes the relaxing part. Just stare out to sea, my friend, and look for birds. Patience is key here. There may be long periods with no birds at all, and when you do finally see one it will disappear behind the waves or dive underwater, seemingly forever. It’s all part of the game. Breathe deeply, feel the salt in your nostrils, and keep looking. Bring a friend, and chat about life. Eat some food, and look some more.
Seabirding is about patience, but it’s also about appreciation. Appreciation for the vastness of the ocean and all the weird birds that live out there. Appreciation for the fact that you’ve found a hobby that has taken you to this crazy sea cliff in the middle of winter. Appreciation for the fact that all those seafaring birders are out there getting seasick while you’re safe on land. Believe me, you’ll love it.