It’s an open secret for anyone cruising to Antarctica that you don’t have to spot a penguin on the peninsula to kickstart your wildlife experience. The Drake Passage – that long stretch of sea that separates South America from Antarctica – offers some tremendous birdwatching. And thanks to a new citizen science programme, cruise passengers can put their binoculars to the service of scientific research as part of an international seabird survey.
Last November I headed south on Swoop’s Antarctic Peninsula Classic cruise, sailing on Seaventure, a ship that’s particularly well known for its citizen science programmes. I was lucky that one of the guides on board was a cofounder of the Polar Citizen Science Collective, an organisation at the forefront of connecting scientific researchers with the adventure cruise industry.
My Swoop colleague Daniel and I sailed together on Seaventure and we were both keen to participate in the on board citizen programmes. Daniel grabbed a place on the Fjord Phyto programme collecting phytoplankton samples from during zodiac cruises when we were in Antarctica – you can read about his experiences on his blog. As someone who’s always keen to be out on the deck in all weathers, I put my hand up for the Southern Ocean Seabird survey.
When it comes to birdwatching, I’d classify myself as an enthusiastic amateur. Being on the deck is a great place to nurture that enthusiasm. This goes double for the start of a cruise, when you’ll find the keenest birdwatchers out with their long lenses starting to tick off their life lists and breaking the ice with passengers who can’t yet tell their petrels from their prions.
The birds that followed in the wake of the ship were instantly captivating. From the moment we entered the Drake Passage they were our constant companions. The one bird that everyone seemed to know and be on the lookout for was the wandering albatross. They’re the world’s largest flying birds, with wingspans only a little shy of four metres, though their true size was a little hard to judge when one arrived to effortlessly glide in our wake.
And effortless they really are. The chatter before we sailed was all about how big the seas would be on the crossing and whether we’d have a ‘Drake Lake’ or a ‘Drake Shake.’ As it turned out we had some pretty lively seas in places but our ornithologist guide Mathias assured us that this was actually the best for birdwatching. Albatrosses like it rough: strong winds means better air currents to harness for dynamic soaring and therefore more birds to follow the ship. On a perfectly calm sea, albatrosses prefer to save their energy and just rest on the water.
On each of the two days we were crossing the Drake (and again on the return voyage) we recorded what we saw to collect data for a project called the Southern Ocean Seabird Survey. It was a great way of giving purpose to our idle birdwatching.
Our guide explained that while it was common to see albatrosses, petrels and prions from the ship, it was just as important to understand how rare or common different species are. Seabirds, he reminded us, are great barometers for understanding the health of the oceans – and knowing how healthy the oceans are vitally important for humans, whether we’re relying on the sea for natural resources or understanding how different parts of the ocean work as carbon sinks.
Researchers can only take tiny snapshots of the ocean, but seabirds can almost sample it for us because they spend their whole lives on the ocean. The only time they’re on land is when they breed, but even then they return to the sea to feed because all of their resources come from the ocean. If there are changes in different seabird populations, or how they’re behaving or where they’re choosing to go, that can tell us something crucial about the health of the ocean. By surveying birds flying above the surface of the ocean, we can gain a window on what’s happening beneath the waves.
So we were going to play our part by helping to count them.
It was all so deceptively simple that I almost had to do a double-take. For 15 minutes, a group of us stood on the deck and simply counted all the birds we saw. There were no wandering albatrosses this time, but we ticked off two of its arguably more elegant cousins, a pair of black-browed albatross with their eyes rimmed in what can only be described as mascara in feathers. Across the deck there was something slightly chunkier – a southern giant petrel. And swooping quickly from one side of the ship to another, half a dozen cape petrels, daubed in black and white. The early explorers used to call them cape pigeons, but they felt far too pretty for that.
Every time a bird was spotted, we called out to one of the two expedition guides who were overseeing the survey, each with a bird identification guide and binoculars at hand so we could double check what we’d seen. Each bird was dutifully recorded, along with the time and position of the ship. After 30 minutes we were done. The birdwatchers stayed out on the deck, but other passengers drifted inside for a hot drink. Was science really this easy?
Four times on the voyage I helped our guides collate lists of what we’d seen. There were groups of tiny Antarctic prions darting around the starboard deck here, and delicate Wilson’s storm petrels skittering off the waves there, all of which we added to the records, dutifully noting down the time and location. But making lists was one thing, and I was left wondering exactly what was going to happen to all that data when I got off the ship.
When I was back at home I reached out to Dr Michael Schrimpf, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York state, who has been running the Southern Ocean Seabird Survey since 2016. Had he got our bird lists, I wondered? And what was he going to do with them?
In fact, he’d received our data before our trip had even finished. Just minutes after we finished each day’s surveys, he had access to which species we’d seen and where. The data had been uploaded on the guide’s phone thanks to the eBird app, which allows you to record bird sightings anywhere in the world – even on the Southern Ocean.
Explaining the rationale behind the survey, Dr Schrimpf told me that the first step in any research is building a database. ‘It’s very difficult to make inferences from just one observation, but when you start to have ten or 100,000 observations then you can actually start to see patterns and that’s where the data really become powerful.’
Cruise ships are perfectly placed to harvest that data for seabirds, he explained. ‘If a scientist isn’t there collecting data, then that information is lost unless we have someone else who happens to be there. That’s a really powerful aspect of citizen science in my view.’
Dr Schrimpf is no stranger to Antarctic bird surveys, and often heads south to carry out his research. Actually, he’s a regular on expedition cruise ships, collecting data with a colleague and tweaking the protocols of the citizen science programme to make sure that the sightings collected by people like me are good enough quality to use in research
‘We’ve been collecting more rigorous and professional type surveys – the things that you would see on research vessels. We’ve been doing bird surveys with those methods to directly compare to the eBird data. While everyone with the Polar Citizen Science Collective is doing the Southern Ocean Seabird Survey, we’ve been collecting additional calibration data. The extra surveys help us better understand how the citizen science surveys vary so we can make better use of the citizen science data.’
To further ensure the accuracy of the data collection, filters sort through sightings when they’ve been uploaded to make sure that no mistakes had been made: if we claimed to have spotted a species not known in those waters, we would be asked for extra verification. Claims to have spotted an extinct great auk on an Arctic cruise for instance would require providing considerable proof, I was assured!
At his suggestion, I created my own eBird account, and was delighted to see that the sightings we’d collected were there for everyone to see. When so much science can appear to take place behind closed doors, it was great to see open data like this that can be accessed not just by any researcher but any member of the public.
We closed our chat with a reminder of how important it was to take account of these birds. The black-browed albatrosses we saw felt plentiful, but we were sailing close to some of their most important breeding colonies. Threats such as long-line fishing and rising sea temperatures suggest their populations are more fragile than we might first expect.
By taking part in the on-board citizen science programmes, I was pleased to have been able to contribute to monitoring the birds of the Southern Ocean in some way. Every data point adds to our sum of knowledge about these amazing creatures. Next time I sail, I’ll make sure I have the eBird app on my phone, ready to take part again – and maybe you could too.
Whether you’re out on the Southern Ocean or sitting in the park at home, the eBird app lets you be part of the world’s largest birdwatching citizen science community.
If you’d like to learn what citizen science programme you can get involved with on a polar cruise, Swoop Antarctica are the experts to talk to. See our blog series about projects our Antarctic specialists have taken part in or visit our website for more.