Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Going Pelagic - The Second Innings!

As indicated in my earlier post - Out In the Ocean I made another trip to the Ocean last week! This time it was at two places, back to back. First day at Mulky which was arranged by Shivashankar and the next two days at Kannur, Kerala which was arranged by Praveen J as a part of MNHS (Malabar Natural History Society). I was fortunate to be a part of a group of sixteen which consisted of eminent birders and photographers from Karnataka and Kerala. So needless to say this time it was big, much bigger than my previous time.

Arctic Skua Taking Off

We headed out towards Karkala on Friday afternoon itself and the plan was to reach Karkala and have some sleep before the dawn breaks out and hit the ocean before Sun comes out to have his tea! Plan went well and we reached Karkala at 1:30AM or so and hit the bed immediately after setting the alarm to ring at 4:45AM! I knew that the next three days are going to be very hectic and all of our sleep would be taking a toll on most of the days! I was not entirely wrong!

Floating Greater Crested Tern

Morning 5:15AM and we were ready to head towards Mulky. Shiva joined us along with Breakfast and Lunch packets. We were at the shore, to board the boat at around 6:30AM. The plan was to leave the shore in one boat and the second would come at around 9:30AM with Subbu, Ramit and others to join us in the ocean. The boat at Mulky was a bit smaller for the number of people, which was nine. After the lesson from my previous trip I was cautious enough to swallow one anti-omitting tablet much before we left the shore. Not taking the tablet took a toll of two of the team mates - Atanu and Vinaya who, soon after some time, kept themselves very busy in putting everything out in the ocean, repeatedly! It is very much important to take the anti-omitting tablet before hitting the sea, if one is not a frequent sea traveler.

Floating Lesser Crested Tern

The waters of Mulky, as before was not showing any signs of any pelagic birds activity. We were shooting the usual Greater and Lesser Crested Terns and some Common Terns along. Everyone were very attentive and constantly looking out for something new. Then the luck struck, "What is that??!! What is that??!! That's a pelagic!!" Rajneesh Suvarna shouted. There was the sighting of our first pelagic bird - the Shearwater. Which shearwater exactly? It was yet to be answered and that could have been done only if any of us had an image! Shearwaters are relatively smaller birds compared to Gulls. They approximately of the size of medium sized terns. But the thing which makes them hard to distinguish is that they fly very close to the water surface and disappear very easily among the sea tides. Once they land on water they are very difficult to spot from a distance since their small size hides nicely behind the fluctuating waves. Both of my images were not in focus, thanks to their flight close to the water. The AF of the camera constantly focuses onto the shining waves rather than onto the flying bird.
Luckily Shiva had got an image which was in good focus and initial look at the bird made us to guess that it could be Audubon Shearwater. But later on the third day we concluded that it was Persian Shearwater, which we saw on the next two days, in quite a good number.

Persian Shearwater

After having some discussions over the missed opportunity and possible species, as we were moving on, our luck struck again and an Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaegar) flew past near to the boat. Luckily most of us got a shot where the bird could have been identified. That was a great cheer for all of us.

But the happiness of seeing the pelagic birds almost ended there itself. None of those birds appeared after that first sighting. All the time we were seeing were the Terns and occasionally few gulls. A small flock of Bridled Tern along with Common Terns and little terns gave a nice show of 'mixed fishing party' quite close to our boat. The day was pale afterwards. We couldn't venture too far into the sea due to smaller size of the boat. We stayed at about 8-10km from the shore and moving parallel to the ground. Till evening not much activity and by 3:30PM or so we were back at the shore. Day 1 was almost over and I was excited about the cricket World Cup Final!

Floating Bridled Tern

That day I would remember forever! I couldn't see a single ball till the 45th over of the second innings and thanks to a roadside hotel on the way to Kannur, we were able to enjoy the winning moments. It would really go down into my memory as one of the unforgettable days. Just because I was about miss the match completely, had we not found that hotel! phew!!

It was 12:10 or so when we reached Kannur and we were told to assemble at 6:30AM the next morning.

Fishing Boat similar to what we were in

The boat in Kannur was quite big, compared to the one at Mulky. It was in fact a fishermen boat which was hired for this purpose. We were joined by birders from Kerala and we were now 16 people on the boat, excluding the boat crew.

 
Bridled Tern taking off

After the usual sightings of Common terns, Greater Crested and Lesser Crested Terns, it was Bridled Terns who showed up. Many were found around the fishing boats, which were looking for the left out fishes that the fishermen throw into the sea. Terns found that much far into the sea are quite bold and approach the fishing boats without much fear. That was an advantage for us to observe them from close distance. What was interesting to see was that many of the Terns were using the floating things like thermocol, plastic things or even chappals which were thrown into the sea! Some gave very nice opportunity to photograph them.

Persian Shearwater

As the Sun came to the top, we were about 30km from the shore and it was complete water everywhere. Soon the excitement ran as someone spotted a Shearwater.

 Persian Shearwater

The first for the day! After that we had several very good sightings of the bird and at noon we ended up having them all around!!

Persian Shearwater

It was a memorable moment for me when our boat was floating very close to a group of about 12-14  Persian Shearwaters! I was having my lunch watching them having theirs!! They seemed fearless and not bothered by our presence. The mid noon Sun has made us so tired that we were having some rest with two people in vigilance for the new birds.

Persian Shearwater

The afternoon was dominated by Skuas. We had never imagined that we would be witnessing the mid air drama just in front of our eyes, so close. Skuas are rowdies at the ocean. They normally don't fish but rely on the birds who do fishing. Terns are their best targets. They harass Terns and make them puke out the fish which they have caught fresh and catch it in mid air and just fly away happily! Their body is made for bullying the smaller birds. They do that so well and so efficiently!

 
Arctic Skua with Persian Shearwaters

There was a group of Common Terns and crested terns which were fishing together. As we were enjoying the view, some one shouted "Skua, Skua!!". That was it. Before we could even locate the bird, it was behind a Common Tern and the chase has begun already!

 Arctic Skua

Terns fly swiftly and take abrupt turns, but Skua was in no mood to give up. I was bedazzled by their maneuvring skills which finally made the tern to give up its catch.

Arctic Skua

Then it was the turn of a Greater Crested Tern! This time there were two rowdies behind it! It was a desperate run for the Tern and equally desperate chase for the Skuas!

Arctic Skua chasing a Common Tern



Arctic Skua chasing a Greater Crested Tern


Arctic Skua chasing a Greater Crested Tern


  Arctic Skua chasing a Greater Crested Tern


Arctic Skua chasing a Greater Crested Tern


Arctic Skua fighting among themselves for the fish (Sardinella longiceps)

The wobbling boat was posing a great challenge in following the birds in the view finder. It was an intense chase and at the end it payed off for the Skuas and after fighting among themselves one guy was finally settled with his catch! All the drama had happened just around our boat and everyone were so thrilled that the excitement on their faces was worth watching!

Arctic Skua landing in front of its catch

After the action pact drama we just started our journey back to the shore. On the way, again some Terns and Shearwaters greeted us. No new sightings there after. The day was ended with a wonderful feeling of having witnessed the dramatic life out there in the ocean!

Arctic Skua

Final day was good but without any new sightings. Surprisingly the Common Terns were missing for quite a long time. All the time it was Bridled Terns and they were all around. We met Persian Shearwaters again after sometime and Arctic Skua also greeted all of us. There was one sighting of a Skua which looked like a Pomarine Skua but none of us could get any conclusive image of the bird and hence it ended up as an unconfirmed sighting.

 
Flock of Common Terns along with Persian Shearwater 

In the noon we hit upon a flock of Common Terns who were floating in group on the ocean water. They were in a very disciplined group and all were facing towards the same direction. There were few Persian Shearwaters also in the group. It was nice spending some time with them before we start heading back to the shore. On our way back we saw huge number of Bridled Terns, possibly migrating. They were around 500-600 in number and moving constantly in one direction. The trip ended with a happy note.

Floating Bridled Tern

Photographing from the boat was not at all easy by any means. All the three elements will be in teh constant move - the bird, the boat and the camera! Balancing my body itself was a challenge, forget about shooting! This was, for me, by far the most difficult condition to photograph. Getting the bird in the frame was a big challenge and achieving the focus on the bird was the next mammoth task. The trouble was manifold when the water was in the background. Success rate was very less for all the photographers and the shooting was mainly for the documentation purpose.

 
The team of Day 1 at Kannur, Kerala 
I thank Shivashankar Nayak, Dipu K and Praveen J for organizing and giving me an opportunity to become a part of this wonderful expedition.

Cheers,
Ash

Watch out for some of the non-nature images from the trip in the coming days! 

9 comments:

office said...

Keep them coming Ashwini. Very encouraging ones from you dear. Looking at your face in the last image, your previous blog makes sense. With the kind of birds and images it must be a well worth the visit. Another feather in the cap...

Shivakumar said...

Just simply awesome. Until this point of time i didnt even know that such species exist and esp so far away from the land.
This one is def a feather in the cap for you. Great going bro.

Ashwini Kumar Bhat said...

Thank you very much friends.

Shiva, even I was not very sure till the moment I actually saw them! It was a different world out there, with very less opportunities above the water surface but loads under it. Some of these creatures are just built for that.

Thanks for your encouraging words.

Pramod Viswanath said...

Excellent write up, super effort from the entire team and great images and documentation Ashwin! Will come back to this post again and again . . .

Prashanth said...

Very nice write-up and photos. We read so little on pelagic birding in india...was very nice for the readers as well. Congrats on a nice pelagic birding trip!

Shiva Shankar's photography said...

Good document and I can see the witness of great time you had in Kannur.

Ashwini Kumar Bhat said...

Thanks Pramod, Shiva and Prashant!
@ Prashant - As you already know, we not only read less about Pelagic but we do the Pelagic birding also very less. Hoping that the trend improves and we will be having more records in the future.

Roshan Kadaramandalagi K said...

Really enjoyed the post Ashwini. Would love to see these birds some day! Very beautiful photographs indeed, esp the 'chase' photographs!
Cheers,
Roshan.

molarbear's posts said...

Thank you for the very descriptive post!

Deepa.