Northwest Fisheries Science Center

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A gateway to oceanographic adventures from the Newport Line and beyond

Blog on ocean conditions along the Newport Line and the northern CA Current.

Surveying Seabirds aboard the Bell Shimada

By Peter Pearsall and Stephanie McKnight
March 6, 2017

On a recent nine-day research cruise aboard NOAA’s Bell M. Shimada, we joined researchers from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Oregon State University (OSU) to collect a variety of samples and data off the coasts of Oregon and Northern California. Both of us were brought on as volunteers for the Seabird Oceanography Lab (SOL) at OSU to conduct seabird surveys.

Laysan albatross showing off its impressive wing span.

Since 2013, SOL has conducted year-round, at-sea surveys off the Oregon coast of seabirds and marine mammals. Winter observations are typically the lab’s least robust data set, said SOL researcher Jess Porquez, as the lab’s primary survey vessel, the R/V Elakha, is sensitive to inclement weather. Sending surveyors aboard the 209-foot NOAA ship Bell Shimada is an opportunity to bolster those winter data sets. Because the Bell Shimada transects ran near shore to offshore on this cruise, SOL also hopes to capture near vs. offshore species presence/distribution and abundance.


A red phalarope, not much larger than a sparrow.

It is humbling to see these birds in their element. Laysan and black-footed albatrosses glide low over the swells on six-foot wingspans, unflappable (and hardly flapping, at that) in the face of a roiling sea, their wingtips sometimes grazing the cresting waves. Red phalaropes, shorebirds hardly larger than sparrows, bob on the surface like bits of flotsam, utterly dwarfed by their surroundings. Yet these tiny birds, along with the similarly proportioned storm-petrels, are right at home dozens or even hundreds of miles offshore.

On stormy, overcast days (of which we saw many on this cruise), we learned to pay particular attention to pelagic birds’ flight patterns and general shape, as these were often the only field marks we could discern before the bird disappeared behind a wave. Shearwaters, for instance, are aptly named, slicing and arcing between wave troughs on long, narrow wings. Fulmars in flight are similar but not as sleek, with broader wings and shorter necks. Storm-petrels flutter like bats, alighting here and there to pluck plankton from the surface; phalaropes betray their shorebird bona fides with their sustained wingbeats and wavering flight paths. Kittiwakes, terns, and Sabine’s gulls dance in the wind like stunt kites, wheeling high above the water to drop recklessly into a dive toward the surface when some morsel presented itself. Thick skeins of bee-lining Common murres passed the ship like the shadows of clouds that raced across the ocean’s surface.

Northern fulmar almost dancing on the ocean surface while taking flight.

Perhaps owing to the less-than-optimal observation conditions, marine mammal sightings were sparse. Whale spouts were seen at considerable distance on the few calm mornings and evenings we encountered at sea, and a lone California sea lion was seen near the boat almost 180 miles west of Newport.

Pink-footed shearwaters in flight.

Our efforts mark the third consecutive year SOL has participated in a winter cruise of this sort. As such, it provides an opportunity to track changes in the seabird community in relation to large scale oceanographic phases observed over the last few years, including El Niño and the “Warm Blob” in the North Pacific. Warming seas affect the distribution of zooplankton and forage fishes that these birds depend on, causing shifts in prey abundance that leave some seabird populations struggling to find food. Warmer temperatures also exacerbate sea-level rise, which threatens seabird species that nest on low-lying islands and other vulnerable coastal areas. Add to this the prevalence of plastics in the ocean, and the fact that these plastics not only look like food to seabirds but smell like it, too, and the prospects for these birds look rather grim.

Seabirds range over an incredibly vast area, and some species are at sea for more than nine months out of the year. Outside of studying seabirds during the short period they spend nesting on land, much of their lives is a mystery to us. That’s why surveying for them on cruises such as this one is important: It allows us to glimpse how these birds fare while away from land, and helps us understand the potential risks they face in a rapidly changing world—one that we humans have an outsized influence on.

Tagged: NCC

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