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Bermuda birdwatchers conduct study in the Sargasso

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Erich Hetzel fills in a new entry in a logbook as part of a bird survey on board the Arctic Sunrise (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)

A study of seabirds over the Sargasso Sea is being carried out with the hope of filling gaps in knowledge about the migrations, and help scientists to gauge the health of the ocean.

Erich Hetzel and Paul Watson, two birdwatching enthusiasts based in Bermuda, joined the international crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunriseto carry out a bird study in the region.

Mr Watson said: “The idea is to count as many seabirds as we can see and find on our journey and, using a proven scientific method, we work out population densities of the birds that you see on the transact.

“A lot of the seabirds that we have witnessed, the storm petrels, the shearwaters, are stopping on the sargassum line and feeding around it before continuing on their journey.”

Mr Hetzel said: “This is the time of the year that birds are moving from the south and going north either to feed or to breed.

“This would be a good baseline study that can be referenced for years, really.”

He said that there was a lack of detailed information about seabirds’ migration through the region, although there is a broad idea that the birds are migrating northward.

“The exact routes are not as defined on this side of the Atlantic,” he said. “Most birds will go up the Gulf Stream, and we are way out of the Gulf Stream, so these birds are interesting.

“Either they are heading to the Gulf Stream or they are bypassing it and heading north. That’s the type of information that I think is valuable.

“If we went up the Gulf Stream, we would get a different mix and many more birds, but we have still seen a lot.”

Mr Watson said that although birds are well recorded in some areas, relatively little work has been done on the high seas.

“Most of the surveys of seabirds are done in known sites or near islands and undersea mounts where they know that seabirds congregate,” he said.

“A study like this, a transact, has been done certainly, but it has not been done often.

“I have done it twice from Bermuda but I have realistically not heard of one coming out of the northern Caribbean, out of the Bahamas, on a line to Bermuda.

“This is a dedicated dawn-to-dusk study of all of the seabirds we can see.”

Fishing out old rope, and pleasant shower scubbing

Owain Johnston-Barnes has joined the Arctic Sunrise on its voyage from the Bahamas to Bermuda to learn more about the work being done on board and a taste of the life lived by the Greenpeace team

As was previously foretold by the elders of the boat, the swells thankfully died down on Wednesday afternoon, although the crew soon found themselves embroiled in an unexpected fishing trip.

The game? A large knot of green rope adrift in the water, presumably abandoned by another vessel.

With the aid of a metal hook on the end of a line, the crew was able to snag the rope, which had become filled with seaweed during its time in the water.

I was later told that a small crab had been liberated from the debris, although a part of me wondered what his perspective on his rescue might be.

Soon after was supper, featuring Asian noodles and egg rolls that, like all food on the Arctic Sunrise so far, was all vegetarian. While I am pretty much the opposite of a vegetarian, it was rapidly ingested.

Hardtack this was not.

After another surprisingly restful sleep and a quick breakfast, chores were handed out and I was dealt the task of scrubbing the ship’s five showers, which wound up being far more pleasant than the previous day’s toilet duty.

By the time I had wrapped up, I was able to catch a test run of the mission’s efforts to collect environmental DNA.

Essentially, they hook what appears to be an oversized Thermos to a rope, drop it 30 metres beneath the water, shut it and pull it up.

At some time in the future, the waters will be tested for trace DNA samples, which will provide researchers with information about marine life in the area.

While the original plan involved sending out the ship’s orange tender, affectionately named Mr Carrot, to collect the samples, they instead tried to simply dangle the device from a rope at the side of the ship.

Despite some apprehensions about losing the device to the briny depths, the operation went smoothly, with the entire process taking less time than releasing Mr Carrot alone would have.

While I am still far from home, I have been able to enjoy a little taste of Bermuda as a few longtails decided to fly alongside the ship briefly as they hunted for squid.

Now if only I can work out how to climb out of my bunk without it feeling like a 17-step process, we will be cooking.

Mr Watson noted that while the ship stopped for an hour to view a small sargassum mat, several seabirds were seen feeding in the area.

“That goes to show how important the sargassum mats are to these migrating seabirds,” he said.

“The Wilson’s petrel and the great shearwater that we have witnessed here are migrating from the South Atlantic all the way to the Grand Banks, where they will feed for a few months in the summer.

“The Sargasso Sea is classed realistically as an avian desert, but we are seeing that it is not.”

Asked why such a study was important, Mr Hetzel said the health of the world’s seabird population reflected the health of oceans as a whole.

“Seabirds are a part of the ecosystem, and if you see seabird populations decreasing, that is an indicator that things are not going well in the ocean,” he said.

“They feed off the ocean, and if they don’t have enough food, then you won’t have seabirds. They are an indicator species.

“Besides that, they are pretty nice to look at.”

Mr Watson said he had been birding since he was a child in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and got into bird ringing, catching birds and tagging birds for study in Britain.

He continued the hobby when he came to Bermuda for work.

“Realistically I have counted a lot of seabirds migrating past Bermuda and I have been fortunate enough to see some rather spectacular seabird events and some pretty rare and uncommon birds,” he said.

Mr Watson said that so far the highlight of the voyage took place yesterday morning when he noticed a small bird flying near a Leach’s petrel.

“There was a very small petrel next to it and the only bird I can surmise it is, based on what I have seen, a European storm petrel,” he said.

“They do feed off the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic and off the Carolinas, but right now that’s 4,000 miles from home.

“I’m confident that’s what it was, but unfortunately it would be better served if it were photo documented because it is such a vagrant and it is so far from home.

“The highlight was either that or the six Sabine’s gulls that we saw, because they are pretty special birds.

“They feed in the equatorial regions in the winter and then they migrate up to the high Arctic in the summer where they breed in the tundra.”

Paul Watson and Erich Hetzel, left, look out from the Arctic Sunrise alongside Greenpeace staff (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)
A tangled mass of rope being pulled from the ocean (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)
A test run of the environmental DNA collection from the deck of the Arctic Sunrise (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)

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Published May 03, 2024 at 7:57 am (Updated May 03, 2024 at 7:57 am)

Bermuda birdwatchers conduct study in the Sargasso

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