The term "birdwatcher” may conjure up images of khaki wearing, pith helmet-topped people with large binoculars swinging about their necks. But today’s “birders,” as they are called, are a multi-generational group with diverse vocational backgrounds.
As boaters, many of us have become accidental birders. If you watched a pterodactyl-like bird with a bright orange inflatable throat pouch soar above your Florida anchorage and wondered what it was ... you may be a birder. If you were serenaded by rooster vocals in a marina parking lot and wondered if each variation has a different purpose (they do) ... you may be a birder. If you found yourself gleeful at the sight of a flock of pelicans in formation across the horizon ... you may be a birder. If a feathered friend took refuge on your vessel while you were far from shore, and you found yourself wondering about the origin and destination of this wayward fowl ... you may be a birder.
When your lifestyle involves spending time on the water, you will never stop seeing birds. Boaters are natural birdwatchers. Observing and identifying various bird species is an enjoyable and relaxing activity while underway or at port. Besides, boat supplies already include basic bird watching gear, such as binoculars or a camera.
Resources to help identify or share your bird sightings are easy to find and use. Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is a popular online platform and app. It allows users to record and submit bird observations, create checklists, and explore bird sightings from other birders in real-time. Also from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin Bird ID is a free app that identifies nearby bird species based on sounds as well as your location, date and a brief description or photo of the bird. It is an excellent tool for beginners. Imagine sitting in an anchorage or at a marina and noticing a cacophony of bird calls. Simply open the Merlin Bird ID app, and it will “listen” and identify all the birds singing around you.
The Audubon Bird Guide app offers a comprehensive field guide with detailed information on bird species, photos, bird calls and maps. This guide also helps you learn to recognize the shapes and silhouettes of birds in flight. Another popular bird identification app, iBird, offers extensive information on North American bird species. It includes photos, sounds, range maps and advanced search features to help identify birds more effectively. Websites such as AllAboutBirds.org, Audubon.org, and BirdWatching.com provide valuable resources, articles and forums to make birdwatching easy to enjoy.
Birdwatching is particularly eventful when cruising along the southern Atlantic shore. This coastal ecosystem of marshes, estuaries, beaches and barrier islands is home to numerous migratory birds, shorebirds, wading birds, seabirds and raptors throughout the year. Boating Florida’s waterways allows you to spot wading birds such as herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills, and even the elusive snail kite, which breeds in South America and the Caribbean but has been known to migrate to Florida in the winter months. Florida’s protected spaces such as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Everglades National Park are prime bird-watching areas. While its accessible to boats, use care when navigating shallow and tidal waterways.
A popular stop for many boaters and birders is Cumberland Island, GA, which is a designated National Seashore that offers tranquil birdwatching. You can spot a wide range of birds, including painted buntings, ospreys and shorebirds amid the island’s diverse habitats.
Jekyll Island, another barrier island along the Georgia coast, is a haven for birdwatchers. You can explore the coastal marshes and creeks by boat to observe a wide range of shorebirds, seabirds and wading birds. Keep an eye out for pelicans, wood storks and plovers.
In South Carolina, the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise. This protected area encompasses barrier islands, salt marshes and tidal creeks. Boaters can a ccess remote habitats including nesting sites for pelicans and other seabirds.
North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore is an excellent destination. As you venture around barrier islands and estuaries, you will encounter shorebirds, terns and migratory songbirds. The Great Dismal Swamp, in Virginia and North Carolina, is anything but dismal when it comes to birdwatching.
Bald eagles, warblers, woodpeckers and waterfowl of all kinds will escort you along this waterway.
Boaters have a unique vantage point for sighting some of the rarer bird species such as the swallow-tailed kite and northern gannet. The swallow-tailed kite is a graceful bird of prey with striking black and white plumage and a deeply forked tail. Watch them soar and glide over wetlands and coastal areas.
The northern gannet is a large seabird with a white body, black wingtips and a yellowish head that’s known for spectacular diving behavior when hunting for fish in the open ocean. Unlike their land-based contemporaries, boaters who birdwatch along the south Atlantic coastline may encounter a black-capped petrel, which was once thought to be extinct but was rediscovered in 1963. This elusive bird’s breeding grounds are in the Caribbean islands, but most of their life is spent at sea with a range that includes the southern Atlantic coastline.
Sighting common or rare birds can be rewarding, and it can also help support citizen science initiatives. Records of sightings help researchers track populations, migration patterns and distributions. The National Audubon Society conducts several citizen science projects such as the Coastal Bird Survey project and an annual Christmas Bird Count. The Coastal Bird Survey enlists the efforts of birdwatchers who report activity along coastal feeding and nesting areas. The annual Christmas Bird Count is a single-day bird census. Volunteers count bird sightings in an assigned area, providing valuable data for researchers.
Southeastern Avian Research (SEAR) is a regional citizen science project that focuses on monitoring bird mortality along the southeastern U.S. coast. Participants can report sightings of dead or injured birds, which helps researchers understand potential threats and conservation issues. NestWatch is a citizen science program of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology that invites participants to monitor and report nesting-bird activities. Birders can observe nests and contribute to the understanding of breeding success and nesting habits.
Birdwatching and boating on the southern Atlantic shore offers a unique and rewarding way to connect with nature. Observing myriad of avian life in this ecologically significant region promotes mindfulness of the need to preserve and protect our environment. It has been said that birdwatching is like seeking treasure, hunting without harm and collecting without cluttering your living space. Perhaps this is part of what makes boaters prime for becoming accidental birders.