Saturday, August 15, 2015

Great Lakes Pelagic Birding: A "How To" Guide

Subadult Pomarine Jaeger with Herring Gull - from the zodiac offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, Ontario

Occasionally I get a request for some advice on how to run a "Great Lakes Pelagic" boat adventure. For a few years now my Dad and I have rocked the waters of Lake Ontario in our little inflatable zodiac; having an absolute blast in the process. Not only that, we've scored some awesome bird sightings and encounters. In the past I have been rather guarded about my knowledge on how to maximize numbers and/or encounters; people hardly pay attention anyways when you try and detail the intricacies of bread-tossing... Yet now I say "screw it!" and have decided to put my thoughts into words here. If you have any ideas, experience or questions on the issue; please leave a comment below.

Black Tern - from the zodiac, far offshore Grimsby, Ontario

Great Lakes Pelagic Birding: A "How To" Guide

There  are two styles of zodiac-birding we've employed; feeding frenzy and stealth mode. Generally speaking, feeding frenzy involves throwing bread, creating a feeding group of gulls, and waiting for the goodies to find you. Stealth mode involves journeys out into the distant deep waters on a hope and a prayer that you encounter a restful individual. I'll detail both:

Feeding Frenzy

What to do:   Start ON SHORE or NEAR SHORE. Throw bread. Attract gulls; preferably the naive local "parking lot" Ring-billed Gulls or the like. Make sure they know you're packin the good stuff before starting to move offshore. If you have a very healthy supply, you can move out quickly - just don't stop throwing. (I've been "full throttle" before, throwing tiny tiny pieces of bread, and convinced gulls to keep pace and feed)... It doesn't matter if you lose 80% of your gulls in the process, as soon as the others see gulls feeding around your boat - they will return and look for more handouts. The important part is the gulls seeing OTHER GULLS eating.

Once you have your gull supply established, you're free to puddle around (or just float); and let the rarities find you! I highly recommend that you do NOT go very far offshore, unless you're on shallow water around Lake Erie... 99% of birds are within 1-2-3km from shore. If the rarities are around, they'll find you. The important part is keeping your "feeding frenzy" looking active and fun... I will never know how to describe or detail this; but there is a FINE LINE between a fat, overfed gull that has had enough - and a hungry gull that isn't getting enough food and leaves out of boredom.

Ring-billed Gull. Actively feeding & showing an excited "hovering" flight" - from the zodiac offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton

Gulls want to feel like they can get rewarded for their efforts; mix up what you're throwing. Try tossing 10 tiny pieces, or a bunch of popcorn or whatever. The strong/bully gull can't eat them all at once, so even the smaller birds have a chance. Then throw out a large soggy piece of bread; it will fall apart and all the birds will freak out trying to get their bite of the chaos. Then throw out a very hard chunk of bread that the gulls can't swallow in 0.0001 seconds - they'll chase eachother around for quite a while, keeping the activity up while not depleting your bread supply (great bang for your buck). The key is mixing it up and keeping the birds flying around/excited. Other birds see this at great distance, and will come to check you out.

Common Tern. They don't recognize "bread" - just "feeding activity" - from the zodiac offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, ON

If you see a Phalarope, it will probably get chased by your gulls. Try and get a good look, but don't get your hopes up for it to stick around...

If you see small terns, they probably won't hang around long no matter what you do; unless you did actually bring fish, then there's a 1% chance one will get a fish before the Ring-billed Gulls do...

If you see a rare small gull, such as Sabine's, Kittiwake, Little etc - try throwing out hundreds of tiny tiny pieces of bread close to the boat. Sometimes they're willing to come quite close and grab at the little bits (so they don't have to fight with their bigger cousins).

Black-legged Kittiwake - from the zodiac just offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, ON

If you see a Jaeger, throw out a large handful (or more) of squishy bread. Make sure it is MORE than what you've been steadily throwing prior to the Jaeger's arrival. Unless it's the cutest of baby Long-tailed Jaegers, your friendly gulls are about to have the POOP scared out of them and may leave for good. Throwing out a large reward just prior to this may convince some of them to come back. I've had an entire feeding frenzy ruined by over-zealous Parasitic Jaegers....

In this situation, Parasitic Jaegers could care less. I don't think Parasitic Jaegers care about anything really. They'll fly in, chase someone half a mile away, then who knows what is next. I find them very hard to photograph in the zodiac because they're always moving at 95kph and never seem to stay anywhere long. 

Long-tailed Jaegers might actually join into your feeding frenzy, and the gulls may come to terms with their presence (if your first "jaeger response toss" is effective)... Once everyone settles down, keep doing what you're doing and you may be in for a real treat.

Pomarine Jaegers are less likely to join in than Long-tails, but don't get your hopes down. They may be looking for more action than the other species - I've had success throwing nearly solid chunks of bread out with Pom's present... They fight with the Herring Gulls over the pieces they can't swallow... Eventually they get bored when they aren't getting a meal, but it could increase your viewing time...

Long-tailed Jaeger that spent 45 minutes in close proximity to the zodiac. Offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, ON

Final thoughts:

- Use bread... Unless you can supply your entire trip with fish parts (that FLOAT), leave the stinky stuff behind.
- You may not need to travel (save gas) - just float!
- If you are travelling, follow debris on the water or aim at feeding groups of birds
- There is nothing more exciting to a gull, than something else another gull as dropped. I've thrown out an apple core (among the bread) and watched 50 different gulls pick it up briefly before dropping it again.
- Onshore wind helps bring in the birds
- No wind could be challenging, as the birds can get lazy.
- This is the best way to get high numbers of birds.
- Don't shy away from existing feeding frenzies. I've parked 500m away from cormorants and poached the gulls...
- You'll have a hard time with "other" birds - unless it's a feeding frenzy species, others will give you a wider berth.
- I once "stopped" feeding during a frenzy when I had attracted the attention of a tame Sabine's Gull. Eventually all the other birds left and I enjoyed the bird from 5-10 feet away for nearly two hours. You never know what will work out there! These are just suggestions...

 The Sabine's Gull I just mentioned- from the zodiac offshore Grimsby, Ontario

Stealth Mode:

I've only ever tried this method on SUPER CALM water. It may not work otherwise...

The alternative method to finding pelagics. Go WAY out onto the lake and cross your fingers that you find something in the abyss. That's it.

No speck on the horizon should be ignored. Half the time (on Lake Ontario) you can hardly see a bird, so any hint of a gull is worth investigating. I've encountered some really exciting things this way (non-waterbirds, insects, large rafts of puddle ducks, raptors, swans, odd garbage etc), but it can be remarkably boring as well. Yet if you start finding gulls, your chances at Phalaropes, Jaegers etc will increase too.

Red-necked Phalarope - from the zodiac, offshore Grimsby, Ontario

What to do if you encounter a Jaeger, rare gull, phalarope, well, anything really... Approach very slowly. Turn off the motor in advance and float. My Dad is the master at this. He shuts off the motor several hundred meters away and we stay low... I think he's crazy because we're remarkably far away, but within 10 minutes our momentum as brought us within 10ft of the subject bird and i'm getting great images.

Some birds will not be tame (esp ducks, loons) and you have no hope regardless, but being as stealthy as possible will increase your chances. If you need to adjust course with a paddle, make sure you use the side of the boat that the birds can't see. If you need to pee - hold it. We once knocked three Common Tern's off of a log (with the side of the boat) we approached so slowly... They were THAT comfortable with our presence.

Parasitic Jaeger - from the zodiac, offshore Grimsby, Ontario

Final thoughts:

- If you find a line of "junk" floating on the water. Leaves, pollen, bugs, garbage etc - FOLLOW IT. This happens quite often on Lake Ontario and you'll hopefully find small gulls and phalaropes taking advantage.
- Junk lines are easy to spot in light wind - they do not show ripples when everywhere else does
- If you're out in the abyss, it is much harder to get a feeding frenzy going. It's not impossible, but there is a high chance you'll waste your bait trying to convince the birds to eat.
- remember that your odds of finding goodies are much lower than when chumming, but you could also find non-chumming species

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, ON

Beyond that, have fun - wear sunscreen, deal with your seasickness in advance (if required), and DON'T GO OUT if the weather has the potential to be treacherous. Check the MARINE FORECASTS - because they understand how the lake is going to change (sometimes rapidly) in response to the weather. The patterns exhibited along the shoreline are unlike normal weather.... It can be calm as glass one minute, and rolling 15 minutes later. Oh, and if you're planning a trip; don't shy away from inviting me ;) - my rates are very reasonable!

Long-tailed Jaeger harassing a Great Black-backed Gull - from the zodiac, just offshore Van Wagner's Beach, Hamilton, ON


  1. Great post, Brandon! It's all about maintaining an equitable feeding frenzy. ;).

  2. Sound like a great adventure! Nice post

  3. Some stunning images the resting Jaeger, Phalarope and Sabine's are beautiful ...
    If there's room on board I would love to join you, just need to fly from the U.K first ...