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The avian pleasures of voyaging

Oct 25, 2013
Ellen Leonard makes friends with a noddy on an Atlantic crossing from Ascension to Barbados.

Ellen Leonard makes friends with a noddy on an Atlantic crossing from Ascension to Barbados.

Seth Leonard photos

To the editor: Voyaging under sail has many pleasures, but a major reward is experiencing the beauty of the natural world. Every voyager is familiar with dolphins playing in the bow wave, but perhaps an overlooked experience is the constant company of birds. One of my bird books describes watching seabirds as an “acquired taste” because their distance from the coast makes them inaccessible. But offshore voyagers are blessed with the ability to watch them closely and easily.

Throughout our global circumnavigation aboard Heretic, our 38-foot cutter-rigged sloop, my husband Seth and I watched and identified birds, pelagic and otherwise. Offshore in the tropical latitudes lived black frigates with forked tails, noddies, petrels, boobies, and tropic or “bosun” birds. These white creatures with their streaming tails uttered their raucous caws on all our trade wind passages: red-billed tropicbirds in the Caribbean and around the Galápagos, red-tailed in the central Pacific and across the Indian Ocean, and white-tailed from the South Atlantic to the Caribbean and a little north where they are also called Bermuda Longtails. Hiking on the volcanic island of Reunion east of Madagascar, we even spotted a pair of red-tailed tropicbirds nesting in a crevice of an immense caldera wall.

A noddy rides along on Heretic’s radar dome.

We noticed other nesting pelagic birds — masked boobies on St. Helena, frigates and brown boobies on Ascension Island — but mostly we viewed them at sea. A juvenile red-footed booby spent an entire night on our lifelines as we charged to windward from Panama to the Galápagos Islands. En route from Vanuatu to Cairns, Australia, a mature one made the end of our boom his perch, poking his pale blue bill into the wind. Noddies, sooty-colored terns, were the least fearful: one landed on our stern-mounted solar panel; a juvenile perched on our mainsheet and I was able to get within a foot of him; another adult stood on our radar dome and refused to move unless pushed with a wooden spoon. The stubborn bird kept returning even then, but cleaning off his guano didn’t seem too big a hardship for the opportunity to come so close to a wild creature.

Although storm petrels skimmed the waves in all latitudes, temperate waters introduced us to different birds. We could easily have confused the gannets for their tropical booby cousins. The majestic wingspan of an albatross, however, was new and captivating. Royal albatrosses circled us as we left New Zealand; that reverenced creature the wandering albatross sailed overhead off South Africa; and black-browed mollymawks appeared unconcerned by the Force 11 storm we braved rounding Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa.

Thrice we spotted birds that seemed out of place: floating in a calm 200 miles from Darwin, Australia, a plover — a shore bird — landed on our solar panel; during our Atlantic crossing from Ascension Island to Barbados, we saw a long-tailed skua migrating; and sailing to Cocos (Keeling), a tropical atoll 2,000 nm west of Australia, a pintado petrel with white markings on its black wings, settled on the waves. Seabirds of the World by Peter Harrison, our essential guidebook, told us that they are rarely seen that far north.

A white-tailed tropicbird swoops in for a visit while en route from Antigua to Bermuda.

Our voyage also allowed us to see different shore birds around the world. Royal spoonbills clacked their bills in the tropical mangrove swamps of northern Queensland, and overhead soared fish eagles and white and chestnut-brown Brahminy kites. White terns dove at our heads to protect their nests on Cocos (Keeling) and St. Helena islands. We rowed past fishing pelicans in Antigua’s English Harbour, and huge flocks of flamingos waded on Great Inagua in the Bahamas. In higher latitudes, cormorants and then penguins became more common. African penguins dove next to Heretic off Cape Town. In New Zealand, a blue penguin swam beside us in the Bay of Islands, and farther south on the Otago Peninsula, the endangered yellow-eyed penguin nested.

We found endemic birds in many of our ports of call. The Galápagos Islands are of course renowned for their wildlife: we had trouble distinguishing between finches, but the blue-footed boobies and Galápagos penguins were easy to identify. Australia was a kaleidoscope of rainbow lorikeets, parrots, bee-eaters, kookaburras, and cockatoos. New Zealand’s Fiordland hosted the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea, which would rip gaskets out of car windows in trailhead parking lots. In a small wetland game park, Seth and I watched the African jacana walk on lily pads, and on remote St. Helena Island, an endemic wirebird, one of only 500 left, pecked his way across our trail.

Seth and I hadn’t been birders by any definition before we set off aboard Heretic, so we had never noticed the birds all around us at home in Maine. As we neared Bar Harbor and completion of our voyage, we marveled at the many northern fulmars ghosting out of the fog, large birds in the same order as albatrosses. Great shearwaters ran across the swell to take flight. We decided to explore the Gulf of Maine again soon, specifically to look for birds. We sold Heretic and went a year and half without a boat. Then we bought a 34-foot ketch named Nahma. Aboard Nahma we found time for a short cruise of the Gulf of Maine. As the sun crested the horizon, we raised Matinicus Rock. Shearwaters and gulls abounded. We spotted several auks, the northern answer to a penguin: razorbills with black beaks, and then puffin after puffin with their thick red and orange bills. Neither of us had ever seen one before. It was the perfect welcome back to the sea.

—Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband Seth circumnavigated aboard their 38-foot sloop Heretic. She currently lives in Concord, N.H.

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