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Wings Over the Waves: Tuna Birds and More

Tune in to the flight of pelagic seabirds to find big fish in spring.

Follow the birds is good advice on the high seas. That is, unless the birds happen to be Arctic terns. Try chasing a flock of these generic-looking white birds on their northbound migration in May...their circumpolar migration. Best bring extra fuel, and dress in layers.

Migratory birds are always fascinating to encounter offshore, but not all are trustworthy indicators of fishing action. If, like most anglers, you can't tell an Arctic tern from a royal tern, remember this: Bird behavior is more important than identity. If the birds are obviously feeding, not simply jetting across the horizon, that's your cue to investigate.

On the other hand, the magnificent frigatebird is a gimme on both counts. You don't need a field guide or binoculars to pick out this one. With glossy black feathers, 7-foot wingspan and malevolently hooked bill, about the only thing the frigate might be confused with is a stealth fighter.

The comparison is apt on another level, as the frigate performs all its warlike feeding activity from the air, rarely touching ground or water (the former, for roosting or nesting; the latter, by rare miscalculation).

Most birds are specialized, such as a tern's habit of dipping, or the gannet's incredible submarining

dive. The frigate's skeleton and wingshape are uniquely suited for multiple flight patterns. Of special interest to anglers is the frigate's habit of swooping to take flyingfish and other prey chased to the surface by dolphin, billfish or other predators.

“When they are high and circling, they are in the ‘looking for fish' mode, like we are,” said Capt. Randy Rode. “The real tipoff is when they fold their wings up and literally drop out of the sky, flaring up at the last minute to dip their bill and pick up a baitfish.”

With 37 years experience as a captain in Marathon, and now three in the Dominican Republic, Rode knows well the merits of division of labor: Let the birds find the fish, then you catch them. One March day sticks out in memory:

“The wind was hard out of the east, and the big dolphin were pouring through the Keys. We caught a dozen, all 30 to 40 pounds, every one under a frigatebird. We were dragging baits at 15 knots to get in front of the frigates. It was crazy; the big dorados were pushing hard to the west, flushing up flyingfish, and the frigates were right on top of things.”

If circumstances render the spot-and-dive strategy ineffective, frigates have a backup plan: thievery. Nature granted them a remarkable ability to twist and turn in pursuit of other birds, forcing their targets to drop or disgorge prey.

Captain Ed Dwyer, a pioneer of the yellowfin tuna sportfishery off Florida's east coast, says the real jackpot is finding a frigate in combination with sooty terns and perhaps gulls.

“The frigate spells yellowfin tuna; they're not usually on the skipjacks,” he said, referring to the diminutive, striped member of the tuna clan.

The sooty tern is well-adjusted to chasing baitfish 80 to 120 miles off Cape Canaveral, where Dwyer often fishes. As terns go, sooties are fairly easy to recognize: Black back, white belly, black face mask (only the bridled tern is similar, but with white forehead patch extending behind eye). For a few months in the spring, sooty terns nest on remote island beaches in The Bahamas and, famously, Bush Key in the Dry Tortugas. After that, it's basically full-time flight. Sooty terns can range for hundreds of miles over the open sea, feeding day or night. As you might expect, finding these small, fast-flying birds isn't easy.

That's where radar comes in handy. Dwyer's 62-foot Ticket is equipped with a 25 kW Furuno NavNet 3D radar.

“The key is to take the sea clutter and rain clutter completely off,” he said. “Also, I have two screens—I can look at a 3-mile range on one, and say 6 miles on the other, adjusting either

one. It's like having two radars.”

Once he makes eye contact with a flock, Dwyer assesses their behavior.

“The reaction of the birds is big for me,” he said. “Skipjacks move fast, right along the surface, and the birds are more on a straight-line pattern. Now, birds swirling or stationary are likely on yellowfins—

and same for dolphin and billfish.”

In the Keys dolphin fishery, where frigates are often solo operators, Capt. Rode emphasized the importance of positioning the boat “several hundred yards ahead of the bird's direction of travel.” Similarly, Dwyer stressed approaching the tern-and-frigate combo from the outside edge, as tunas often sound when a boat passes too close. Long lines, natural baits and fluorocarbon leaders won't make up for careless helmsman. “Never blow right through the middle,” he said.

One class of bird I personally find marvelous, if less trustworthy than a frigate or sooty tern, is the shearwater.

On a breezy day, you might spot a chunky bird banking over wave crests. Dark back, light belly, here now, gone soon after. That was a shearwater. What kind? I'd have to ask an expert.

Michael Brothers is director of the Volusia County Marine Science Center; also an avid open-seas ornithologist and occasional host of pelagic bird-watching trips. Five species of shearwater pass near Florida, some on epic migrations, he explained.

“The great shearwater makes a phenomenal journey,” said Brothers. “Draw a line east of the tip of South America, and find the Tristan da Cunha islands. On those islands nest most of the world's population of great shearwaters. They make an incredible journey, bouncing along the coast of South America, skirting

out around the Caribbean, wheeling in around Cape Canaveral. Some move up past the Carolinas, ending up in the Bay of Funde, then out to the Grand Banks, where they feed all summer. Then, they come down the center of the Atlantic, skirting the coast of Europe, to the coast of Africa, all the way down to South America, where they hang an east and find their way back to those islands.”

The Manx shearwater nests in the North Atlantic, the Cory's in North Africa. All are “plunging” birds which dive to chase prey. If frequent local dieoffs from starvation are any indication (hundreds have been delivered to the Volusia bird hospital Brothers oversees), some of the shearwaters we see off Florida in early summer are winging their way, desperately, toward richer feeding grounds.

“We see just a microcosm of it: this bird from Antarctica, this one from Africa, this from the Arctic, and then there's the Audubon shearwater, which just came off The Bahamas,” said Brothers. “There are wonderful

things to discover out there. It's kind of the final frontier of understanding the bird life of Florida.” - FS

Conserving Our Eyes in the Sky

Ducks have Ducks Unlimited. Then there's Quail Forever, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Eagles, hawks, cranes, they get everyone's attention.

The pelagic seabirds of the world are rarely viewed by anyone besides fishermen and other mariners.

Seabird eggs—especially those of terns—have been exploited among island communities for hundreds of years.

“Some Caribbean cultures consider them a delicacy and residents near colonies continue this practice,” says Will Mackin, PhD and visiting scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. Mackin is co-author of the West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas.

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) recently published “Sudden Death on the High Seas,” describing longline fishing as a “global catastrophe for seabirds.” Thousands of albatrosses and petrels in the Pacific Ocean die each year after ingesting hooks deployed by commercial longline boats. The report spotlighted a possible solution developed by the Japanese fleet. “Tori” lines—strings of colorful streamers—run from a stern-mounted pole to a buoy at the far end of the working zone. The streamers scare away the birds.

Direct threats to birds of Florida? “The biggest problem here is, they like what people like: Clean beaches,” said ABC Seabird Program Director Jessica Hardesty Norris. “With the combination of nesting in areas where people build hotels and resorts, compounded by introduced predators, most seabirds in general are in more stark decline than other groups of birds in recent years.”

The black-capped petrel, for instance, is listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Soaring up and wheeling down with wings cocked back, this dynamic flyer is occasionally spotted over the Gulf Stream off Florida in April and May, said Michael Brothers of the Volusia Marine Science Center. “They nest only on high mountain cliffs of Hispaniola, where they return at night, making weird, spooky sounds—their Spanish name, diablotin, means little devil.” Habitat loss, illegal hunting and predation have the diablotin teetering on the edge of extinction. One way to help, with all seabirds: Minimizing obstacles to migration.

“These are birds accustomed to looking at the reflection of moonlight on the water,” said Hardesty. “We've had shearwaters and petrels falling out after colliding with streetlights. And then we have oil platforms, with lights up and down, all around.” One solution, says Hardesty, is downward-shielded lights, such as those identified by the International Dark-Sky Association (

For more on seabird conservation, visit and

First Published Florida Sportsman Apr. 2011

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