When Counting is Difficult

A fulmar prion glides swiftly over the swell of the Southern Ocean.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY)
A fulmar prion glides swiftly over the swell of the Southern Ocean. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY)

During the Heard Island Expedition, including the nearly three weeks at sea on the Southern Ocean, I made a few observations for a citizen science project: eBird. It’s a pretty simple system: identify and count all the birds you see in a small area and/or time period, then submit your list to a centralized database. That database is used for research, and keeps track of your life/year/county lists. With so few observations in the southern Indian Ocean in March and April (and no penguins on my life list before the expedition), I figured I would make a few counts.

On its face, identifying and counting birds is straightforward. Get a good look, maybe a photograph, and count (or estimate) the number present of that species.

It gets more difficult when you go outside your usual spot, particularly when the biome is much different. Although I have some familiarity with the Sibley Guide for North American birds, I’ve never payed very close attention to the seabird section, and have never birded at sea before. All the birds I expected to see on this expedition would be life birds, and that changes things a bit. I would have to observe very closely, and photograph where I could.

Before the expedition, I read up on the birds I would likely find on the island. In addition to four species of penguins, there were three species of albatross (wandering, black-browed, and light-mantled sooty) and two species of prions (Antarctic and fulmar). Albatrosses are large and the species near Heard are readily distinguished. Prions, however, can be quite difficult even with good observations. They’re not quite to the level of the Empidonax flycatchers, but close.

At sea, we usually had prions flying near the ship. I took pictures, knowing that I might be able to get help with ID if I needed it—and of course I needed it.

That’s where the problem started: I had a count where I had observed 40 prions flying around the ship, which I identified only to genus level. From my reading on Heard Island, I knew that breeding populations for prions on Heard Island were generally larger Antarctic prions than fulmar prions, with an estimate of a 10:1 margin. I had four clear pictures of individual birds, which my helpful eBird reviewer was able to get to an expert for further identification. All four were fulmar prions.

With 40 birds identified to genus level, and four photos of random birds identified to species level as a species expected to be a minor proportion, how many of the original 40 birds can I reasonably assign as fulmar prions?

I have an answer to this question, which I will post next week.