We’ve all seen birds like seagulls and pelicans combing the ocean’s shores for food and nesting sites, but what about in the middle of the ocean? The ocean offers no land, pier, or water vessel to stop and rest on. It seems impossible, but it’s true! There really are birds in the middle of the ocean.
But why are there birds in the middle of the ocean? And how do they survive? Could a bird travel across the Atlantic or Pacific ocean? How long would it take? All fascinating questions. Let’s dig in.
Like many a “cruiser” will attest to, there are birds out in the middle of the ocean. Some live out there, and some are just passing through.
Pelagic Seabirds Call the Ocean “Home”
While there are no species of bird that live out in the ocean year-round, several species spend most of their time out there. They are pelagic seabirds.
According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Pelagic birds are seabirds that spend most of their time (except when they are nesting) on the ocean away from land.”
When these seabirds are not nesting, they’re flying over the open water in search of food. That’s precisely what land-loving birds do – nest, fly, and eat.
Two famous examples of pelagic seabirds include the Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus) and Black-capped Petrel (Pterodroma hasitata).
Sooty Terns are abundant in the tropical waters around the world. According to Audubon.org, this bird “wanders widely, often following warm-water currents.” In true seabird fashion, they avoid shallow waters and areas near the mainland coast. When it’s nesting time, they visit small islands and beaches to mate. Nesting takes place on Hawaii and Dry Tortugas, an island outside the Florida Keys.
The Black-capped Petrel spends its time over the Caribbean Sea in small flocks. They join other seabirds foraging or resting on the water. This bird nests in and around the Dominican Republic and Cuba when not out to sea.
Migrating Birds over the Ocean
Most but not all birds migrate. Some travel a few hundred miles; others are transcontinental, moving from one end of the continent to the other. Then there’s the long haulers – birds that migrate from one continent to another!
Flying across one or more oceans is unavoidable for world-traveling migrators. These are the birds seen out in the middle of the sea. These flights can take days or weeks while most of the time over open ocean water.
Two long-distance over ocean migrators are the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)and Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea).
Bar-tailed Godwits migrate an impressive distance – from Alaska to New Zealand. More amazing is the record was recently broken by a male Bar-tailed Godwit that flew this 12,000 km trek non-stop across the Pacific Ocean. It took 11 days to reach its destination.
Arctic Terns make the most extended migration trip clocking in at 40,000 km as it travels from pole to pole (the Arctic to the Antarctic). This bird’s migration takes it over every ocean and takes about 40 days. It’s worth noting some of these species do travel overland, but the majority take the open water route.
Survival Out Over the Ocean
Both pelagic and migrating birds survive out on the ocean, consuming various seafood along the water’s surface, including fish, tuna, herring, squid, plankton, crabs, jellyfish, flying fish, and some even consume plankton. They do most feeding early morning and late evening, when some of their prey is closer to the surface.
The Black-capped Petrel cleverly forages near submarine ridges (extinct underwater volcanoes) where turbulence often brings food nearer the surface.
In the case of migrating birds, it’s tradition to prepare for the journey by consuming high fat and protein food to build a store of energy they’ll be releasing while they fly over the ocean.
Do Seabirds Get 40 Winks?
What about sleeping? Research has yet to prove this. In a 2016 study published in Nature Communications, scientists compiled evidence showing the Great Frigatebird (a pelagic seabird) does sleep while flying, so it’s not a leap to think other pelagic seabirds also rest while out to sea. We can only assume they sleep or don’t sleep, in which case they must be exhausted birds.
It’s hard to imagine a bird that lives most of its life over the ocean just flying and eating. All things are relative, and for these birds, it’s what they do, just like humans.
If you think about it, there are some advantages. First of all, the only “predator” they have to deal with is weather (i.e., hurricanes and tropical storms). Aside from that, they go about their business foraging until mother nature calls to mate and raise their young.
Next time you’re cruising the Caribbean or the Mediterranean Sea and catch a glimpse of birds soaring over the water, you can marvel at the wonder mother nature has given us. Even out to sea.
Tammy is the founder of OnTheFeeder.com and a backyard birding expert. When she’s not teaching how to attract Cardinals to your yard, she’s exploring and learning all the other wonders that mother nature offers.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology