Madeira: photographing seabirds at sea

At the best of times wildlife photography can be a challenge but trying to get good images of fast moving seabirds from a small boat in a decent swell is certainly an experience.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years watching seabirds – albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, prions and the like – and whales and dolphins from large, fairly stable ships. Trips to the Arctic and the Antarctic have given me experience of getting pictures in a variety of sea and weather conditions. I have recently returned from Madeira where I spent three days on dedicated pelagic seabird trips in a small rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB). Here, the photographic challenges are quite different to the large ship expeditions.

After a year’s delay due to COVID travel restrictions I was booked on the Madeira Wind Birds “Zino’s Petrel Pelagic Expedition” trips out of Machico, on the east coast of Madeira, on 26th, 27th & 28th June 2022. These “character building” trips take up to 10 passengers in their 11 metre RIB – ‘Oceanodroma’ – specifically targeting scarce seabirds and centred around finding the enigmatic and incredibly rare Zino’s Petrel Pterodroma madeira, which breeds only on the highest peaks of Madeira. Leaving the port of Machico on Madeira’s east coast at 3pm the Wind Birds team of Catarina and Hugo escorted the team to a different location each day, roughly 40km either north or south of the island, returning between 10 and 10.30pm.

WindBirds Oceanodroma RIB about to leave port for the first of the three “Zino’s Petrel Pelagic Expedition” trips. Photo © Catriona Mackie.

The pair of 250 HP Yamaha outboard engines allow the RIB to get to the destination location at speed but the journey is very wet when travelling (even for a short distance) against the 1.5m swell, and very lumpy. So as well as wearing suitable waterproof clothing a dry bag for the camera is essential, with plenty of padding to protect the equipment when the boat slams down on the other side of every large wave.

Sunday 26th June – between Madeira and Porto Santo

The first afternoon out we headed north to an area north of Madeira and southwest of Porto Santo. With a northerly wind the journey out was a wet one. Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis followed the boat in a manner that suggested that they knew food was going to be offered. It wasn’t long before Cory’s Shearwaters Calonectris borealis skimmed past the boat and further out we were joined by Bulwer’s Petrels Bulweria bulwerii. These species were ever-present at all of the chumming spots across the three days.

Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris borealis. 26 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 400, -2/3 EV.

Once at the chosen location a floating barrel of ‘chum’ – a mixture of matured stinking fish remains and fish oil – is set loose to create a pungent slick that will attract seabirds. It is then safe to get the camera out of the dry bag. The boat is allowed to drift past the barrel before the shout of “going up!” and the RIB is moved back into position above the barrel and we drift slowly past again. The team have enough putrid chum to refill the barrel for several hours of seabird watching.

Bulwer’s Petrel Bulweria bulwerii. 26 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 400mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 640, -1/3 EV.

With a persistent swell around 1.3-1.5m on all three days Oceanodroma moves up and down a lot as it drifts with the waves. Drifting close to the chum slick the birds come close to but move fast and often erratically as they tower into the sky then become lost behind waves before looping up again. With this challenge the Animal Eye Autofocus of the Canon R5 provided a definite advantage over older Canon SLR models. With a bird against the sky the autofocus locked on almost instantaneously and continued to hold focus well until the bird was lost behind a wave. The Wind Birds guidance suggests a 300mm lens with a converter to be ideal. Using the versatile Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens I found I was working at the 500mm limit most of the time with the full-frame sensor camera. Fortunately we were blessed with very good light and I found shooting at 1/2500s or 1/3200s with the aperture wide open at f7.1 and Auto ISO to be very effective.

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus. 26 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 800, -2/3 EV.

There was plenty of time to practice shooting the common Cory’s Shearwaters and Bulwer’s Petrels and occasional Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus (as well as the ever-present Yellow-legged Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus and Common Tern Sterna hirundo) as we waited for one of the rarer tubenoses to appear. A few Atlantic Spotted Dolphins Stenella frontalis appeared all too briefly (I didn’t see them at all!) and a Portuguese Man o’ War Physalia physalis drifted past.

Portuguese Man o’ War Physalia physalis. 26 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 640, -2/3 EV.

Just after 8pm there was a shout of “Pterodroma!” as a Zino’s Petrel appeared over the chum bucket and erratically towered and sheared east into the distance. With no time to think about settings the camera was pointed in the direction of the bird, the autofocus locked on instantly and 30 shots fired in the short time we had with this bird. The very first image taken is shown below. This species is globally endangered with maybe a breeding population of only 160 adult birds (BirdLife International). It is very similar to the Desertas Petrel and Cape Verde Petrels but is a slighter and more delicate bird with a smaller, more slender bill – features which show well in the photograph.

Zino’s Petrel Pterodroma madeira. 26 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 451mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 640, -2/3 EV.

With the camera safely stowed away again in the dry bag the return to Machico as light started to fall was lumpy and wet. The passage south between Ilhéu da Cevada and Ilhéu do Farol at the tip of the Ponta de São Lourenço was particularly turbulent and it was a relief to enter the calm waters on the south side.

Monday 27th June – heading south

The second afternoon Oceanodroma headed south from Machico, reaching a point roughly 40km SSE of Funchal. Going with the swell the journey out was fairly dry, though when we were chumming the short rides back “up” were very wet, undulating and lumpy. This location was well within sight of the island of Bugio, the southernmost of the Desertas Islands archipelago. This island is the only nesting location of Zino’s congener the Desertas Petrel Pterodroma deserta. Although not having the magical lure of Zino’s Petrel this species is also incredibly rare with a population of maybe less than 1000 individuals (BirdLife International). Its similarity to its sister species the Cape Verde Petrel Pterodroma feae – which as its name suggests breeds on Cape Verde – render it indistinguishable in the field so sightings should probably go down under the overarching ‘Fea’s Petrel’ label. Being within a few miles of the breeding grounds of deserta it is probably not stretching it too far to suggest that at least the majority of ‘Fea’s Petrels’ around southeast Madeira in the summer are likely to be Desertas Petrels (which is the assumption I’ll be making in this article).

On this afternoon’s expedition we were fortunate to get good views of both Zino’s and Desertas Petrels close to the boat alongside maybe 1000+ Bulwer’s Petrels (they were ever present around the chum in numbers but impossible to count!) and many Cory’s Shearwaters. One Desertas Petrel came particularly close and its difference to the previous day’s Zino’s Petrel was quite striking. It was a much larger and more stocky bird with relatively shorter wings, a much more thick-set head and neck and a much heavier bill. The flight was more purposeful and less erratic than the smaller Zino’s.

Desertas Petrel Pterodroma deserta. 27 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 451mm. 1/3200s @ f7.1, ISO 400, -1/3 EV.
Zino’s Petrel Pterodroma madeira. 27 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 451mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 500, -2/3 EV.

This second trip also gave us our first sighting of a storm-petrel. This sparrow-sized European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus didn’t linger long at the chum slick and was incredibly active and keeping low over the water making photography very difficult. While the Animal Eye Autofocus works really well with a bird against the plain sky it is (not surprisingly) far more of a challenge to lock on to an erratic bird against a moving sea, particularly when you are rolling with the swell too. As a result I managed only a few photographs but a couple were passable.

European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus. 27 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/3200s @ f7.1, ISO 2500, -1/3 EV.

We encountered a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins which performed well around the boat. These were (unfortunately – I was hoping for more) the only cetaceans we saw.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin Stenella frontalis. 27 June 2022. 28 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 105mm. 1/3200s @ f7.1, ISO 1000, -1/3 EV.

The journey at speed back to Machico was largely in the dark and very lumpy and wet (indeed!) and proved to be enough for a couple of the group who opted out of the final pelagic.

Tuesday 28th June – south again

For the final afternoon we again headed south out of Machico to a similar area to the day before where we were hoping to find more storm-petrels – Wilson’s Oceanites oceanicus, White-faced Pelagodroma marina and Madeiran Hydrobates castro being the more likely targets.

More Desertas Petrels were seen as well as the expected Cory’s Shearwaters and Bulwer’s Petrels. A Madeiran Storm-petrel was picked out flying over the chum but it stayed all too briefly. My views of it were poor and I was not able to get any photos. A Wilson’s Petrel was more obliging, spending a full hour and a half at the chum slick and allowing Catarina to manoeuvre the RIB close enough for everyone to get really good views of this scruffy adult bird in heavy wing moult.

Wilson’s Storm-petrel Oceanites oceanicus. 28 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/2500s @ f7.1, ISO 800, -1/3 EV.

Just as we (at least I) thought that we would not get a better view of Madeiran Storm-petrel another bird appeared at the chum a few minutes before 8pm and this time stayed far longer allowing everyone to get great views. The taxonomy of the Madeiran/Band-rumped Storm-petrels is complex and our understanding is still evolving. It is likely that what has been known as Madeiran Storm-petrel and more recently generically Band-rumped Storm-petrel is actually a complex of four cryptic species on the Atlantic islands with differing vocalisations and breeding cycles. The bird at the chum showed no signs of wing moult which it consistent with it being the (expected) true Madeiran Storm-petrel which is a summer breeder on Madeira.

Madeiran Storm-petrel Hydrobates castro. 28 June 2022. Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 L IS USM Lens at 500mm. 1/3200s @ f7.1, ISO 1600, -1/3 EV.

Sadly we were unable to tempt a White-faced Storm-petrel in to the chum and that will have to wait for another day.

Tips for photographing seabirds from a small boat

With the benefit of three days at sea with Madeira Wind Birds here are my top tips for a successful photographic pelagic trip on a small boat

  • Invest in a good dry bag – expect yourself and everything in the boat with you to get very wet when not drifting along the chum line. And make sure that your camera is well padded in the bag as the ride can be very hard as well as wet.
  • Leave your expensive walking shoes and trainers behind. A pair of Crocs or similar sandals will be fine as your feet will get wet.
  • A waterproof sleeve covering the camera and lens is also extremely useful to prevent expensive equipment being splashed. (If you don’t have one consider the cheap option of buying a pair of child’s Territorial Army camouflage waterproof over-trousers from eBay or an army surplus store and cutting a leg off.)
  • Leave your tripod and monopod at home. They will be a menace to others on the boat and of no use.
  • There is not a lot of space between people/seats on the boat so plan on being agile, taking gear you can easily hand-hold in a confined space – an interchangeable lens camera with a compact telephoto (Canon EF 100-400mm II or RF 100-500mm are ideal) works very well and allows shorter focal lengths for closer birds and cetaceans. A 300mm f2.8 prime with a 1.4x converter would work but taking a 500mm f4 prime lens, for example, is not really practical and would be very heavy to end-hold for long periods and likely to severely annoy your shipmates unless you are right at the front (regarding which, see below).
  • A camera with a dedicated animal/bird autofocus mode (Canon RF, Olympus, at least) is a definite advantage and improves the number of ‘keepers’ considerably.
  • Because you are moving and the birds are moving a fast shutter speed is essential. I found using Manual mode with a shutter speed of 1/2500s or 1/3200s worked well and an aperture of f7.1. If such high shutter speeds are not practical with your camera I would still be inclined to try and keep the shutter speed at 1/800s or more. The excellent high ISO performance of the Canon R5 allowed me to not have to worry about the ISO setting.
  • If you have a camera which has a crop mode (like the Canon R5/R6) make sure you are using the full frame. The larger area you can see the more chance you have of keeping the bird in the viewfinder and maintaining the focus even if it does mean larger file sizes.
  • Turn autofocus and image stabilisation on. Check the autofocus settings – It is unlikely you will need to focus closer than 3m so setting the range (Canon RF 100-500mm) to ‘3m to infinity’ minimises hunting when you try and focus.
  • Consider (if you are using Canon RF) choosing to save files as the compressed RAW format ‘cRAW’ which keeps the file size small relative to full RAW whilst retaining (as near as anyone would be able to detect) all of the image information.
  • I typically under-exposed shots by 1/3 or 2/3 stop to prevent highlights (storm-petrels’ rumps, Cory’s Shearwaters’ underparts, etc.) from unrecoverably burning out.
  • Screw a UV clear glass filter into the end of your lens to keep salt water off the objective lens and take a lens cloth with you.
  • Set up default camera settings before you get on the boat. You can guarantee that if you don’t you’ll need to get your camera out in a hurry for that fleeting unexpected rarity and regret the decision.
  • An obvious one for any photographic trip – make sure you have plenty of batteries that are fully charged (I actually found one Canon LP-E6N battery enough for one afternoon session) and enough memory card space for shooting several thousand photos in one session.
  • With the wind from a northerly direction (as it was on all three days) it was a distinct advantage to sit on the port side of the boat. That was the side nearest to the chum slick on all three days and the driest (least wet!) on the journeys back to port.
  • The front seats give you an unobscured view when you are drifting but you also provide most of the shelter from the spray for the others in the boat so may not be preferred.
  • I wish I’d taken some clear protective glasses with me for the journeys too and from the chumming positions to keep the spray out of my eyes. Sunglasses do the job but on the return journey in the dark you can see even less.
  • Binoculars need to be worn over the life jacket so either stick them in your dry bag when you are travelling (not ideal if someone spots a Pterodroma while you are in transit) or, assuming they are fully waterproof, accept they will get wet and run them under the tap when you get back to base to remove the salt.

Closing thoughts

Many thanks to Catarina and Hugo of Madeira Wind Birds for an excellently run Zino’s Petrel Expedition. And thanks to the other fare-paying passengers on the expedition for making it a fun three days. These pelagics are highly recommended for anyone wanting to see and get to grips with Zino’s and Desertas Petrels and are possibly the best opportunity to see Madeiran Storm-petrel. The potential for rarities is huge and the list of birds (and cetaceans) that can and have been seen on the cruises is impressive. That said, the core number of species that you are likely to see is small and it is definitely a case of quality rather than quantity, although it is hard to get bored with countless Bulwer’s Petrels and Cory’s Shearwaters skimming past the boat.

More photographs from this visit to Madeira can be found on my Flickr stream.

Madeira Wind Birds’ Oceanodroma arriving in Machico.

Jeff Higgott is a freelance photographer and researcher based in Suffolk, UK. He is engaged with the RSPB, MarineLife, Landguard Conservation Trust and other wildlife organisations. Jeff is also an experienced motorsport photographer and is official photographer at Ipswich Witches Speedway as well as being photographer for The Street Art Directory and working with the music industry.