Jaegers – Pirates of the Sea by Drew Weber
A tribe of birds patrol the coasts and oceans, tormenting seabirds and snatching away their food and usually losing. These kleptoparasites are the jaegers, which get their name from the German Jäger, which means hunter. Jaegers are pelagic species, spending up to ¾ of their time at sea and generally remaining elusive from birders who spend a great deal of effort to get a chance to see them.
There are three species of jaegers– Long-tailed, Parasitic, and Pomarine. Identifying jaegers is a tricky business indeed, as the Parasitic Jaeger overlaps with both the smaller Long-tailed Jaeger, and the larger Pomarine Jaeger. There are a couple ways that you can go about seeing one of the jaegers. The first, and most productive for most people, is to go on pelagic boat trips miles out from the coast. Once you are far out (30-100 miles or even more) birders actively scan for any flocks of birds or pods of cetaceans that might indicate a feeding frenzy. If you are lucky enough to find a feeding frenzy, it is hopefully only a matter of time before one of the jaegers is attracted to the commotion.
If you are not so brave, or prone to seasickness, there are other tactics that you can try. At certain points along the coast, and along the Great Lakes, you can try your luck watching from shore. Generally certain weather conditions make it more likely that you will see jaegers, and the common thread is that you need winds blowing towards, or at least on an angle to the coast or shoreline. These same conditions are also often responsible for pushing migrating waterfowl close to land in spectacular numbers. On a good day, depending on location, you might be able to tally tens of thousands of scoters, loons and ducks. Occasionally, amidst all the migrating ducks, a jaeger while stream by, low over the water.
Recently I was birding at Derby Hill Bird Observatory at the east end of Lake Ontario in New York. The winds looked great for the location– strong and from the west. Despite the great winds, there were very few birds moving until we picked up two dark birds flying low over the water, chasing each other and nearby Ring-billed Gulls. To our excitement, the two jaegers flying together were very different in both size and plumage. TWO SPECIES! We were able to observe both birds at length as they flew back and forth along the lakeshore. The larger bird had long twisted central tail feathers indicating it was an adult plumaged Pomarine Jaeger while the smaller bird flew close enough that we could see just 2 ivory colored primary feather shafts. It was exciting to watch the jaegers harass the gulls for a while before they spiraled up into the sky and sped off over land, presumably not stopping until they reached the Atlantic.
To see photos and video I took of the Long-tailed Jaeger and Pomarine Jaeger, visit http://www.nemesisbird.com/2012/10/jaegers/