Tom Forster and Helen Swift, Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Outbound: Sea state 1, sunny with glare and reduced visibility
Return: Sea state 1-2, sunny with glare and reduced visibility
Summary of sightings:
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 6
Dolphin sp. 2
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Seal sp. 1
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 13
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 1
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 2
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 170
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 8
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 2
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 2
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 3
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 14
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 130
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 6
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 14
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 31
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 9
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 3
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 30
Guillemot Uria aalge 10
'Commic' Tern 28
Unidentified tern sp. 18
Unidentified auk sp. 17
Unidentified Larus gull sp. 31
Unidentified skua sp. 2
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 5
Osprey Pandion haliaetus 1
Feral Pigeon Columba livia 1
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 1
This was my first survey with my husband Tom, and it turned out to be a memorable one for us both.
The survey took place during a period of unseasonably hot weather. As we travelled along the M25 towards Dover in glorious sunshine, we noticed that there was already a long queue of traffic heading in the direction of Brighton, people undoubtedly off to the beach to make the most of the weather. We arrived at the port in good time and spent an hour or so basking in the warmth, before heading aboard Delft Seaways. After a brief lunch kindly provided by DFDS, we headed up to the bridge and commenced the survey shortly after departing the harbour.
As we had expected, conditions were a mixed bag. On the one hand, we had a calm sea state (1-2) throughout the survey which enhances the likelihood of seeing cetaceans. However, this was counteracted by the intense sunshine, which created a lot of glare and reduced visibility due to haze (not that I would ever complain about sunny British weather!)
Common Seal (Library photo: Graham Ekins)
Despite this, we were still quite lucky with marine mammal sightings. We had several sightings of Harbour Porpoise throughout the trip (six individuals in total). On the return journey, Tom also spotted a couple of dolphins which he was fairly confident were Common Dolphin, but views were too brief for him to be certain. We also had a couple of seal sightings. The first was a Common Seal, seen by Tom on the outbound journey, which was bottling in the water. On the return journey, I spotted a second bottling seal which was eating a fish - this one was probably a Grey Seal, but it dived before we had good enough views to be completely sure about the species.
We also saw a good variety of birdlife. It was particularly interesting to see the change in species since the previous surveys we had carried out on this route earlier in the year. The most notable difference was the presence of good numbers of terns, some of which gave good enough views to confirm the species (Common, Arctic or Sandwich). However, frustratingly, in many cases we were not able to identify them to species level due to distant views and strong glare, so had to record them simply as 'Commic Tern' or 'Tern sp.'.
Arctic Skua (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
Another highlight of the trip was the spectacle of dozens of Kittiwake flying towards us, making an obvious beeline for the ship and remaining alongside us for about an hour. Presumably these hoped we were a fishing vessel and were on the lookout for discarded fish offal, a behaviour Kittiwake and other gulls are known to engage in. We were also excited to see two different Arctic Skua (one dark and the other pale phase), and a flock of 14 Little Gull.
In addition to pelagic species we also had two unusual terrestrial bird sightings on the outbound journey. The first of these was a Carrion Crow flying in the middle of the Channel headed towards the UK- this is not a migratory species, so we have no idea what it was doing here! (Had it hopped onto a ship in search of food and then found itself at sea?) Then, as we approached France, I spotted a massive, darkish bird, distantly flying low over the waves amongst a group of adult Gannet. At first, I questioned whether it was an immature Gannet or a Grey Heron, but the wing shape and flight pattern were wrong. I asked Tom to take a look, but we were both still struggling - what on Earth was it? As it came slightly closer, we could see that the head and underparts were fairly pale but the wings were dark. Then it dawned on us - an Osprey! Wow! Not something we were expecting to see, and definitely the pinnacle of an exciting survey.
Osprey (Library photo: Peter Howlett)
We would like to thank the Captain and crew of Delft Seaways for their hospitality throughout this thoroughly enjoyable survey.