Peter Howlett, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Wind NW-W 3 dec. 2, sea state 3-2, visibility good.
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 5
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 3
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 152
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 8
Guillemot Uria aalge 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 72
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 30
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 19
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 13
Auk sp. 2
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita 1
The train journey from Cardiff to Portsmouth seemed like a familiar commute as this was my third survey on this route in four months. We departed on time and, after what seemed like a very short time, arrived in St Peter Port in the early hours of the morning. With it being mid-June it was light enough to get on the bridge and begin the survey shortly after departing St Peter Port at 04:45. Recording the steady trickle of Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull and occasional Gannet kept me occupied.
The reward for the early start came at 05:35 when we were just 15 minutes and 6.5km from St Helier. Three Bottlenose Dolphin appeared a few hundred metres dead ahead of the ship and rapidly disappeared out of sight under the bow; a brief but very welcome sight. The officers on the Goodwill tell me they see dolphins near St Helier on a regular basis but this was the first time in five surveys on this route that I had caught up with them.
Bottlenose Dolphin near St Helier harbour (Photo: Peter Howlett)
The ship spends two hours in St Helier and I usually while away some of the time birding from the top deck. In between photographing gulls drifting past I glimpsed a dorsal fin breaking the surface about 500m away near an outer breakwater. Surely the Bottlenose Dolphin could not be in that close? They were indeed and there were two of them! Over the course of the next 10 minutes or so they gradually worked their way in towards the harbour entrance and at one point were in the harbour ahead of the ship. After that they drifted further out and I eventually lost sight of them as they headed off back out to sea.
I returned to the bridge in time for departure and recommenced the survey once we were clear of the outer breakwater. Captain Pielich told me that for a change the route back would take us around the east side of Jersey and closer in to the French coast. Apparently this is a pretty rare event and undertaken to maintain the Captain's familiarity with the easterly route. The route certainly had the potential to be interesting as the shallower waters of the Bay of St Malo can be home to many Balearic Shearwater in the summer months. Unfortunately June must have been too early for them as it turned out to be very quiet with no shearwaters. The only burst of activity came when we passed close to the mass of rocky islets that make up the Écréhous off the northeast corner of Jersey, where there were a few Shag and Cormorant flying to and from the reef.
As we passed Cap de la Hague there was the usual flurry of Gannet as birds from the Alderney colonies on Ortac and Les Etacs fly up to the northeast to feed. A scattered group of 10 Manx Shearwater added momentary interest. Unfortunately, once into the Channel proper, there was very little bird activity, as seems to be usual for this survey.
Belgian-ringed Chiffchaff onboard the Commodore Goodwill mid-Channel (Photo: Peter Howlett)
Just over 40km NNE of Cap de la Hague - virtually mid-Channel - my scanning of the empty sea was interrupted by the appearance of a Chiffchaff on the rail outside the bridge window, less than a metre away from me. I barely had time to register the bird and realise it was ringed before it flitted away and down towards the foredeck and out of sight. When a bird weighing in at a mere 10-11g suddenly pitches up on a ship miles from anywhere it really does emphasise the perilous nature of the journey they make between West Africa (most likely the case for this Chiffchaff) and northern Europe. Half an hour later it suddenly appeared again on the bridge wing outside and I managed to rattle off a few photos. On closer scrutiny it seems this bird was ringed in Belgium but, unfortunately, I was unable to get the full ring number. Goodness knows what it was doing flying across the Channel in mid-June, it really should be nesting somewhere.
As we closed in on the Isle of Wight bird sightings increased ever so slightly with a few Gannet and a handful of auks. Amongst the Gannet were a couple of first summer birds looking a bit faded and bleached after spending the winter in southern Biscay or off the coast of West Africa.
Adult and 1st summer Gannet (Photos: Peter Howlett)
A fairly quiet but very enjoyable survey enlivened by the Bottlenose Dolphin and the ringed Chiffchaff. Many thanks to Captain Pielich and the crew of the Commodore Goodwill for the customary friendly welcome and to Condor Ferries for supporting the work of MARINElife.