Bideford-Lundy WLO report 13 August
Summary of sightings:
Common Dolphin 10+
Grey Seal 2
Great Black-backed Gull
Species seen from the island only
Sparrowhawk, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Kittiwake, Swallow, House Martin, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Pied Wagtail, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Carrion Crow, Raven, Chiffchaff/Willow Warbler, House Sparrow, Robin, Stonechat, Wheatear, Starling, Wren, Dunnock, Linnet, Goldfinch, Small Heath butterfly
The MS Oldenburg set off from Bideford Quay with a full complement of expectant passengers looking forward to visiting the island during one of the hottest spells of the year. Perhaps no-one was more expectant than I as this was my first trip as Wildlife Liaison Officer for MARINElife.
The slow headway down the River Torridge allowed time to pick out birds lining the river’s banks, including a number of flicky-winged Common Sandpiper jostling for the very few stages allowed by the high tide. Mixed gull flocks revealed a Great Black-backed Gull or two among the paler and much smaller numbers of Herring Gull and Black-headed Gull.
Heading through the gap between Appledore and Crow Point at the confluence of the Taw and Torridge we started to enter more open water, providing the prospect of seabirds. Calm conditions allowed good opportunities for spotting birds. A single Sandwich Tern headed a long list of seabirds. Small parties of Common Guillemot dotted the serene sea surface. Then the numbers and variety of seabirds started to build. Lines of Manx Shearwater and smaller numbers of Gannet created interest for passengers.
Scanning toward the horizon I noticed a more distant congregation of seabirds, including plunge-diving Gannet. We were obviously heading towards a fish shoal, their presence given away by the seabird frenzy. Where there are aerial predators there can often be underwater ones too. Excitedly, I held my gaze in the area with peak activity, and there unmistakeably were a small group of ‘fins’ breaking the surface. Summoning a bit of courage to alert my fellow passengers to the potential exciting opportunity to come I somewhat nervously shouted: “dolphins!” while pointing to the horizon. A ripple of excitement spread across the deck. I was delighted. Firstly, I had found one of the most sought-after species for our trip, but more importantly it gave me a perfect opportunity to engage more with the passengers and share the sighting and information with them. You couldn’t wish for a better ice-breaker.
In a short while we were in the middle of a small pod. The woops of joy I heard while scanning for sightings revealed that people all around the vessel were seeing what I was seeing. I was having to split my time between ensuring all passengers were seeing them while trying to estimate species and numbers. A quick glance to starboard revealed the hour-glass pattern along the flank of a Common Dolphin which more closely approached the vessel. As the dolphins began to peel away from our course, many passengers thanked me for showing them their first wild dolphins, I was fizzing inside.
The rest of the journey revealed more seabirds, including plenty of Gannet. A minor diversion was a distant trio of small waders skimming the waves. Too distant for positive identification, I idly pondered the possibility of phalarope, but felt misplaced Dunlin was probably the more likely option.
As we neared the island Fulmar glided past and in the Landing Bay small numbers of Shag scuttered across the water out of the path of our vessel. A laid-back Grey Seal basking on the rocks by the jetty provided amusement for disembarking passengers.
Joining them on the ascent to the top of the island, I was grateful to take breaks from the heat to look at small birds of interest, including Spotted and Pied Flycatchers in Millcombe and a flyover Sparrowhawk: all of these hinting that autumn migration is well underway even in mid-August.
Once on top of the island I headed to the west coast making for Jenny’s Cove: a natural amphitheatre for watching seabirds over the open horizon to the Atlantic. A hive of activity three weeks before, the seabirds have now left their cliffside apartments, many departing for the open ocean. A few Fulmar and juvenile Kittiwake had the skies more or less to themselves apart from the ever-present trio of Herring Gull with Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
One of the most noticeable landbirds on the island was Peregrine Falcon. I spotted them in many places including Jenny’s Cove: a location with a natural grandeur befitting such a supreme predator. On my way back to the vessel, a young Peregrine was trying out its rapidly growing hunting manoeuvres. Pitting its aerobatic skills against the resident Raven population and a lone Kestrel. I watched the ensuing dog fights for several minutes with the rollercoasting raptor repeatedly ‘buzzing’ its neighbours. Young raptors can have a hard time finding food, but something told me that this plucky individual will be just fine this winter.
Leaving the island, a swell whipped up by the developing easterly wind, made for slightly trickier wildlife watching conditions. I didn’t see any cetaceans on the return crossing but a small boy came up to me and said he had just seen some dolphin. I thanked this potential surveyor of the future for his sighting. Plenty more seabirds accompanied us on the return voyage home and I was able to show more visitors Common Guillemot, Manx Shearwater and Gannet.
Entering the River Torridge for the final leg we were greeted by groups of gulls, including two Mediterranean Gull, looking fierce among the more benign-looking flocks of Black-headed Gull. A fishing Cormorant was new for the trip. Little Egret and Oystercatchers clung to the rocks of the Appledore coast. While on the opposite bank a reasonably sized flock of Whimbrel or Curlew secreted themselves among the margins of the saltmarsh vegetation.
Before tying up there was just a quick chance to thank Paul – the skipper – and his crew for an eventful and pleasurable trip.
Grahame Madge MARINElife WLO