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Bird flu and Gannets

Monday 24 October

Our day started about 7km offshore in the middle of Lyme Bay for our first trawl of the day. A sparse collection of Gannet, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls were attracted to our activities, so there wasn’t a huge amount to look at but the light on the Gannets as we hauled provided for some lovely portraits (photos 1-4). It also gave me an opportunity to get a close up of one of the red-eyed Gannets (photo 5), after editing it’s possible to see the iris and pupil is still there (photo 6).

I posted these photos on social media and the response (from people with knowledge of the subject) was that this is indeed associated with HPAI (bird flu) and is thought to be haemorrhaging in the eye. The birds I saw today appeared to still be able to see but apparently the end result is usually blindness with some responses talking of birds flying into harbour walls and fishing boats, before a slow death. Given the prevalence of red-eyed birds in the short time I’ve been at sea on survey there are obviously still a lot of birds with flu out there.

We retraced our steps a few kilometres south down a previously covered transect to arrive at the next trawling station about 30km offshore. It was interesting to see that the vast majority of the 2-300 Gannets attracted to the trawl were adults. Two days ago, further west towards Berry Head there were many more immature birds in the mix. The birds put on a good performance and managed to get several action shots of birds in mid-dive, showing how they fold their wings back moments before hitting the water (photos 7-10).

Gannets take about six years to acquire their full adult plumage and as part of our survey we record the ages of the Gannets we see whenever possible. Their juvenile plumage couldn’t be more different to the adult, wholly brown with frosting around the head and fine speckling of the wings and body – they still look very smart though (photo 11). But their first summer (coded I2) birds have white underparts, varying amount of white around the head and white patched on the leading edge of the wing (photo 12). Over the next two years (coded I3 and I4) the amount of white progresses, although not in an even manner, with some birds looking very speckled and other I4s looking all white apart from their flight feathers (photos 13 & 14). The final stage is coded I5 and here there are just a handful of black feathers in the secondaries and possibly the central tail feathers (photo 15).

We carried on further south for a potential third trawl but in the end there were no fish to be seen on the sonar so we didn’t trawl. Sea conditions weren’t great with a two-three metre swell and 20-25 knot SW and passing showers created the odd rainbow (photo 16) – I usually manage to catch one or two each Peltic. As I was catching a Chaffinch, which had made its way into a store cupboard on board, I missed the sunset, bit of a shame as there was a glimpse of the green flash just as the sun dips below the horizon. However, there was still a bit of post-sunset colour (photo 17).

Tuesday 25 October

Back to transect work this morning, starting at the southern end of a 61km line which would end just offshore from Salcombe. The sky might have looked very pretty just before dawn (photo 18), but it was just as well we were heading north as there was 15-20 knots of wind and a two or so metre swell from the SW.

It was fairly slim pickings for us, with birds few and far between and only one sighting of a group of five Common Dolphin. Mind you, if we’d recorded 11 Great Shearwaters on a quiet transect in any previous year we’d have been bouncing with excitement, such is their ubiquity this year we thought that was poor! The only other birds of interest were a pair of Common Scoter – a new species for the trip.

The weather had stayed fine for the morning but by the time we reached the end of the first transect the cloud had increased and visibility had dropped to a few kilometres. By the time we had travelled to the start of the next transect rain had set in and the wind had freshened to a force 5 from the SE. Which meant only one thing, almost continuous use of the wipers for the three hours we were on transect – at least we didn’t have any glare to contend with.

Sightings were a little sparse again, although 47 Great Shearwaters was a good showing. A handful of Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrels in amongst the auks and Gannet also added to the variety.

The forecast isn’t great again for tomorrow so we’re heading offshore overnight so we can run the transect north.

Wednesday 26 October

The forecast was largely correct with winds 25 knots or so from the south and a three-four metre swell coming in from the SW, if the ferry Visborg was anything to go by going into it would not be good (photo 19). There were blue skies though so viewing conditions were good, even if the sea state wasn’t ideal. Birds of the day were undoubtedly an adult and 1st winter Little Gull, a new species this trip and always a joy to see. Great Shearwaters were again around in decent numbers with about 70 logged on this transect, with some passing close to us in some nice light (photos 20 and 21). As we neared shore, towards the end of the transect, there were large numbers of auks, predominantly Guillemot (photo 22). The acoustics were showing a large number of Sprat in the area so on this occasion, as the sea was relatively shallow, the two were likely directly linked.

A sighting of two slow swimming dolphins just near the end of the transect was frustrating as they were most likely Bottlenose but we didn’t get a good enough view to be certain – and they were the only cetacean sighting on the transect. Tuna sightings have been scarce so far this survey, so the sighting of two of these fantastic fish was good news – even if the view consisted of a brief glimpse of tail.

An hour’s transit to the east and then a turn to the south took us to the start of the next transit and unfortunately straight into the swell and glare. With some of the swells topping four metres and a decent distance apart there wasn’t too much spray but the pitching made bracing yourself tricky at times.

Conditions may not have been great but we had a brief flurry of Common Dolphin sightings as several small groups came into the bow. Bird-wise sightings consisted mainly of Gannet and Great Shearwater, with star bird a Sooty Shearwater, a scarce bird this year on the survey.

On this slightly topsy-turvy survey we’re going to be starting with a trawl tomorrow morning, here’s hoping for some half decent conditions and a few birds to watch,

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