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Great Shearwaters, Norwegian gulls and Common Dolphin

Friday 21 October

The forecast turned out to be quite accurate and we were very thankful that we were running the transect from south to north. The wind was around 30 knots from the south and there was rain for much of the time with frequent torrential showers. However, as we were heading north none of the rain touched the bridge windows and with a following sea passage was pleasant, the most annoying thing was the rolling from the lazy three metre westerly swell.

With these conditions it won’t surprise you that there wasn’t a huge amount to see, although we did manage six encounters with 28 Common Dolphins, though most were only picked up when they were within 250-300m of the ship.

Although there weren’t that many birds to be seen – especially later in the morning when the rain was heaviest – we did record a good variety. Great Shearwaters must be sticking around in the Channel at the moment as we recorded a further 22 today (photos 1 & 2), we also recorded another Sooty Shearwater, we haven’t seen many this trip. It was also great to record nine Great Skua, given the impact of bird flu on this species (Photo 3 which is from an earlier Peltic survey).

The biggest surprise, especially in these conditions, was seeing a Long-eared Owl floating towards us from the north, they really are beautiful birds and a great excuse to show you one of the shots I got of the one we had in 2020 (photo 4). I really hope it managed to find a ship to land on before the rain set in as it just flew straight past us heading southeast across the wind – we were about 70km from land at this point.

Long-eared Owl from the 2020 Peltic survey

The next surprise was seeing a Grey Heron heading towards us, not too unusual in the Channel but perhaps more so in these conditions. That did stop and rest on board for a short time but sadly didn’t have a chance to get a photo of it. There has been an enormous movement of Redwing and Fieldfare across the UK in the past couple of days and so I wasn’t too surprised when a solitary Fieldfare shot across in front of the bridge. A flock of eight Starlings was rounded off the landbird migrants.

Saturday 22 October

Luck has not been with us this survey, along with the initial engine problem the fishing crew were having problems getting with trawl to work as it should, so today was all about trying to sort out what was wrong and get it working. The CEFAS scientists age and measure all the fish caught in the trawls, Sprat is the target species for most of this survey, and this feeds into a stock assessment which sets the Sprat catch quota. The species caught in the trawl also validate the assessments made by the scientists from the acoustic data collected so a trawl not working properly has serious implications. Fortunately, by the end of the day the issues had been ironed out.

A day of fishing meant a day off for us – or rather a day spent being able to watch birds in rather more detail than you can on survey and plenty of opportunity for photography too. We were still in Lyme Bay for all this and started the day about seven kilometres east of Berry Head in Devon. It became apparent, soon after dawn, that there were still a large number of Great Shearwaters around and we must have seen in the region of 200 fly past in the first two hours of the morning. They were around all day really and not necessarily moving through as some birds came to investigate the trawls. Needless to say, this gave some good photo opportunities! (photos 5-8)

The trawls also attracted a good variety of gulls and gave us a good look at how much variety there is in their plumage, not just between calendar years, like this 2nd winter Lesser Blac-backed Gull but also within the same calendar year, for instance these two 3rd winters (photos 9-11). Mediterranean Gulls have been seen each day mainly adults and 1st winters but we have seen the occasional 2nd winter too (photo 12). A sub-adult Common Gull (photo 13) put in a brief appearance as and we’ve only been recording 1st winters so far it was nice to see. I’ll leave looking at Gannets for another blog as we’re going to have another day of trawling in a couple of day's time but here's a photo of an adult in some lovely light (photo 14).

A flock of Razorbills with a Guillemot sneaking in

Flocks of auks were another feature of the morning, with good numbers moving around Lyme Bay. Quite a lot of the flocks were Razorbill, but you did have to look closely as there was the occasional Guillemot in there (photo 15).

Satellite-tagged Great Black-backed Gull

Colour-ringing of gulls is widespread throughout Europe, satellite tagging less common, so it was a surprise to see a Great Black-backed Gull carrying a satellite tag early in the day (photo 16). The bird was also colour-ringed but unfortunately, I couldn’t see the code in the photos, so it’ll take a bit more digging to see where it was ringed. I did have a bit more luck with a 1st winter Lesser Black-backed Gull though, I’d managed, by luck, to get photos of one with a colour-ring (photo 17) where it was easy to read the number. A quick internet search showed it was a Norwegian-ringed bird and entering the code details on the Norwegian ringing website gave the details of where and when it had been ringed: Rauna, Farsund, Norway (a small islet on the SW corner of the Norwegian coast) on 12/07/2022 and had travelled the 1044km to Berry Head in 102 days.

Norwegian-ringed Lesser Black-backed Gull

The plan for tomorrow is for an early morning trawl followed by a southbound transect, so back to work.

Sunday 23 October

The trawl was in the water shortly after dawn, which meant a leisurely start looking out for birds coming to the trawl, today that included the now obligatory Great Shearwaters (photo 18) with several more seen flying past. Otherwise, it was the usual cast of Gannet, Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls with the odd Kittiwake and a Great Skua for good measure. After the trawl we made our way to the start of the next transect just off the coast at Dartmouth, which looks particularly pretty from the sea (photo 19).

By now it was a lovely day with light winds and blue skies, which sadly meant we were staring into the glare for the first couple of hours. Common Dolphins were the star of the show with 11 encounters involving 143 individuals with one pod of about 70 (photos 20-22).

Birds were a little thin on the ground though we did record a couple of Manx Shearwaters, few and far between on the survey this year. At dusk, just at the end of the transect we had a rush of Great Shearwaters just to keep the run of daily sightings going. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer we keep seeing them but they’re certainly the star of the survey this year.

The weather took a swift turn for the worse halfway through the transect when the blue skies gave way to some very ominous looking clouds (photo 23). Thankfully, the weather passed through quickly with only a short spell of rain.

Moody skies coming up from the south

A day of fishing on the cards tomorrow so another chance to have a close look at some of the birds around us.

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