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Great Shearwaters, skuas and Fin Whales

Thursday 27 October

Well, what can I say, this morning turned out to be one of the best birding days I’ve had in a long time – even better than the 20th in many ways, simply because we were trawling and could just watch and photograph the wildlife around us.

We started the day about 30km off the Cornish coast midway down the transect we did yesterday. We had hoped to do a trawl then, but technical problems prevented it, so, with issues resolved we were back this morning to try again.

It got off to a good start with a Pomarine Skua (photo 1) coming in to inspect the trawl and then terrorize one of the 1st winter Kittiwakes (photo 2). Great Shearwaters were around in profusion with a raft of some 300 birds and another of about 100 plus birds constantly flying past (photos 3 & 4). There were also birds sitting on the water away from the rafts which weren’t too bothered about the approaching ship and allowed lovely close views (photos 5 & 6)

As if things couldn’t get any better, we then came across a pod of 300 or so Common Dolphins feeding which had attracted a large gathering of shearwaters. They made an impressive sight as a most of them broke off from feeding to come and investigate the Endeavour – sadly a telephoto lens for photographing shearwaters isn’t much use for capturing hundreds of dolphins swimming towards you.

As the trawl was hauled there was another Peltic survey first – Great Shearwaters (photo 7) and a Sooty Shearwater (photos 8-10) landing on the water behind us to feed on fish. Who knows if or when we’ll see a sight like that again.

After the first trawl we headed north towards the end of the transect where there had been a lot of fish on the sonar – and a lot of birds feeding – yesterday. The birds and fish were both still there but there were a few too many fishing pots around to risk trawling. The number of birds was amazing, hundreds of Guillemots and, surprisingly, more Razorbills than yesterday, which allowed me to even the balance on photos as Guillemots have featured more than Razorbills (photos 11 & 12). I took a photo of a feeding flock of Gannets, Great Shearwaters, Kittiwakes and gulls, which on closer inspection, revealed that there were so many small fish present (thought to be Sprat) that the Gannets could just grab a beakful of fish sitting on the surface (photos 13 & 14).

With so many birds feeding it was no surprise to see quite a few skuas during the morning. We saw another Pomarine Skua (photos 15 & 16) and at least five Arctic Skuas (photos 17-18).

After a quick stop for a plankton sample, we headed west to pick up a transect for the rest of the afternoon. Unfortunately, it couldn’t match the morning’s excitement and was rather quiet with just a scattering of Great Shearwaters, auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes, we couldn’t even find a cetacean, one of the few transects – admittedly from a low number – where we haven’t seen a dolphin.

Friday 28 October

After the excitement of yesterday morning, we wondered what the day would bring. We started off about 37km south of Land’s End with a 15-20 knot SW wind and a 3-4 metre swell, skies were largely clear, so viewing was good. Birds were a bit slow to get going but we soon moved into an area where birds were feeding and began seeing more Great Shearwaters, including a raft of 55. We also had visits in quick succession from three small groups of Common Dolphin, totalling some 20 animals.

At 09:10 Nuala spotted a blow ahead, cue some excitement – we hadn’t really been expecting a whale – a second blow revealed there were two animals, all we had to do now was try and see a back to identify them. It took three or four more blows before they took a deeper dive and one of the animals showed its back and dorsal fin, allowing us to identify them as Fin Whales. The resurfaced a 10 minutes later off the beam, which gave some of the CEFAS scientists a chance to see the blows, by this time it wasn’t possible to make out the body amongst the swells so there were no photo opportunities.

Great Shearwater shearing the water

A break for a trawl allowed for some more Great Shearwater watching, finally managing to get a shot of a bird doing what their name suggests (photo 19). We went down for lunch while the net was being hauled and missed seeing some more shearwaters coming into feed.

More excitement just after we had resumed the transect – a blow just a few hundred metres off the port bow – this one showed itself straight away – another Fin Whale (photos 20 & 21). It was close enough that we could clearly see the fluke print as it dipped beneath the surface, this was turning into quite a day.

Unfortunately, that was about to change when we were told the Endeavour needed to return to Falmouth straight away to land one of the crew. We would be able to sail again this evening, but the decision was taken to end the survey a day early.

We carried on watching from the bridge as we sailed towards Falmouth although until we rounded the Lizard and got into Falmouth bay there was very little to see. Once in the bay there were numerous feeding flocks of Gannet, Kittiwake and the ever-present Great Shearwater (photos 22-24). As we neared the pilot station outside the harbour a 2nd winter Mediterranean Gull flew past in some lovely light (photo 25).

We docked just before 18:00 and that brought to an end what has been a fantastic two weeks for Nuala and me. In the two weeks we have recorded 732 Common Dolphins in 41 encounters and logged 4981 Gannet, 1461 Great Shearwater, and 1249 Kittiwake. Certainly, a fraction of what is normally recorded on the Peltic survey but then we’ve only covered 10 transects compared to the 50 that should be covered. I’ll post a summary blog in the next few days.

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