Ilfracombe-Lundy WLO report 17 September
Summary of sightings:
Gannet Guillemot Herring Gull Shag Lesser Black-backed Gull Great Black-backed Gull Black-headed Gull Wildlife on Lundy Robin, Wren, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Spotted Flycatcher, Raven, Starling, House Sparrow, Pied Wagtail, Swallow, House Martin, Goldcrest, Blackbird, Red Admiral, Unidentified white butterflies
In fine conditions the MS Oldenburg set a course to Lundy Island from Ilfracombe. Leaving the usual contingent of harbour-dwelling birds behind, including mixed flocks of gulls and some Shag, we headed for open water in the hope of seeing species more at home in coastal seas.
The sea state was steady, but with just enough texture in the surface to create small wavelets, the larger ones with foamy crests – the sort that can easily mislead you to think you are seeing dorsal fins. Sadly, we weren’t, no ‘fins’ were sighted during the entirety of our journey. But an autumn voyage to Lundy offers other potential treats – so there is always the prospect of other lovely sightings to keep your mind racing.
At any time of year one of Lundy Island’s population of Grey Seal are one of its greatest attractions, but in autumn, there is a bonus - it is pupping season.
This exciting prospect gave me a perfect opportunity to talk to passengers about how they could obtain safe views of them on the island, without compromising the safety of visitors or Lundy’s newest residents. Young Grey Seals can be extremely vulnerable to disturbance; therefore, it is important for visitors to understand the unwitting impact they can have by venturing too close, and how to avoid disaster for the seal pups.
While chatting to fellow travellers about seal-watching etiquette during our voyage, I kept an eye open for passing seabirds and cetaceans. Even seabirds were in reasonably short supply, but there were small numbers of Guillemot sprinkled on the sea surface at regular intervals created passing interest for passengers. Gannet numbers were low. Although some of these magnificent birds kept their distance from our vessel, some approached more closely and were even appearing to inspect us. One lady enquired: “Have you seen any Gannets this morning?” And right on cue in a wonderful moment of almost unbelievable timing one appeared passing a few metres above our heads. “Oh, there’s one”, I said, leisurely gesturing skyward.
Approaching the island, I wondered how easy it would be to see the seals today. I needn’t have been anxious. Many people will have enjoyed their first sighting before stepping off of the vessel and onto the jetty. At least ten were loafing on seaweed-encrusted platforms around the landing bay, while the pale pelage of a very young and sleepy pup shone like a beacon among the darkness of the rocks and wracks. The audible ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ floating up the track from behind me made me realise many fellow passengers were noticing it too.
On the long path winding from the landing bay beach through Millcombe valley, I took a few moments to contemplate the contrasts of wildlife migration this autumn. On the one hand a lot of the migratory seabirds seem to have had an early season with many presumably already having reached their wintering destinations. But for butterflies and birds, the season was still in full swing. Red admiral and ‘white’ butterflies danced over the walled gardens in Millcombe, while a Chiffchaff spent a few brief moments in the autumn sunshine, stretching its tiny wings. Small groups of chittering Swallows flew through the valley, their long wings betraying the lengthy journey across Europe and Africa lying ahead of them. The Chiffchaff won’t be making that long a journey. To be honest, given the modesty of its own aerial equipment, even making it to the mainland might seem a stretch.
The number of songbirds in Millcombe encouraged me to potter around the valley, seeing what may turn up – a self-found Wryneck was on my mind. Spotted Flycatchers and a Goldcrest provided further confirmation of ongoing migration and added optimism to my quest, but I didn’t have the good fortune to see the two Firecrests enjoyed by my colleague Kevin – the surveyor for today’s voyage. I had seen my first on the island forty years ago this year so perhaps I shouldn’t have felt greedy.
Although time on Lundy seems to go more slowly than on the mainland, the clock was ticking as the MS Oldenburg’s skipper wanted to start boarding passengers at 3.30pm for a 4pm sailing.
A slow amble back to the landing bay, took me past the flagpole, with the flag flying respectfully at half-mast. This sight encouraged me to spend few minute in quiet reflection before the long descent. A confiding Rock Pipit broke my journey, its olive tones perfectly complementing its seashore backdrop.
The return journey on the MS Oldenburg provided further chances to get to know some more of the passengers while we slowly clocked up more seabirds.
Thanks to Jason and his crew for another enchanting visit to the island.
MARINElife WLO Grahame Madge