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Met Office survey: 20 August - the Minch and Stornoway

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

You know it’s not going to be a good day for surveying when you wake up to hear the wind roaring around your cabin window (yes, luxury – I have a window rather than a porthole in my cabin on Pharos). The view from the bridge was a jumble of large white-capped waves, though thankfully the swell was kept down by presence of the Outer Hebrides to our west and overcast skies making life even more difficult. However, this was only going to be a short leg, just the three and a bit hours up to Stornoway. The decision had already been made that the earliest we could make an attempt at K7 was Monday so we would have an enforced break in Stornoway until Sunday afternoon.

Photo 1: Manx Shearwater (library photo)

Even in the poor conditions it was obvious there were still a lot of birds using the Minch, a well-known hotspot for seabirds, with a steady stream of Kittiwake, Gannet and Manx Shearwater to record. I’m sure there were a large number of auks out there too as I managed to see a few groups of adults and youngsters but picking them up in the rough seas was difficult. The wind and seas eased as we went north and some sunlight made picking up birds a lot easier. We passed several feeding aggregations of Manx Shearwater (photo 1, from my library as conditions weren’t suitable for trying to take photos this morning), at times the shearwaters were so close you could actually see them diving down and using their wings, like auks, to chase after fish. It was also amazing to think that, thanks to satellite tags, we now know these birds could have been from any of the colonies in the Irish Sea, even the Pembrokeshire islands.

Given the conditions, it is perhaps surprising that the sole marine mammal spotted was a Grey Seal. I had seen that the boats which run trips out to the Shiants had seen Humpback and Fin Whale in the Minch in recent weeks – oh for it to have been calm!

We docked at about 09:30 leaving the rest of the day (and most of Sunday to see the sights of Stornoway). Unfortunately, the weather for much of Saturday didn’t encourage you to go exploring, with frequent heavy showers. Which left starting my blog and watching the comings and goings in the harbour (such as they are) from the comfort of the bridge or my cabin. There wasn’t a great deal of wildlife to see, just a few Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls and a couple of Grey Seals. I think Great Black-backed Gulls are one of my favourite gulls, adults are spectacular beasts and just look mean (photos 2 and 3).

The Grey Seals were seen swimming around the harbour, bottling (photo 4) or out on the rocks (photo 5).

The weather also provided a photo opportunity, a shower late afternoon producing a nice clear rainbow (photo 6), actually not the first of the trip but the first to be photographed. We weren't the only visiting vessel, the 54m Danish sail training ship Georg Stage was also in the harbour (photo 7), stopping off on her way to Dublin. Sailing ships always make for an interesting photo.

Sunday morning the weather was slightly more conducive to a walk around the lush grounds of Lews Castle (photo 8) and the perimeter path had a viewpoint for a lovely panorama of Stornoway (photo 9). The grounds are heavily wooded with a wide variety of tree species and made for a tranquil couple of hours away from the ship. A pair of Curlew on the weedy beach (photo 10) were nice to see as were the local Hooded Crows (though rather scruffy at this time of year, photo 11).

Photo 9: Stornoway

The grounds are bounded to the southwest by the Abhainn Ghrioda, the waters looking very peat coloured and being a sucker for photos of flowing streams I stopped to take some (photo 12). Not a good move, I had completely forgotten about the scourge of the islands (I hadn’t seen one so far in my walk) but as soon as I stopped by the stream I was being bitten by midges – photo session cut a little short.

Photo 12: Abhainn Ghrioda

We sail at 16:00 Sunday evening to be on position for deploying K7 at about 08:00 Monday, so I’ll have a few hours in the evening and maybe a couple in the morning for surveying, here’s hoping for some calm seas.

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