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Met Office survey - 26 August onward to K5

At dawn we were passing about 15km to the north of Westray in the Orkney Islands, with nearly 500km still to run to K5. Conditions were not ideal for surveying; light was good with the sun behind us as we headed to the west-southwest but we were running into a force 4-5 breeze from the southwest so sea conditions weren’t ideal for finding cetaceans.

There were plenty of birds around for the first two-three hours and it was great to start the day with another burst of Sooty Shearwaters (photo 1) with 78 seen by 09:00. However, Fulmar and Gannet soon reasserted themselves as the dominant species for the day. There was an interesting supporting cast during the morning though with a scattering of Storm Petrels, a few Manx Shearwater (photo 2) and the odd Arctic Skua and Bonxie (photos 3 & 4, both from my library, not from today).

The Sooty Shearwaters weren’t the only highlight of the morning either. Just after seven three dolphins surfaced about 200m away just off the beam – White-beaked Dolphins – two adults and a calf. A few minutes later two dolphins surfaced dead ahead and coming towards us, two more White-beaked Dolphins. A group of eight Common Dolphin followed 10 minutes later and then I lucked into another group of four White-beaked Dolphin a little later (Photo 5 – from my library as none of these stayed around long enough for a photo). These sightings had obviously used up most of my dolphin points as it was late afternoon before I saw any more, a group of four Common Dolphin and then a little later a solitary Harbour Porpoise.

Photo 5: White-beaked Dolphin (from my library)

Our route happened to take us fairly close to three of the most remote Scottish islands, all uninhabited but names I was familiar with from my interest in seabirds. First up was Sule Skerry and Sule Stack (photo 6 & 7), home to approximately 10,000 pairs of Gannet between them and Sule Skerry home to about 14,000 pairs of Guillemot and 50,000 pairs of Puffin. The auks will have been gone a while now but the Gannets were still very obvious, although as with yesterday it was a little depressing to see dead Gannets floating by every now and then during the day.

As we headed west Rona hove into view, unlike Sule Skerry, a relatively substantial island topping out at 108m (photo 8). The island’s claim to fame is being home to about 1000 pairs of Leach’s Petrel, a species I had, frustratingly, avoided seeing so far this trip. Next up was Sula Sgeir (photo 9), rather more barren than its neighbour but home to about 10,000 pairs of Gannet, seemingly not visible from the south but a population that has remained stable for many decades, although whether that remains the case after the avian flu outbreak is another matter and one that may not be answered any time soon as both Rona and Sula Sgeir are not survey very frequently.

After passing the islands the number of seabirds dropped away and surveying was slow going during the afternoon. Things picked up a little as we neared Lewis and a few Dunlin and Ringed Plover added a bit of variety to the species list and it was hard to resist a shot of a close Gannet in nice light (photo 10). There was an uptick in the number of Manx Shearwater, which seem to like going around in groups of three (photo 11). A flock of 22 Whimbrel added to the wader count for the day (photo 12).

Early evening and I was just bemoaning the lack of Leach’s Petrels to officer of the watch Martin when one appeared about 150m ahead of us, so nice to see again (photo 13 – one from the 2020 PELTIC survey). We finally reach K5 tomorrow, I wonder what the 2000m deep water around there will bring?

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