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Met Office survey - 28 August homeward to Oban

Fortunately, the weather had improved from yesterday – at least the wind had dropped to force four and it was dry so at least I could use binoculars through the bridge windows, however, visibility was still only a kilometre or so. The bird ID wasn’t particularly challenging for the first couple of hours with a steady trickle of Fulmar and Gannet past the Pharos with the occasional Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel to liven things up. I’ve found it a little strange that despite being on a slow-moving vessel I’ve had few chances to get photos of Fulmar and Gannet – particularly Gannet on this trip – so here are four from my library taken in slightly brighter conditions than today (photos 1-4). Around 09:00 things livened up a little with a few more species to identify, best of which was the second Leach’s Petrel of the survey, with a supporting cast of Arctic Skua, Sooty Shearwater and Puffin.

Cetacean-wise there were sightings of small groups of Common Dolphin almost from the off and this carried on almost all day – apart from the transit of the Sound of Harris. The dolphins have, by and large, been very uncooperative on this survey and, rather unusually, despite travelling at 10 knots most of the time, I have had no dolphins playing alongside the Pharos, hence no photo opportunities so here are a couple from my library just to remind you how Common Dolphin can perform alongside a vessel (photos 5-8).

The most direct route back to Oban takes us through the Sound of Harris and we were due to enter it around 12:30. From a visit to Harris a few years ago I knew that this was a beautiful part of the world and was hoping the visibility would improve enough to actually see some of the scenery as we passed through. Fortunately, the cloud lifted enough to see some of the hills around the entrance (photos 9 & 10). The Sound also produced a shake up in the bird mix too, with several Red-throated Divers, Shags and a Tystie added to the day’s sightings.

The wind had been dropping through the morning and by the time we exited the Sound of Harris it was a gentle southerly force three and continued to drop through the rest of the afternoon and evening – ending up with no wind and a sea state 0 by early evening. The bird mix changed again once we were in the Little Minch – the strip of water between Harris and Skye – now it was the turn of Manx Shearwater and the auks, Guillemot and Razorbill, to dominate the sightings. I’m not sure whether it was the light winds or just the time of day but the majority of the shearwaters were sat on the sea in large flocks, the first one encountered was about 460 birds. Every now and then part of the flock would lift off and fly a short distance before landing again, giving me the chance to spot the odd one out (photos 11 & 12). The calm conditions were also making it harder for the Manx Shearwaters to take off (photos 13 & 14).

With the light winds and calm seas the plaintive peeping of young Guillemots and Razorbills was an ever-present part of the afternoon and evening as they were still with their dad (photo 15) who is currently flightless having dropped all his flight feathers (photo 16). The pairings weren’t always that obvious as there were large mixed flocks of Razorbill and Guillemot, at one point I counted a mixed flock of 170 auks – too distant and too numerous to attempt any differentiation as there were more flocks scattered across the sea to count.

The avian highlight of the afternoon (and the entire trip) was a superb second calendar-year Long-tailed Skua which did a close fly-by (photo 17), a species I see far too infrequently. A Bonxie also did a close fly-by in some lovely light too – the first to come close during the survey (photo 18). A few Storm Petrels were seen skimming the calm seas during the afternoon and a couple even came close enough to be recognisable in photo (19) – it’s a shame the third Leach’s Petrel of the trip didn’t do the same. Bizarre sighting of the day were three Grey Herons circling over a pod of Common Dolphins - not sure what they thought they were going to do if they saw any food! (photo 20).

With almost mirror-calm seas I could see small groups of Common Dolphins dotted around almost wherever I looked, in total I logged 21 encounters with them during the afternoon and evening, although the number in each sighting was generally quite small. Given the calm conditions I was a little aggrieved that I only managed to log two Minke Whales, they are pretty common up here at this time of year and I really thought I might have seen more. It was also a case of might have been too, dolphin trips just to the north had been seeing Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Risso’s Dolphin, and Orca just a little to the north.

The lack of cetaceans may have been a slight disappointment but that was really made up for by the views around me. From fog banks hugging the Skye coast, to sunlit clouds topping the Cuillins, to the sun setting behind the hills of South Uist, a memorable end to a really enjoyable nine days surveying on the Pharos. A gallery of some of the sky and seascapes below (photos 20-28).

I’d like to thank the Met Office (Pete Ainscombe and Mark Hemnell) for giving MARINElife the opportunity to survey on this trip, I leapt at the chance to be onboard as it’s an area of ocean I’d never been to. Thanks also to the Northern Lighthouse Board for providing such a lovely vessel to be on. The experience was made all the more enjoyable by the friendly crew of the Pharos, particularly master Chris, first officer Martin, and second officers Will and Ruaraidh, I spent quite a bit of time with all of them through my stints on the bridge over the nine days. It was even a bright and dry day in Oban to welcome us back on Monday morning 29 August, a lovely view of Duart Castle (photo 29), a calm entry into Oban Bay (photo 30) and the view from the bridge of the Pharos as we enter Oban Bay (photos 31). Now just the small matter of a nine-hour drive back to Cardiff on a Bank holiday Monday.

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