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October 14-16 Great Shearwaters rule

14 October

We started the day close inshore in Mount’s Bay, with Porth Leven off to port and Penzance off to starboard. The wind had dropped overnight so sea conditions were rather more pleasant than yesterday afternoon. With an offshore wind there were relatively few birds around to start, the more familiar mix of Gannet, Kittiwake, and auks, it took almost an hour before we logged the first large shearwater – a Cory’s. As we went further offshore it was Great Shearwater that became the most numerous with several rafts and feeding flocks (photos 1 & 2). It was interesting to find out that seawatchers at Start Point in Devon had logged 11,000 Great Shearwaters going past the day before. None of the birds we’re recording look like they’re migrating, just random feeding movements, so it might bode well for us as we head east.

Common Dolphin appeared regularly, and we ended the transect with 13 encounters involving 57 animals (photo 3). Surprisingly, we only recorded one tuna, although conditions had got choppier as we headed offshore which made detecting them more difficult.

Common Dolphin

The next transect running north carried on in a similar vein, although with rather more Cory’s Shearwaters (photo 4) than Greats mixed in with the usual Gannets. After the abundance of auks on transects off the north Devon coast they remained notably scarce around Scilly and the outer English Channel.

Cory's Shearwater

Common Dolphin was the only species of cetacean seen with a further 11 encounters involving 90 animals. After the single tuna on the last transect, and despite improving conditions, none were seen on this one.

15 October

Wolf Rock lighthouse at sunrise

At last, a little bit of relative calm and a sea state three to start a day. We were back in the channel between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly to run the transect we had hoped to do yesterday. We even had a glimpse of dawn sun this morning just as we were passing Wolf Rock lighthouse (photo 5). Common Dolphins were with us from the start and remained a regular feature throughout the transect (photos 6 & 7) with a total of 93 animals seen in 13 encounters. Tuna remained scarce with just two sightings.

Gannet, and Cory’s and Great Shearwaters remained the most numerous birds, with a few Sooty Shearwaters, auks, and Kittiwakes as a supporting cast. We were treated to a close view of a shoal of surface feeding fish, likely Saury Pike, leaping out of the water to escape a predator beneath, the shoal twinkling in the sunlight. It was over too quickly to get a photo, but I did manage a slightly more distant one during a break for a trawl (photo 8). A Merlin, having a quick glance at the Endeavour has it flew past while we were hauling, was a very pleasant surprise, we usually manage to see at least one on a Peltic survey (photo 9), unfortunately it flew right through all the warm air rising from the funnel so the photo isn’t the best.

We witnessed two attempts at kleptoparasitism (getting your food by robbing it from someone else) during the day, one by a master of the art and born to do it, the other, opportunistic, and failing because it was no where near agile enough for the task. The first was a Great Skua chasing a Gannet (probably their most frequent target), the Gannet had a limp right leg which the skua deftly pulled on as it flew up to the Gannet (photo 10). A little later we saw a Kittiwake sitting on the water with what looked like a Saury Pike in its bill, not surprisingly it wasn’t long before that attracted attention, from a slightly unusual source, a Great Shearwater appeared and started harrying the Kittiwake for the fish. Fortunately, for the Kittiwake, the shearwater was pretty hopeless and kept crashing into the sea when trying to make sharp changes in direction (photos 11 & 12).

We finished the day on the western most transect running in towards Ouessant, the NW corner of Brittany. We managed an hour before sunset so will be back to complete it tomorrow.

16 October

The wind had freshened overnight so we woke to a sea state seven and a considerable swell and the sun kept finding holes in the cloud too, which as we were heading SE, wasn’t particularly helpful, creating a little glare at times.

The birds were remarkable, we recorded 1,714 birds during the day and 83% of those were five species of shearwater, with Greats making up 72% (or 1,245) on their own. I still can’t believe that we’re sailing around the English Channel and the most numerous birds are Great and Cory’s Shearwaters (photos 13 & 14).

Part of a flock of 350 Great Shearwaters

Most of the Great Shearwaters were seen on the second transect of the day when we sailed past two flocks each of about 350 birds, a photo doesn’t do the scale of the raft justice (photo 15), the 50 taking flight in photo 16 sort of giving a flavour.

Great Shearwaters taking flight

Between transects we passed Ile de Ouessant, the jagged rocks along the west coast always look so menacing (photo 17).

The conditions in the morning weren’t conducive to spotting cetaceans and we only had four encounters with 32 animals. The second transect started with kinder sea conditions and we managed eight involving 31 animals. A couple of groups leapt alongside in some lovely light (photo 18).

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