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October 17-19 Balearic hotspots

17 October

We’re back on the French side of the Channel for the next couple of days and hoping to encounter some Balearic Shearwaters, in 2021 the transects were covering were a bit of a hotspot for them. Balearic Shearwater is Europe’s only endangered seabird with a total population estimated at about 25,000 birds. A significant proportion of these come up into the Channel each autumn to feed and moult.

The start of today’s transect is off Ile Vierge with its 82m tall lighthouse (photo 1), always an impressive sight in the pre-dawn light (photo 2). Things looked promising for Balearic Shearwaters as we could see them milling around inshore of the start of the transect.

Not surprisingly, Balearic Shearwater was the first bird seen when we started the transect (photo 3) and we ended the transect with a total of 27. Along with the Balearics were a good number of Manx Shearwater and quite a few Sooty Shearwater, the survey so far has been good for both species with a record number of Manx seen and second highest total for Sooty (so far).

Most of the Manx were in wing moult, replacing their primary flight feathers (photo 4), the little literature I can get ready access to on board suggests they usually moult after completing their migration to the South Atlantic, so perhaps these are non-breeding birds loitering longer than usual to complete their moult before heading south.

We stopped for a trawl and on the way back to transect passed a large feeding flock of 2-300 shearwaters, annoyingly sitting in the sun's glare. Photo 5 is perhaps a third to half of the flock and shows at least 71 Manx, 16 Balearic, 12 Sooty and 9 Great, with others partially hidden behind waves.

The remainder of the transect was fairly quiet, apart from Great Shearwater putting in a late charge to be most numerous bird of the day with a flock of 300 passing us near the end of the transect. Cetaceans were notable by their absence; we only saw three groups of Common Dolphin involving 14 animals.

18 October

As with yesterday Balearic Shearwater was the first species recorded (photo 6) but there were rather more today, and we ended the transect having logged 88. The rest of the transect was fairly quiet, with more Manx (photo 7) and Sooty Shearwaters (photo 8) being seen. For a while it looked like we might be going to have our first transect without a Great or Cory’s Shearwater since 7 October, but one Great showed up to save the blank.

There were a few more Common Dolphin around than yesterday and we ended the first transect with five encounters involving 51 animals.

We then crossed back to the UK side of the Channel for a transect running north towards the Lizard. Sea conditions were kind when we started but there wasn’t that much to be seen, although it was surprising how many more Great Shearwaters were around in this area – just 15 nautical miles from where we been seeing none.

Bird of the day, however, wasn’t a seabird but a lovely Short-eared Owl that appeared alongside and eventually settled on board (photos 8-10).

A trawl within 10 miles of the Lizard proved a magnet for birds (photo 11), the photo doesn’t really do the scene justice as in total there were around 200 Gannet and 150 Great Shearwaters attracted to the trawl when we hauled, along with a variety of other birds such as Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Great Skua, and Grey Heron – I’m sure the heron wasn’t really attracted to the haul but it flew past at the right moment!

We had thought the owl had left us a while back, but it turns out it was still on board and the activity in shooting the trawl had obviously disturbed it as it was back to flying around the Endeavour. It eventually flew off when another Short-eared Owl appeared, they headed north towards the UK – I hope they made it as the weather took a serious turn for the worse shortly after they disappeared.

During the trawl several other land birds appeared on board, including 2 Robins, a Song Thrush, and a Chiffchaff (photos 12-14) with Redwing and Skylark seen flying past.

We didn’t quite make the end of the transect by dusk, so we’ll return tomorrow morning to complete it then have a couple of days on the UK side of the Channel.

19 October

The inshore waters near the Lizard and the first few miles of the next transect featured numbers of Kittiwake, Razorbill, and Guillemot that we hadn’t seen since the north Devon and Cornwall transects. There were numerous groups of auks sat around (photos 15 & 16) and flocks of Kittiwake feeding (photos 18 & 19).

As we headed back offshore the species mix changed again and it was back to the now familiar Gannet and Great Shearwater dominating the sightings. Some birds around the Endeavour just before sunset catching the last of the sun (photo 20).

Once again, Common Dolphin was the only species of cetacean recorded, albeit in good numbers, with 15 encounters involving 68 animals. In previous surveys the transects around Eddystone and a little further east have been good for species such as Risso’s Dolphin and occasionally Pilot Whale – we’re hoping they can deliver again this year, although the forecast isn’t encouraging.

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