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October 20-21 Things get a little choppy

20 October

Well, 50 miles offshore in the Channel and the first sea state one since the 9 October, but as is often the case there was not much to be seen, at least to start. A steady trickle of small groups of Common Dolphins came in to say hello, with 14 encounters involving 100 animals, although, perhaps because of the calm sea, there was little leaping in towards us. While we were offshore, the birds were mainly Gannet and Great Shearwater with the odd Great Skua thrown in.

The excitement, when it arrived, came not from the sea but by the appearance of a Snow Bunting on board (photos 1 & 2). This is the third I’ve seen now and it’s always a delight to see these birds so far south and offshore. Another landbird, this time a Skylark (photo 3), gave us something different to look at but vying with the Snow Bunting for bird of the day was a Leach’s Petrel. It came in off the port bow and, very unusually for a petrel, came in close alongside the Endeavour, giving us brilliant views and certainly the best views I’ve had of one at sea (photos 4-6).

Puffins have been very thin on the ground this year (just 26 so far compared to the 516 seen in 2021) but we’ve seen two-four each day recently with another couple today (photo 7), the transformation from breeding to winter plumage is quite dramatic.

We completed the north-bound transect, had an hour and a bit to the next one, then headed off south. The breeze had freshened a little by now – though still only sea state 3, slowly increasing to 4 by the time we called it a day just before sunset with some dark brooding clouds killing the light. In the fading light we came across a decent sized feeding flock consisting of 19 Great Shearwater, 6 Sooty Shearwater, 30 Kittiwake, and 40 auks – an interesting mix.

An Arctic Skua chasing a Kittiwake at close range was a great way to close out the day, even better when it came in close across the bow – though the light was far from ideal for photos (photo 8).

21 October

We rejoined the transect where we’d finished last night but to very different weather conditions, the wind was now a NW force 6-7 and there was continuous light rain – fortunately from behind us. The sea built as we headed offshore until there was a steady three metre swell with occasional five metre lumps thrown in. Although we were rolling quite a lot with the swell on our beam we could at least see, the small coaster Wilson Harrier, at 91m a little longer than the Endeavour, gave us a flavour as to what it might have been like heading into the sea (photo 9). Of course, if you’re almost 400m long the sea conditions weren’t too bad at all (photo 10).

There was not much to be seen in these conditions, though a fishing vessel passing by had a good entourage of gulls trailing it, approximately 80 Herring and 60 Lesser Black-backed. We even managed nine encounters with Common Dolphin involving 50 animals.

An hour of peace and quiet with the sea behind us happily coincided with lunch, before we turned north and took the sea on our beam again. Fortunately, the wind decreased a little and the sea dropped off quite quickly, so we weren’t rolling quite so badly, although we now had to contend with rain showers and spray on the windscreen.

As with the previous transect we managed a reasonable number of dolphin sightings, with 11 encounters, all Common, totalling 72 animals. One late on leaping across a patch of sea coloured by the late afternoon sun (photo 11). Towards the end of the transect, as we ran in towards the coast east of Plymouth, we came across some more feeding flocks, again featuring Great and Sooty Shearwaters (photos 12-14) along with Kittiwake and auks.

It looks like we’re heading back south to complete the transects on the French side of the Channel for the next two or three days.

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