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October 25-26 - at last 4 species of cetacean in a day

25 October

It was good to get to the bridge and see that conditions were far more favourable than when we finished yesterday, a relatively light NNE wind and cloud cover, still enough to affect light but at least not enough to have any rain coming out of it. The other benefit of the cloud being that it shielded us from the sun – a real bonus as we were heading south – and in fact we didn’t get any glare until early afternoon.

Whilst the conditions may have been favourable, there wasn’t much birdlife to be seen, there were a few encounters with Common Dolphin but even those only involved a handful of animals each. We stopped for a trawl fairly early on that seemed to emphasise the lack of birds, just a few Gannets being drawn in as we hauled.

Photo 1: flock of Storm Petrels from a previous Peltic survey

It wasn’t until early afternoon that things started to pick up a little, first with the spotting of three Harbour Porpoise, amazingly only the sixth sighting this survey, and the first since 9 October. Around the same time, we started to see a few Storm Petrels, with numbers increasing to peak at seeing a flock of about 30 rafting on the sea, photo 1 is from a previous Peltic as there wasn’t a chance to take any photos on this occasion. We ended the day having seen over 100 of these amazing little birds, always such a pleasure to see. General bird numbers remained low, but we did manage a Great Shearwater for the day, definitely seems like they are now mainly out in the western Channel, and there seemed to be a small passage of Little Gulls going on as we saw 22 during the afternoon (photo 2).

Photo 2: Little Gull (not from today)

The highlight of the day, by far, was coming across a pod of six Risso’s Dolphin (photos 3-6). For once they stayed within a few hundred metres of the ship and one even came in close (albeit underwater), but it was amazing to see the pale body swimming past underwater. There was a little back flipping from two juveniles and then one animal did several leaps in the wake – annoyingly right behind where hot air vents from the funnel, so all the photos were blurred by heat haze – great to finally get another species of cetacean on the list for the survey.

The break between transects saw quite a few more Little Gulls heading south or feeding, we saw around 70 in total during the day, a couple of Balearic Shearwaters, and a large group of Common Dolphins (photos 7-10).

We had just around an hour of daylight left as we started the next transect, just offshore from Guernsey. It made a change to see Les Hanois lighthouse (photo 11) with sun on it, as for whatever reason, in the past we have started this one at dawn. A couple of groups of Balearic Shearwater was good to see – the seas around Guernsey seem to be an important area for them at the moment with flocks of hundreds seen during July – otherwise, birds were few and far between.

Photo 11: Les Hanois lighthouse

We were just on the verge of packing up for the day as the light faded, when some slow-moving fins were spotted off to starboard – Bottlenose Dolphins – they soon turned into fast moving ones as four animals came in towards the bow. A fantastic sight and one I haven’t seen that often, it also reminded us how big these dolphins are, having seen hundreds of petite Common Dolphins leaping in these were huge in comparison. What a way to end the day – and make it four species of cetacean for the day, a first for the survey this year.

We didn’t get a sunset this evening, but we did get some fantastic late afternoon clouds (photo 12) along with the 87% moon rising behind some broken cloud (photo 13).

26 October

We had 60 nautical miles of the transect started yesterday evening left to run today so we were hoping to be kept busy. Things got off to a good start with a large and active group of 60 or so Common Dolphins leaping enthusiastically in towards us, there appeared to be quite a few calves amongst them, so perhaps a maternity group. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there, we only had one other dolphin sighting in the next five hours, and it took almost three hours to fill the first sheet for bird sightings too.

There were numerous heavy showers around, most of which missed us, we did finally catch the edge of one late on which produced a lovely rainbow (photo 14). This shower must also have grounded a few birds because after it cleared there was a sudden rush of birds heading out to the southwest, most of which were Mediterranean Gulls (photo 15, one from a few days back), over 50 logged in the space of 20 minutes. We ended the transect just offshore from West Bay, Dorset, with the afternoon sun lighting up the cliffs (photo 16).

We had the luxury of a 50-minute break for lunch before we were back at our stations to start the next transect. Which got off to quite a good start with a few Great Black-backed Gulls (photo 17) and flocks of Guillemot (photo 18) and Razorbills either on the sea or flying. A group of six Common Dolphin in at the bow contained a mother and calf with a different colour pattern, seen too briefly to get much on them, but they both seemed to be lacking the yellow panel.

We had an early finish today as we stopped for a trawl at 15:40 about 9 nautical miles south of Portland, Dorset (photo 19) and it would be close to sunset by the time that was completed. As we prepared for the trawl a Great Black-backed Gull was spotted carrying a satellite transmitter. We had seen one of these last year off Berryhead, which had turned out to be from a French colony near Cherbourg, annoyingly, it kept its legs wrapped up in its feathers so we couldn’t get a glimpse of the numbered colour ring it would have been carrying.

P.S. I emailed the person who had ringed the bird last year and heard back that yes, it was one of his, but unfortunately (at least for us) that there are currently two of his birds off Portland so without getting the colour ring code we wouldn’t know which one.

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