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PELTIC 2021 update 12 - 26 October

25 October

Day two in Cardigan Bay and we started the day about 25km offshore to run in a southeasterly direction towards the coast. There wasn’t much cloud but the few patches low down near the horizon were enough to obscure the sun for the first hour but it soon rose too high for that and we were staring into bright glare. Fortunately, we broke off for a trawl fairly early in the morning so were spared it for a couple of hours. There was also the odd shower cloud around mid-morning with one looking like it had a bit of rain under it (photo 1).

Photo 1: Cardigan Bay showers

Bird sightings were made up almost exclusively of just three species; Guillemot, Razorbill (including Auk species for those we couldn’t identify), and Kittiwake. That is, apart from one tantalising sighting of a large shearwater species seen at about 1000m and in poor light as it was soon after sunrise. The lazy flight and what appeared to be clean white underparts suggest it was almost certainly a Cory’s Shearwater but we just couldn’t get enough on it to say with certainty – the one that got away, unfortunately.

In the right light it is very easy to tell Razorbills and Guillemots apart, even at some distance (photo 2) but sometimes they might be travelling in mixed groups and as you track them the birds are constantly moving relative to one another and it’s not quite so easy (photo 3). However, if the light is wrong then very often they will just be logged as auk species.

We’ve done pretty well for Kittiwake this year and in the English Channel we were seeing a large number of this year’s juveniles, however, there seem to be far fewer in Cardigan Bay, even though there are even more Kittiwake. Not sure whether this just means juvenile birds have moved out of Cardigan Bay already or whether the birds breeding along the west coast have not had a good year. They are one of our prettiest gull species in my opinion, the adults look neat and tidy (photo 4) and the juvenile birds look really striking (photo 5).

Another gull species we’ve seen more of this survey than usual – about 30 so far (previous best count 12) – is Black-headed Gull – also a dainty species and runs Kittiwake a close second (photo 6). The birds we’ve seen have been feeding with flocks of Kittiwake and other gulls so presumably drawn offshore by plentiful food. The CEFAS scientists are certainly seeing lots of small sprat in their catches and on sonar.

Sadly, this transect was one of only a handful so far this year that ended cetacean-free.

Photo 7: the coast near New Quay

Our track between transects this morning took us along the Welsh coast between Aberporth and New Quay, which looked suitably rugged but still green in the sunshine (photo 7). We also passed two or three feeding flocks of seabirds, mainly Kittiwake but also a few Common Gull (photo 8) and more Black-headed and Mediterranean Gull and one or two close Gannet – their eye is amazing (photo 9).

Our second transect had more of the same as the first, i.e., more Kittiwake, Guillemot and Razorbill – and very little else. One thing extra we did see was a single group of six Common Dolphin, so at least this transect wasn’t cetacean-free.

Tomorrow will see us start our last day in Cardigan Bay at the north end a couple of kilometres west of Bardsey.

26 October

Well, at least we got to see Bardsey this year (photo 10) and the warden of Bardsey bird observatory saw us and managed a hasty digiscoped shot (photo 11 by Steve Stansfield) – unlike last year when the visibility was a down to 100m or so. Weather conditions were far from ideal, with winds gusting to force seven and a sea state of six and yesterday’s bright conditions replaced with a grey overcast. Despite that we managed two sightings of Common Dolphin, both groups leaping through the swells to come into the bow.

Each autumn a large feeding flock of gulls builds up just to the south of Bardsey and our transect runs straight through it. Last year, visibility was so bad that we only recorded a handful of gulls, this year things were a lot more chaotic with birds everywhere. Our counts estimated about 600 Kittiwake, 50 Mediterranean Gull, 30 Black-headed Gull and a handful of Manx Shearwater and Gannet. These numbers are quite low, the observatory has recorded up to 2-3000 Kittiwake there in the past – that would be ‘interesting’ to sail through and estimate as they pass by at 11 knots.

After that it was business as usual for the rest of the transect with more auks and Kittiwake added to the records.

Today’s section of Welsh coast between transects was Barmouth to Aberystwyth, sadly not quite as picturesque under the overcast and, as our track took us well offshore to avoid shallow waters inshore, the coast was almost lost in the murk.

Sea conditions for the last transect had deteriorated even further with winds now gusting 35 knots and a sea state of seven so we weren’t that hopeful for sightings. Fortunately, a couple of small pods of Common Dolphin proved us wrong and came in to say hello. The first consisted of eight animals, five adults and three calves, it’s always lovely to see young calves leaping alongside their mothers, perhaps more so in slightly stormy conditions (photos 12-15).

We managed a few more auks, Kittiwake and Gannet before we reached the end of the transect and wrapped up Cardigan Bay for another year. Sadly, no Bottlenose Dolphin this year, though we saw plenty of photos of them on social media leaping around off New Quay while we were in the vicinity. Still, it’s interesting that there are numbers of Common Dolphin spread around the Bay.

A bumpy night in store as we head south into the weather to be in the Bristol Channel tomorrow morning.

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