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PELTIC 2021 update 5 12 October

11 October

Today was a mid-Channel sort of day as we tidied up finishing two transects that run from the Dorset coast right down to level with the Channel Islands. We started the day with the eastern transect which meant we were a few kilometres off the southwest corner of Guernsey at sunrise, and it was a glorious one (photo 1). The southern coast of Guernsey is pretty rocky and looked dramatic backlit by the early morning sun (photo 2) as did the Hanois lighthouse (photo 3).

All the action occurred in the first hour or so with nine Balearic Shearwater logged and a lone Bottlenose Dolphin put in a brief appearance off the port side. The remaining two hours of the transect were very quiet with just occasional Gannet, Razorbill and Guillemot to record.

As is often the case with these transects crossing the traffic separation schemes in the Channel there is always a bit of shipping to watch when it gets quiet and today was no exception. Of interest (to probably only a few I have to admit) was seeing the Leonardo da Vinci heading down-Channel. A brand-new cable layer – and very smart and shiny it looked too (photo 4).

Photo 4: Leonardo da Vinci

The transit to the next transect was uneventful and we were soon heading south and staring into the midday glare – thankfully we broke off to trawl after only an hour and a half so were spared too long with the glare.

We haven’t seen too many terrestrial birds on board so far this survey, no doubt helped by the very favourable weather we’ve been having, with sightings limited to Chiffchaff, Meadow Pipit, Song Thrush, Pied Wagtail, Robin and Starling. However, when we stopped for the trawl a male Blackcap was seen flitting around the decks (photo 5) – the first on board so far – but usually a fairly commonly seen passenger on board.

Photo 5: Blackcap

The trawl didn’t attract many seabirds but there were a handful of Gannet and for some reason chose to circuit the ship very close to the bridge wings which enabled some quite nice portraits. At a distance the juvenile (photo 6 & 7) usually looks all brown but is in fact finely flecked with white tips to its feathers. Adults (photo 8) are just as striking and even though I have hundreds of photos of Gannet I can’t help taking more when they pass close by in good light – I’m sure they will feature again in a later blog.

This trawl also gave us our first close views of Great Skua this survey (photo 9), we seem to have seen relatively few so far and the Channel is usually a good place to see them. The light winds of the last two weeks had perhaps kept them further offshore.

Photo 9: Great Skua

After the trawl we returned to the transect, by now under much more favourable conditions, with the glare well to starboard. The rest of the transect was rather quiet, except for the addition of a new species of cetacean for this survey. All the Risso’s Dolphins I’ve seen on the PELTIC surveys have been in the English Channel so it was quite fitting that the same should happen this year. Emma picked up a group of seven 8-900m off to port and for a few moments it looked like they might come quite close but then ended up sounding when they were 5-600m off and reappearing 1000m behind us in our wake. Still at least this time they were close enough for a few photos, which clearly show the scarring and whitish colour that is characteristic of the species (photos 10-13).

October 12

Overnight we transferred over to the south side of the Channel and were ready to start our transects in French waters. The first and easternmost transect has, in the past, proved rather quiet with little to record – not so in 2021. Right from the off we started recording Balearic Shearwater (photos 14 & 15) and by the end of the day we had logged 151, the previous highest total was 99 in 2016. With plenty more areas yet to cover where we have seen them in the past there is a chance of a very good total. This is important as this species is Europe’s rarest breeding seabird with a global population of only about 8000-10000 pairs. The waters of the western Channel and Celtic Sea are known to be important areas for them in autumn, so they have long been a target species for the survey.

Last year we saw hardly any Tuna on this transect but for a two-hour period in the early afternoon the seas were alive with them with a minimum of 150 or so recorded. This is almost certainly a serious under-estimate as it’s really difficult to gauge how many animals are in the schools we see. Most were very distant but a couple of small schools came closer and Emma and I even managed a couple of photos (16 & 17).

Photo 16: Blue-fin Tuna (Emma Neave-Webb)
17: Blue-fin Tuna

It was fairly quiet for other bird species, although we did add Little Gull to the species list – always a lovely bird to see but sadly too distant for photos today.

Whilst we saw a large number of Tuna there were very few dolphins to be seen with only a small group of Common Dolphin right at the start of the day and then again just towards the end of the first transect. Interestingly, one of these was melanistic, lacking the characteristic yellow patch on the flank (photo 18).

Photo 18: melanistic Common Dolphin (Emma Neave-Webb)

I can’t write a blog about this area of the Channel without a photo of one of my favourite lighthouses – Roches Douvres (photo 19) – a mighty construction for a rock lighthouse.

Our French travels continue tomorrow.

19: Roches Douvres lighthouse

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