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Peltic 2021 wrap up

Back home on dry land now and time to have a little look back at this year’s survey and give you some numbers for the birds, cetaceans, and other wildlife we recorded during the survey.


We spent 29 days surveying 4,039km of transects (photo 1), the greatest distance covered for any of the Peltic surveys. Unlike last year no transects were missed and only one, in Falmouth Bay, was cut slightly short as we ran out of daylight and it would have disrupted the schedule too much to have tried to return the following day.

Photo 1: 2021 transects

Looking back now the survey was really a tale of two halves. The period 6th-17th October was lovely and calm with a sea state of two or three for 70% of our survey effort. In stark contrast, for the period from 18th October-5th November we had sea state five or above for 70% of survey effort and sea state two or three for just 15%.


Cetaceans

Highlight of the survey for cetaceans were the 10 Fin Whale (plus a further five probables) seen (photos 2-7). Annoyingly, we only saw two and one probable while on effort with nine seen when we were off effort for trawling and three when we were travelling between transects. Recording three in the English Channel was new for the Peltic surveys, with one as far east as Start Point, Devon.

We did very well for Common Dolphin this year (photos 8-13), with a total of 3899 animals seen in 246 encounters, the most Commons seen in a Peltic survey so far and twice the number we recorded last year. This high number isn’t down to the calm weather in the first half of the survey either as we recorded more in the rough second half than the first. I do wonder how many we might have recorded had the second half had a few more calm days as all six of the pods numbering 100+ animals were seen in the second half.

Other interesting cetacean sightings included the pod of eight Long-finned Pilot Whales, although the fin of one of the bulls (photo 14) looks good for Short-finned – could it be a lost animal caught up with a pod of Long-finned? Sadly, we’ll almost certainly never know as I don’t think the shape of the dorsal fin is enough to clinch a Pilot Whale ID.

Photo 14: Pilot Whale

We also did well for Risso’s Dolphins this survey with four encounters involving at least 33 animals. This included one of the whitest animals Emma and I had ever seen (photo 15).

Photo 15: Risso's Dolphin

Harbour Porpoise is a bit of a strange one, given the calm seas of the first half of the survey we should have seen quite a few but we only had 17 encounters with 32 animals, all of them in Lyme Bay. There was a lot of naval activity off Plymouth and in Falmouth Bay so this may have driven them away from those areas but even so the lack of sightings elsewhere in the English Channel is a little surprising.


Seabirds

Unsurprisingly, Gannet tops the table of most recorded seabird with 7697 logged (photos 16-18), however, that’s still fewer than we recorded in 2017 (8900) and 2018 (8027). There did seem to be a lack of birds in the central English Channel, we didn’t have any large numbers of birds coming into the trawls, despite there being plenty of fish in them. We also didn’t come across any fishing boats with large gatherings of seabirds either, which is likely the reason the Great Black-backed Gull count was so low (380 compared with 730 in 2020).

Another species with a notably low count was Great Skua (photos 19 & 20), with only 135 recorded. That sounds a lot but not when you compare it to the 435 logged in 2017. The species has had a number of poor breeding seasons now and hope this is not starting to be reflected in the numbers at sea.

On a much more positive note were the species seen in record numbers, chief of which were Balearic Shearwater (photos 21 & 22), the target species of seabird for the Peltic surveys. The 346 recorded this year is more than three times any previous Peltic survey. As with last year we hardly saw any birds in the Celtic Sea and the bulk of the sightings were close into the north coast of Brittany with a few in Lyme Bay. Why the large numbers? The obvious assumption Is the presence of plentiful food. The fisheries research conducted during the survey showed that Sprat were present in the English Channel and Celtic Sea in quantities not seen on any previous Peltic survey and I think this may be the driver for a number of the record totals we saw.

Puffin might be another example, prior to this year the most recorded on a Peltic survey was 48, we recorded more than that on several days this year and ended up recording 512 (photos 23 & 24). Most were recorded on transects that have been covered on all 13 Peltic surveys so this isn’t down to them being in new areas. It’s also not a function of weather as we were recording them in good numbers even on rough days, it’s likely down to food, with the abundant small fish keeping the birds closer inshore than normal.

There were also particularly good numbers of Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake this year, with the latter two species in record numbers. It’s possible their numbers were also boosted by the presence of the Sprat as numbers were generally high through many of the inshore sections of transects in the Celtic Sea and Cardigan Bay. The Razorbill total is also notable for being so close to the Guillemot total, in all previous Peltic surveys Razorbill counts have only been 50% or less of the Guillemot total. There was a significant southerly movement of auks and Kittiwake on 1 November with over 20000+ of each logged passing Strumble Head that day and we recorded 600+ of each that day too (with a considerable number seen as we were making our way to the start of transect) so added significantly to our good totals.


Another species seen in unprecedented numbers was Mediterranean Gull (photos 25 & 26), the 252 logged this year far surpassing any previous total. They were particularly numerous along the south coast of England with the best day count being 109 in Lyme Bay. It’s tempting to speculate that the abundance of small fish was a factor in this too but as other gull species weren’t similarly affected (with the exception of Black-headed Gull) it’s probably not as simple as that.

We don’t normally log many wildfowl on the Peltic surveys, Common Scoter and Brent Goose being the most regular, so the 229 Wigeon seen on the sea south of Dawlish were very unusual. I can only imagine they had been driven off the saltmarshes on the Exe estuary and Dawlish Warren by disturbance.


This year won’t go down as a particularly good year for terrestrial birds on board the Endeavour with the highlight definitely the Dusky Warbler but the two Snow Bunting were nice to see too.


So, another year over but there’s Peltic 2022 to look forward to – dates to be confirmed.


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