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Peltic 2022 wrap-up

Peltic 2022 wrap up Back home with data checked and validated I think a little review of this year’s mini Peltic is in order. We only spent 12 days at sea (and only surveyed on 10 of those) and you can see the transects we covered this year in Figure 1, a total distance of just 884km. We may not have been out long but the bird list features some pretty impressive numbers (Table 1).

Figure 1: transects covered in 2022

Despite only spending 10 days surveying, I was intrigued to see how this year fared with previous years and, having the 2020 & 2021 data to hand, I was able to extract the totals for the same transects and do just that. The comparison totals (seabirds only) can be seen in Table 2 and really shows that this year was, for some species at least, a very good year, and for others perhaps a cause for concern.

The bird of the survey was undoubtedly Great Shearwater, it really is a case of what might have been though, I can’t help wondering how many (and possibly other species) we might have seen had we been out for the full 35 days. Still, seeing them at close range and on a daily basis (photos 1-6) will linger long in the memory.

Another standout total is 1250 Kittiwake (photos 7-8), more than three times that seen in the previous two surveys. There was obviously a lot of food around in Lyme Bay and Falmouth Bay, we encountered feeding flocks of 600 and 110 and saw several other large flocks beyond our one kilometre recording range. The abundance of food had also attracted good numbers of auks with Guillemot and Razorbill (and unidentified auk sp.) in very good numbers (photos 9-12).

The total of 304 European Storm Petrel is the second highest logged since 2017 – and that’s for the full surveys. This year featured some sizeable flocks, including one of at least 100 birds, part of which can be seen in photo 13, most were in mid-Channel on the eastern transects.

Flock of Storm Petrels

The Gannet total may, on the face of it, look impressive but if taking out the one feeding flock of 3500 birds the remaining total of just over 1000 does not compare favourably with the previous years. The circumstantial evidence points to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) being the culprit as the disease has ravaged the UK Gannet population this summer. Worryingly, we encountered many birds during the survey with the dark eye characteristic of the haemorrhaging associated with HPAI (photo 14), indicating that it is still rife in the population.

Gannet infected with HPAI

The Gannets that were around were also finding plenty of food close to the surface, so much so that none of the birds in the big feeding flock were plunge-diving, just feeding on the surface. A photo taken of another feeding flock showed a Gannet with a beakful of small fish just scooped from the surface – an indication of just how easy it was for birds to feed (photo 15).

Gannet feeding from the surface

A few other species were recorded in reduced numbers, all of them scavengers, perhaps indicative of the impact of HPAI on their populations too. One we know has been seriously impacted is Great Skua, a species which has been in decline for some years, so another drop in numbers recorded this year is a concern. HPAI amongst gulls doesn’t seem to have been reported to the same extent so far but given they are going to scavenge on infected Gannet carcasses it would seem very likely it will have had some sort of impact – perhaps just out of sight at sea rather around their colonies. Great Black-backed, Herring, and Lesser Black-backed Gull were all recorded in very low numbers this year, however, it may take a few more years before any trend becomes established. Lesser, in particular, are migratory and it may just be that there weren’t that many in the Channel while we were there.

A notable omission from the table for 2022 is Balearic Shearwater, as Europe’s rarest breeding seabird, a target species for the Peltic survey. We managed 26 on these transects last year but this year the only birds seen were two off-transect in Lyme Bay.

Unlike Great Skua we recorded a good number of Arctic Skua and also lucked in on a Pomarine on transect, plus another one seen off-transect (photos 16-19).

As far as cetaceans go 2022 was a poor year for variety, if not numbers, Table 3 compares the totals for 2022 with 2021 and 2020. Highlight were the three Fin Whales seen during our last day at sea, it’s always a special day when you see the second largest animal on the planet and the third animal was only 300m or so off the bow (photo 20).

Fin Whale

We can get a little blasé about Common Dolphin but regardless of how many you’ve seen it still raises a smile watching them leaping in towards the bow, especially in nice light (photos 21-22). Generally, the sea conditions were not in our favour for spotting the generally more secretive Bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphin, let alone the diminutive Harbour Porpoise.

Table 3: Cetacean totals 2022-2020

This year was also very poor for tuna, even though we know from the charter boats out catching them for tagging, that there were very good numbers in Falmouth Bay. As with the dolphins, sea conditions were very unfavourable for spotting tuna splashes and we ended with just four animals compared to 81 in 2021 and 44 in 2020.

Let’s just hope that everything goes to plan next year and we’re able to do the full survey.

Peter Howlett and Nuala Campbell

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