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Peltic 2023 12-13 October

12 October

We left Falmouth at 20:00 last night and steamed overnight to get to SW of the Isles of Scilly to restart transects. I now had company as Robin Langdon joined me as MARINElife surveyor and the there had been a change in JNCC ESAS personnel with Debbie and Sarah taking over. It wasn’t a terribly auspicious start with a lack of birds and cetaceans, even though the viewing conditions weren’t too bad, although it did take a while to get properly light with the heavy overcast.

Arctic Skua chasing Cory's Shearwater

It took almost an hour for there to be a moment of excitement – at least for me – when a Minke Whale surfaced and rolled once 300m off the port bow (the first for the survey this year), as is the way with Minkes that was the only sighting. Birds were sparse with Cory’s Shearwaters putting in regular appearances, along with one or two Greats and Sooties. Skuas have been scarce on the survey, so an Arctic heading towards us was something to focus on. Even better when it did what skuas do and chased another bird, trying to force it to regurgitate whatever it had recently eaten. Its first victim was a juvenile Common Tern, the second a Cory’s Shearwater (photo 1). Having got the shearwater to cough up its stomach contents it then carried on its way south (photo 2).

Arctic Skua

The next transect was only a few miles long and took us close to Bishop Rock lighthouse. In August a Red-footed Booby (a relative of the Gannet, closest populations in the Caribbean) had been found at the lighthouse and had been there off and on ever since. This is only the second record of the species in the UK so there were at least two of us on board hoping that we might get a glimpse of it sat on the helipad as we went past. Sadly, it was not to be, we had a clear view of the lighthouse as we went past and there was no sign of the booby (photo 3). I suspect if was off feeding as there were feeding flocks of Gannet scattered around in the various channels through the reefs north of the lighthouse. Another species was added to the survey list though, a male Siskin circled the Endeavour a couple of times before heading off.

Bishop Rock lighthouse (sans Red-footed Booby)

As we turned on to the southerly heading for the next transect it started raining, as the wind was from the south this necessitated the use of the windscreen wipers, something we try and avoid as much as possible but in these conditions there was no option – at least we could carry on surveying.

Common Dolphins

Almost from the off there were groups of Common Dolphins coming into the bow, by the end of the transect we’d had 20 encounters with 168 – a very good spell (photo 4). On the bird side Cory’s Shearwater was once again the most numerous species recorded (photo 5) with Gannet in a very distant second. We stopped for a trawl in the middle of the transect and immediately drew a crowd of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, we’ve seen very few so far this survey so to suddenly get 110 gathering around the Endeavour was quite remarkable. I’m guessing these birds had all been heading south when they saw an opportunity for a snack, they were going to be very disappointed with us, the trawl contained a small catch of Boar Fish which don’t tend to leak from the net like most small fish.

Cory's Shearwater

During the trawl we had been joined by a Northern Wheatear which obviously viewed the Endeavour as a safe haven in some grotty weather, it certainly looked very miserable huddled down on a winch motor (photo 6). In stark contrast, Cory’s Shearwaters sailed on regardless of the weather (photo 7).

Northern Wheatear
Cory's Shearwater in the rain

We’re on a north-bound transect tomorrow, with the prospect of northerly gale force winds in the afternoon.

13 October

The day started on a reasonable note, the wind was SW force 6 but with a following sea conditions were almost benign. We had dolphins from the word go, all Common, but seabird sightings were a little slow. Having said that any day where the first four birds seen are; Sooty Shearwater, Gannet, Cory’s Shearwater and Great Shearwater can’t be a bad day!

Cory's Shearwater
Great Shearwater

Cory’s and Great Shearwater (photos 8 & 9) continued to be the dominant species, both increasing in number as we made our way north. A midday stop for a trawl brought in a few Gannets, some coming in really close as they ride the updraft along the side of the ship, giving the opportunity for some portrait shots (photo 10). We’ve been seeing quite a few juvenile Gannets so far (very heartening given all the devastation of bird flu in the Gannet population), and one came in for a close fly-by (photo 11). A Meadow Pipit (photo 12) also circled the ship a few times before deciding (quite wisely) to carry on its way. Odd species pairing of the survey so far goes to this flock of Oystercatchers which briefly drew the attention of a Cory's Shearwater (photo 13).

Adult Gannet
Juvenile Gannet

A spell of heavy rain during the trawl signalled the passage of the cold front which would bring in the strong northerlies and as we rejoined the transect the wind switched to the NW and within 50 minutes had gone from 20 knots to over 40. The sea responded and we soon had two-three metre waves from the north doing battle with the long three metre swell left over from the SW winds.

Meadow Pipit
Cory's Shearwater and flock of Oystercatchers

The birds seemed to respond to this, and the sky was full of them for the final leg of the transect. Things got off to a good start with a flock of 30 or Cory’s Shearwaters (photo 14) and from then on there were Cory’s and Great Shearwaters everywhere. There were flocks and a constant movement of birds too and fro in front of us, combined with the weather conditions a really spectacular sight.

Cory's Shearwater flock

We attempted another water station at the end of the transect but by now the conditions were a little too rough to get the rosette or plankton nets over the side. With northerly winds forecast for tomorrow the decision was made to head south and be on station for a transect starting in Mounts Bay.

There was still plenty of light so the obvious place to be was on the bridge keeping a watch for wildlife. It paid off too, with a Fin Whale lunge feeding ahead of us, unfortunately, the swell meant it was barely visible and I just caught sight of the back and fin disappearing underwater.

We had passed the Sevenstones lightship on the 8th in millpond conditions (photo 15), it looked very different today (photos 16-17). I also caught the Scillonian heading back to Penzance from St Mary’s, at this time of year there’d be lots of birdwatchers onboard, they’d have had a good crossing with all the seabirds around, although the sea conditions might not have been to all tastes! (photos 18 & 19).

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