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PELTIC 2023 2-4 October

2 October

An essential part of this survey is the acoustic work carried out by the CEFAS scientists on board. A sonar is used to monitor the fish along each transect which needs to be calibrated each year to account for variations in salinity and water conditions. This requires a small metal sphere of tungsten to be suspended 20m beneath the ship and then positioned in front of the sonar – the problem being that where the sphere is the sonar beam is only about a metre or two wide – and it can take a while to find it. So unfortunately, this process can take anything from 4-10 hours, we were quite lucky today, it only took six.

To do the calibration we had stationed ourselves in Bideford Bay and then drift on the tide, this took us out of the bay and to the south. Although nice and calm the conditions were obviously not conducive to any migration as there were few birds to be seen. A couple of Brent Geese flying past early, a new species to the trip list, and two flocks of Common Scoter were the only birds of note. On the passerine side there was a trickle of Meadow Pipits going past.

Hartland Point lighthouse

With calibration finished early afternoon we were able to head off and get back to transect work, fortunately we had drifted close to the start of the next one – just off Hartland Point (photos 1 and 2). Unfortunately, the weather had started to go down the pan with a freshening N-NE wind, thickening cloud and rain setting in an hour into the transect. To start with the wind was on the beam and the rain stayed off the windscreen but by late afternoon the wind had swung around, and I was reduced to looking through a single window out into 400m visibility – hardly ideal survey conditions.

Hartland Point mid-afternoon as the cloud was lowering

There were at least a few birds to be seen with auks leading the way, particularly Razorbills (photo 3 – a library shot from a previous Peltic). Gannet, Kittiwake and Common Scoter made up the short species list. Cetaceans were thin on the ground, just three encounters with five Common Dolphin.

Razorbills (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

We were spared having to peer through the gloom when we broke off transect for a trawl, this was late enough in the day that we wouldn’t resume the transect afterwards, it also came just in time for me to go down for dinner – bonus! We started hauling the trawl at about 18:30, very gloomy conditions in the overcast and rain, but good enough to see the birds coming to feed on scraps coming out of the net. The highlight was a juvenile Sabine’s Gull, the first one I’ve seen on Peltic for a few years. A Sooty Shearwater also paid us a close visit, typical that the light was rubbish when two good birds are around!

With calibration out of the way it’s now up to Cardigan Bay for three days to cover the seven short transects for the Welsh Government.

3 October

Overnight we made the journey from south of Lundy to a few nautical miles NW of Aberystwyth to begin the most northerly transect. We headed NW with the wind 25-30 knots from the W, not ideal conditions, with spray on the bridge windows an added irritation. Birds were few and far between with just 50 logged in the first two hours. South of Bardsey we came across the feeding flock of Kittiwakes (an autumn feature of the shoals south of the island), sadly most were a little too far away to be included in the survey, but I could make out an Arctic Skua amongst the flock and the odd Common Tern – but nothing more unusual.

There was half an hour of the transect to run after the trawl and it proved quite fruitful with two small flocks of Golden Plover heading south and a single Storm Petrel, closer than normal as it worked its way through the swells upwind of the Endeavour.

Fulmar (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

A solitary Common Dolphin leaping effortlessly through the swells brightened the hour it took to get to the next transect. A turn to the SE then I was back on duty for another three hours. Having not seen a Fulmar so far this trip it was a slight surprise to log nine in the first 15 minutes of this transect (photo 4 – another archive shot as the weather hasn’t been conducive to photography today). It seems to be the way that you can go for ages without seeing a Fulmar then run into quite a few.

The rest of the transect continued in the now familiar vein with scattered Guillemots sat on the sea and occasional small flocks of Razorbills flying past along with the odd Gannet. Three Storm Petrels sat on the sea 200m ahead of the ship made for a nice bit of variety. A brief sighting of two Common Dolphin was the only cetacean sighting. A brief hole in the cloud allowed a final glimpse of the sun shortly before sunset (photo 5)

Sun poking through a hole in the cloud

With the force 5-7 W-SW winds forecast to continue for the next two days at least it could be tough going.

4 October

Day 2 in Cardigan Bay and we were greeted with cloudy skies and a force 5-6 wind from the SW. Once again, the inner half of the transect was very quiet with occasional Guillemots, Gannets and a solitary Manx Shearwater. We stopped for a trawl two thirds of the way along the transect, giving me a break from the hectic recording. Very little was attracted to the haul, just a dozen Kittiwakes, five Gannets, three Razorbills (photo 6) and two Manx Shearwaters.

Razorbills coming to a trawl

This survey is about fisheries population estimates so we are looking for a wide range of sizes/ages, some are so small that they can get through the fine mesh near the end of the net, and it is these small fish that had attracted the Kittiwake (photo 7). As the Gannet were diving in around the Kittiwake, I can only assume they were happy hoovering up these little fish as well (photo 8). It’s always a great sight having the Gannet come close to the bridge as we haul, they are majestic birds (photo 9).

By the time we resumed the transect the wind had freshened a little more and the sea state was now up to seven, light conditions were good though, so although picking up auks on the surface was a struggle flying birds were easy enough. Not that there was much to be seen.

The next transect was more of the same, odd flocks of Razorbills flying past, scattered Guillemots sat on the sea and occasional Gannets and Kittiwakes for variety. Despite the conditions I managed to glimpse a Harbour Porpoise amongst the swells and later picked up three Common Dolphins leaping through the waves 600m ahead of the ship. I thought they were going to carry on their way, but they must have suddenly realised the ship was there and changed course to come and play at the bow for 15-20 minutes.

Strumble Head lighthouse

Most of the transects in Cardigan Bay are shorter than average so we were able to fit in a third before the light go too bad for surveying. The last started just offshore from Strumble Head (photo 10), the light standing out in the gathering gloom. Birds were few and far between, once again but the 75 minutes of surveying was brightened by the sight of two Common Dolphins leaping towards us through and over the waves.

That leaves two more, short, transects tomorrow and we’ll have finished Cardigan Bay and we’ll head back south to pick up the transect south of Lundy.

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