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PELTIC 2023 27 September-1 October

27 September

A short journey from Cardiff to join the ship in Swansea – a luxury after the drive down to Falmouth for the previous two trips! The first half of the survey will be slightly different for me this year as I’ll be by myself – but will be joined on the bridge by a team of two ESAS surveyors from JNCC, Tim Dunn and Sarah Money. Robin Langdon will be joining me when the ship docks in Falmouth on 11 October for a crew change and changing a few of the scientists as well.


Storm Agnes came through during the afternoon and evening but the winds in Swansea were only around force 8 with a little bit of light rain.


28 September

We were all geared up for an 07:00 departure but the captain decided that we’d delay by 24 hours to let the sea drop off a little after Storm Agnes. We whiled away a grey day in Swansea was with safety inductions, survey briefings and the mandatory muster and abandon ship drill.

Photo 1: Departing Swansea

29 September

And we’re off, pilot on board at 07:00 and away through the locks of Swansea dock shortly after (photo 1). Less than an hour later we were lining up to start our first transect.


Unfortunately, the inner Bristol Channel transects seldom deliver much in terms of marine wildlife and today was no different. A flock of seven Common Scoter shortly after starting was the highlight after that it was sporadic sightings of Guillemots – just 17 in total – along with a Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Photo 2: Foreland Point lighthouse

The short transit to the start of the second transect took us along the forbidding cliffs of the North Somerset coast, virtually the only sign of human habitation is Foreland Point lighthouse (photo 2). Picking up our transect we headed off NW across the Channel towards Worms Head and Carmarthen Bay. The transect started in much the same vein as the last with a few scattered Guillemots to be seen, with sightings increasing marginally as we neared Worms Head. The day was brought to an early close as the CEFAS scientists made another effort to trawl (the first effort this morning was scrubbed due to technical difficulties) and unfortunately, this one went the same way with the sensor that lets the scientists know how large the opening of the net is (an essential piece of information for the survey) not communicating with the ship.

Photo 3: Common Dolphins

What turned up a short time after coming off transect? Yep, Common Dolphins appeared while we were having dinner and remained with us for some time (photo 3)


30 September

Photo 4: sunrise

We started the day a few nautical miles east of Tenby at the western edge of Carmarthen Bay with a glorious sunrise (photo 4) and headed off to the SE to meet the point where we’d come off transect yesterday. Birds were few and far between, although a sighting of Common Dolphin a few minutes after the start of the transect brightened things up with a second group half an hour later. Least expected bird sighting of the morning was a flock of seven Grey Herons heading south out of the Bay (photo 5). Otherwise, it was business as usual with a handful of Guillemots and the odd Kittiwake. Songbird migration was much in evidence though, with a steady trickle of Meadow Pipits heading south.

Photo 5: Grey Herons

Once we completed the transect another attempt was made at a trawl, this time the electronics worked but the net didn’t, something was stopping it opening as fully as it should after much searching a possible cause was found but would require a couple of hours work so we headed off to start the next transect. As luck would have it this happened just after lunch, fortuitous timing.


The next transect takes us from the North Devon coast all the way to St Govan’s Head in Pembrokeshire – 50 nautical miles or five hours. Conditions had been quite benign in the morning but as the day progressed, they worsened and by mid-afternoon there was 30-35 knots of wind from the south resulting in a very lumpy sea state six. Birds were still scarce, though diversity had increased with the odd Razorbill, Gannet and gull thrown into the mix but after five hours only 51 birds had been logged. Bird of the transect were three Golden Plovers heading south. A solitary Harbour Porpoise late in the day was the only cetacean sighting.


1 October

The day started grey and wet, with a sea state of five and a two-three metre swell, not ideal conditions but there were a lot of birds. Sadly, we only had 20 minutes on transect before we came off to attempt another trawl – which ended with the net still not opening fully – resulting in much scratching of heads. The first 20 minutes had been fantastic with seven encounters with 42 Common Dolphins (photos 6 & 7), many of which stayed with us during the trawl. Birds logged were mainly Gannet with a decent number of Razorbills and a few Manx Shearwaters. During the trawl we had the first skua of the survey fly past – an adult Arctic (photo 8).


A dark, long-winged passerine caught my eye as it flitted between the winches aft of the bridge, it looked like a flycatcher but the rain and salt-smeared windows made seeing detail difficult. It perched on a rail directly below the bridge and I managed to get a window open to get an unobstructed view. Oh my, I was looking at a largish flycatcher (about the size of a Spotted Flycatcher) with a plain brown back, two white wing bars, a whitish throat and plain, unstreaked greyish breast below that. I raced to get my camera but it flew off forward just as I got back and despite the miserable weather (and searching when the rain eased later) it wasn't seen again. I couldn't really believe what I'd just seen, it was a bird from North America and one of the genus of Empidonax flycatchers - sadly for me almost impossible to identify in the field let alone on a single 20 second view looking down on it from above.


Within minutes of restarting the transect a large school of over 40 Bottlenose Dolphins appeared off the starboard beam powering through some of the large swells (photos 9 & 10). However, they weren’t interested in us and were soon left behind. There were several juveniles amongst them and one which appears to be very pale, almost albino (photo 11).

There was nothing like the number and variety of birds once we restarted but at least there were still plenty to be seen – Guillemot were most numerous followed by Gannet. Swallow migration was also evident with regular flocks seen moving south, despite the rain.

We broke off transect for another attempt at a trawl mid-afternoon. The first attempt went the same as the earlier ones but on hauling the net the bosun spotted that one of the cables was tightly twisted – enough to stop the net opening – the twist was pulled out and the net redeployed. This time, much to everyone’s relief, the net worked perfectly, and a good sample of fish was caught.

Photo 12: Juvenile Gannet

We resumed the transect with two hours left on the transect but the weather by now was very gloomy with reduced visibility – although it had at least stopped raining and the wind had dropped to a gentle breeze. It would be a struggle to be seeing birds by the end of the transect. Sporadic Guillemot sightings continued and we recorded the first juvenile Gannet of the survey - good to see given the reduction in colony sizes due to bird flu - but best of all were the 18 Storm Petrels, most in a short spell to the north of Lundy. It’s always amazing to see these small seabirds flitting around the ocean, knowing they migrate to southern Africa and have to survive storms but still manage to live more than 30 years.

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