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Spectacular pods, Gannets and shearwaters

Wednesday 19 October

Another 115km of transect today, this time running north, 16km west of yesterday’s transect (all this year’s transects will be this distance apart). With the wind from the east at 25-30 knots to start and steadily over 30 knots by midday plus the resultant 2.5-3 metre swell – observing conditions were far from ideal!

Birds were few and far between with the odd Gannet and gull drifting past and, as we travelled further north a handful of European Storm Petrels. We had managed to pick up a couple of small groups of Common Dolphin, in these seas when they were about 300m off the ship and closing in to bow ride. We picked up another group leaping purposefully through the swells and watched as they came towards us only to quickly realise there were rather a lot more following. As you scanned back through the swells all you could see were groups of dolphins surging along, they were heading east with purpose. Counting them was tricky and all you could do was estimate the groups as they appeared through the waves but we thought 400 was a not unreasonable, a really spectacular sight. Photos 1 & 2 show a handful of them as they were almost all past.

After that excitement the rest of the day was a little slow and dull too as the cloud increased and conditions became very murky. Light became so poor that we had to call it a day 20 minutes before sunset, leaving an hour or so of transect to complete tomorrow – hopefully in better conditions.

Thursday 20 October

We started the day offshore from Lyme Regis to complete yesterday’s transect, the hour flew by as we were kept busy with auks, Kittiwakes and Gannets going past with the occasional Arctic Skua thrown in. Gulls are almost ever present in the Channel, particularly Great Black-backed Gulls (photo 3) although at this time of year first winter Herring Gulls are also rather common (photo 4).

On to the next transect and within a few minutes of starting logged a Great Northern Diver, always good to see these impressive beasts and, unusually, this one stayed quite close as we went past (photo 5). Again, we were kept busy with good numbers of Razorbills and Guillemots, Kittiwakes (photos 6 & 7), and more gulls like this adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (photo 8) and it was nice to know there are at least some healthy Gannets out there (photo 9). Common Dolphins also put in an appearance, and we had a few small groups coming into bow ride (photo 10).

As we headed south it was apparent there were a large number of birds feeding, large flocks of Kittiwake could be seen off to the east – but frustratingly beyond our 1km recording distance. We could also make out Great Shearwaters amongst them too – even more frustrating that the birds were so far away. Thankfully, several of the Great Shearwater finally started working their way west and reasonably close to us, it was nice to see them in decent light. Mind you if we thought that was good it was about to get even better.

A flock of birds about 800m to the east turned out to be Great Shearwater, all 400 or so of them (photo 11 – a small part of the flock). Some were heading south and as they did came closer to us (photos 12 & 13) we then saw what was drawing them south. Ahead of us stretching across almost 1000m of sea was an extraordinary feeding frenzy of several thousand birds, almost wholly Gannet (c.5000) but with another 200 or so Great Shearwater and 100 mixed large gulls thrown in. surprisingly, the Gannets weren’t diving, they were snorkeling and feeding from the surface (photo 14) – one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve seen during six Peltic surveys.

Little happened after this until we gave up as sunset approached. There are gale-force southerlies forecast for tomorrow but as long as we're heading north, we should at least be able to survey.

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