Sunday, 20 August 2017

Feeding frenzies

There were massive seabird feeding frenzies seen from pelagic trips out of the Isles of Scilly the day before my arrival and the day after my departure for three trips out on the Sapphire earlier this month. I might have felt a bit cheated but for the fact that we encountered our own on the return journey on Scillonian III on the Sunday evening. We were approaching the mainland not far from the Wolf Rock lighthouse when Manx Sheawaters and Short-beaked Common Dolphins started appearing in large numbers.
Short-beaked Common Dolphin  - this one was taken on a pelagic on 5th August
Common Dolphin from Scillonian III
One from earlier in the day on the Sapphire
Views of Great Shearwater from Scillonian III were exceptional
A steady stream of Great Shearwaters crossed our bows as we headed for Penzance
There are five Great Shearwaters in this shot alone - the view for several hundred yards ahead of us was similar
Sooty Shearwater from Scillonian III
Manx Shearwater from Scillonian III
Cory's Shearwater from Scillonian III

Manx Shearwater
We disturbed several rafts of Manxies as we steamed through, and on close inspection some of the rafts appeared to contain more Great than Manx Shearwaters. The odd Sooty and Cory's were also present. There were birds on the water as far as the eye could see and when dolphins started to cause the surface of the water to boil it felt like we were approaching the centre of the action. This was confirmed shortly afterwards when a whale appeared to blow some distance ahead. I readied the camera as we approached the spot and managed to get a few shots of a Minke Whale surfacing close to the ship.
First view of the Minke was quite distant
A dolphin surfaces behind the Minke Whale as Manx Shearwaters track it in the air
The next time the Minke Whale surfaced it was much closer to the ship

Several flocks of Arctic Terns were seen at sea
Arctic Tern
Fulmar is a frequent companion on pelagic trips

Gannet with rising Moon behind
Great Skua was seen on all three pelagics
Close scrutiny of photos revealed this to be an adult Long-tailed Skua
Sooty Shearwater with Bishop Rock lighthouse behind

Monday, 14 August 2017

Petrel stations

It must be tempting to look at the cripplingly good photographs of Storm Petrels taken over the years by the likes of Brian Thomas and Joe Pender and conclude it must be easy when the birds clearly come so close to the boat. Take it from me, it is anything but. First you have to find them, which generally involves chugging out of High Town for an hour or two, then drifting and chumming for another hour or two before the petrels pick up the scent and arrive to check out the oily slick created by the fish guts and mealworms laid on for their delectation.

Then you have to photograph them - and shooting these rapidly moving, tiny birds from a small vessel, bobbing (if you are lucky) on the open sea whilst holding down lunch is probably one of the greatest photographic challenges I have undertaken. The failure rate is therefore extremely high but after much fiddling with camera settings, and a bit of hit and hope, some reasonably sharp images were possible. The European Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus is easy enough to see on these trips but the Wilson's Petrel Oceanites oceanicus is much rarer in British waters and a particular target of late summer pelagics out of the Isles of Scilly. It has been a good year for them and one or two of this species were seen from the Sapphire on each of three trips I made over the long weekend recently.
Wilson's Storm Petrel
Wilson's Petrel shows a plain underwing...
 ...a straight trailing edge to the wing...
...toes protruding beyond the tail...
...yellow webbing between the toes...
...and a pale band along the upper-wing coverts
Wilson's Petrel patters on the surface as do other members of the family
A tiny bird compared to the gulls around the boat but...
...still visibly larger than European Storm Petrel (left)
European Storm Petrel has a plain upper-wing compared to Wilson's...
...and a diagnostic white bar on the under-wing
Note also the legs do not protrude beyond the tail
This Storm Petrel was so close to our stern it was practically being hand-fed mealworms
Another view of the distinctive under-wing pattern
European Storm Petrel - incredible how these tiny birds survive in their hostile ocean habitat

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Pelagic poetry

Of all the birds seen regularly in Britain, Balearic Shearwater is one of the rarest in global terms, being regarded as critically endangered by the IUCN. Tourist industry development near its breeding colonies and introduced mammals such as cats and rats are largely responsible for the perilous position of the species. Despite their small population, however, we are fortunate to see them annually off Portland Bill, but pelagic trips, such as the ones I enjoyed last weekend on the Isles of Scilly, generally provide better opportunities to see the species up close. On my first trip of three this year, an evening excursion, one flew alongside the Sapphire long enough for a few pictures. It was outnumbered by Sooty and Great Shearwaters, which we saw on all three days, and Manx Shearwaters, which have been present in the waters around Scilly in their thousands over recent weeks. All four species seem to move so effortlessly over the open sea - poetry in motion and a joy to watch.
Balearic Shearwater off Scilly, 4th August
A view showing the plain upperwings and toes protruding beyond the tail
Note the unclean white underparts and pot-bellied appearance...
...compared to the more clearly contrasting black and white Manx Shearwater
The black upperparts of Manx Shearwater can be invisible against a dark sea but its' presence is revealed when it banks to reveal gleaming white underparts
Manx Shearwater overtaking the Sapphire
A very elegant bird in flight
We disturbed several small rafts of Manx Shearwater as we headed out of St Mary's
Sooty Shearwater were seen frequently
Note darker belly and longer wings compared to Balearic Shearwater
Like the Great Shearwater, this is another long distance wanderer from the southern oceans
An effortlessly flier which overtook us with ease
Sooty Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater shows a silvery underwing and flesh coloured feet
A bit close to fit the whole bird in the frame
This bird was with a small raft of Manx Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater - all the key features on view here