Thursday 20 August 2015

Stormy weather

The first of four pelagics out of the Isles of Scilly last weekend saw us heading south out of St Mary's on the MV Sapphire into the glorious sunlight and stiff breeze of Friday evening. These are theoretically ideal conditions for such trips as, when foul-smelling chum, a heady mixture of fish guts, fat and oil, is deposited over the stern, the whiff is carried in the wind acting like catnip for seabirds, and particularly Storm Petrels. These tiny, free-spirited birds spend their life on the high seas, coming in to land only to breed, and then generally under cover of darkness.
Storm Petrel: not your typical bird in either appearance and behaviour
European Storm Petrel shows a white rump and white band on the underwing
An extremely difficult bird to photograph in flight
The European Storm Petrel, for which the Isles of Scilly is one of only two English breeding sites, is virtually guaranteed on a Scilly pelagic at this time of year. Its larger cousin, Wilson's Storm Petrel, comes with no such guarantee, despite being one of the most abundant species of bird in the world, as they breed in the southern hemisphere, and are unlikely to be seen in this country unless from a pelagic trip. In fact, as we set out, one had not been recorded in British waters this year.
They patter on the surface of the water when feeding in the chum slick
This picture shows the boiling sea whipped up by strong winds
Backlit on the sunny side of the Sapphire
I was optimistic that my new camera and lens would help me improve on my earlier best efforts at photographing Stormies on a similar trip two years ago. But I had forgotten just how difficult it was to capture these fast moving and erratic subjects pinging around a boat whilst rolling in a heavy swell and trying not to hurl. It took an age to get my eye in, another age to be confident I had selected the right camera settings, and another to finally get something respectable. To the extent that many of the most presentable shots were taken in the dying embers of the light.
I stood at the back of the boat next to Shropshire birder and photographer Jim Almond, as catching them coming around the stern with the sun behind us seemed the best approach
An absorbing pursuit, petrel photography... which you end up content even if the results are imperfect
Just as they seemed to have died out completely (at 2034 hrs to be precise) up went a shout: 'Wilson's!'. It was time for the expensive consumer electronics hanging off my shoulder to earn their keep. Selecting a shutter speed I though would freeze the action, and dropping the ISO to Auto, I fired away. The Wilson's was surprisingly easy to pick out even without bins, being larger and having a totally different, more direct flight style with longer glides thrown in by comparison to its European relative. This also made it slightly easier to follow and thus photograph. The results were never going to be great in view of the lateness of the hour and the ISO being pushed to 16000, but I was pleased to get anything recognisable as a Wilson's Petrel, and not sure I would have been able to do so with my old 7D. An auspicious start to what became a memorable weekend in the Petrel department.
The straight trailing edge to the wing, protruding feet and pale grey upperwing bar are diagnostic of Wilson's Petrel
The square-ended tail appears forked when kinked and the white rump wraps further around the body than in European Storm Petrel
An additional diagnostic feature - yellow webbing between the toes - is obviously best seen when they are spread, but even here a hint of yellow colouration is apparent

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