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

Another shot at Great Shearwater

A few weeks ago I was pleased to be taking terrible photos of a Great Shearwater in Weymouth Bay in appalling weather - any photo of a Great Shearwater in Dorset being something to celebrate. This or another bird lingered for several days and despite a repeat visit to Portland I was unable to get anything resembling these stunning pictures taken by Keith Pritchard. So I was optimistic that a trip to the Isles of Scilly last weekend would provide better opportunities in more clement conditions to see this enigmatic species. And so it was, as we saw several on each of three pelagics, some of which treated us to close views, highlights of which below.


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Lucky thirteen

When I went on my first Scilly pelagics in 2013 with Bob Flood and Joe Pender on the Sapphire, seeing Cory's Shearwater, and photographing one well, was one of the things I was hoping for most. Ten trips later and I had yet to see one, let along photograph one - not that I'm complaining, having seen many other spectacular birds and other marine wildlife on these trips. Cory's Shearwater, named after an American ornithologist, is a large tubenose which breeds in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic but passes through our waters at this time of year, and with reports of 250+ in a feeding frenzy the day before my arrival on Scilly, hopes were high for a close encounter.

While two individuals lumbered past distantly in the fading light of Friday 4th, on Saturday 5th we again drew a blank with this species despite spending 7 hours at sea. Sunday 6th would be my thirteenth pelagic, and my last opportunity this year to get close to my target species. As we headed south out of St Mary's, I saw a huge Gannet feeding frenzy some distance off to the west. This was enough to persuade skipper Joe Pender to head in that direction, and soon enough Cory's started appearing around the boat. For the next hour or so we were treated to close views as birds came in to check the chum slick emanating from our stern.