Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A day out with the buoys

On the Saturday before last I took the boat to Brownsea for a rare winter landing trip. This is usually a great way to get close to waders in front of the hides, and in the days before Christmas, my old friend Hamish Murray, now Dorset Wildlife Trust's Conservation Officer, had been getting great photographs of the long-staying Stilt Sandpiper which had relocated there after extended stays at Lodmoor and Middlebere.
Great Northern Diver, Poole Park. Bonus points for naming the species of crab.
Great Northern Diver, Poole Park 
Unfortunately, on the day of my visit one of the pumps which manages the water levels had broken (pull your finger out, Hamish ;-), and the only waders on the unusually full lagoon were huddled way out on the islands in the middle. Compensation for this slight disappointment came in the form of plenty of good birds, a hunting Peregrine, the resident Red Squirrels and, best of all, the discovery of a Great Northern Diver crabbing the shallows in the unlikely location of Poole Park lake, which I had checked out before boarding the Brownsea boat. I was short of both time and light on that occasion, so I returned this Sunday for another look. It seemed that my luck had run out as park staff were collecting buoys from the Diver's favoured area, pushing it out to the centre of the lake.
Peregrine hunting on Brownsea lagoon, 6th June
Record shot of female Velvet Scoter south of Brownsea, 6th June
After scanning Holes Bay and finding it relatively empty, over a spot of lunch I decided on a change of scene and headed for Ferrybridge, a favourite area for birding at this time of year. I checked out Portland Harbour and photographed some distant Black-necked Grebes before heading for Chesil Cove, where Black Redstarts have proven photogenic in each of the last two winters. On arrival some passers-by suggested I look out for a whale or dolphin in the Cove which they had seen a few minutes earlier, and which they thought might be dragging a buoy from one of the many lobster pots in the area.
Red Squirrel, Brownsea Island
Red Fox, Holes Bay
I scanned the Cove and saw nothing, but looking further out I eventually picked up what looked like an orange buoy creating a bow wave as if being dragged through the water. Then at some considerable distance I saw a cetacean blow, and a small dorsal fin break the surface. It came up a couple more times and, bearing in mind my track record of not being able to identify things off the West Cliffs of Portland, I thought I had better take a photograph in the hope that would help.
Drake Wigeon, Holes Bay
Wigeon, Holes Bay
Within minutes a work colleague who volunteers for British Divers Marine Life Rescue arrived to follow up reports of a whale, suggesting that it had been seen by others before my arrival at the Cove. I checked my photos from which it was clearly a whale of some description while my colleague phoned an update to BDMLR based on what I had seen. We scanned some more but the whale did not resurface. I phoned Martin Cade at the Portland Bird Observatory to encourage him to keep a look out as the whale seemed to be heading broadly away from us and in the direction of the Bill. Sadly I did not see it again, and neither did Martin from a vantage point on the West Cliffs. By now the light was fading and I was still not quite sure what I had seen, but studying the photos through my inverted bins the shape of the dorsal fin started to remind me of the Humpback Whale I saw last February in Devon with Steve Smith. However, I lacked both the expertise and the reference material to be able to eliminate other species on the strength of that. On returning home and emailing the photos to various experts, however, my suspicions were confirmed when they positively identified it as a Humpback Whale.
Black-necked Grebe, Portland Harbour
Black-necked Grebe, Portland Harbour
With the identification confirmed, I posted some record shots on Twitter and, Twitter being Twitter, copped a bit of flack for not putting the news out sooner, based, I trust, on legitimate concern for the welfare of the whale. So for the record, I had the whale in view for just a few minutes, and within minutes of my sighting, BDMLR, who were exactly the people who needed to know about it should some kind of rescue mission be required, were on the scene having already heard the news from elsewhere. Given that the whale appeared to be heading strongly out to sea, and that the light was fading, there was not much more they or anyone else could have done to come to the whale's aid that afternoon.
Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Portland Harbour
Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Portland Harbour
I could perhaps, with hindsight, have got news out more quickly of a 'brief sighting of cetacean sp.' which, at that point, I could neither see nor identify - but if it's any comfort, anyone racing down to the Cove on the strength of that would have been disappointed. Anyway, let's hope it has freed itself and comes to no harm. There has been a lot of local media interest (best Q&A thus far - Interviewer: 'How big was it?'; me: 'Err, whale-sized?'.) and I asked the journalists I spoke to to give prominence to the marine conservation organisations like Marine Life and BDMLR who can give the best advice on reporting any future sightings. I am pleased to say most of them have done that thus far.
My distant record shot of the Humpback Whale - described (with some justification) by the breakfast DJ on Radio Solent as 'underwhelming' in photographic terms. A tad ungrateful though as I gave permission for him to use it on his website!
Black-tailed Godwit, Holes Bay

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