Saturday, 16 August 2014

All at Sea - Biscay August 2014

August is probably the peak month for seeing both seabirds and cetaceans in European waters and so I decided to book on another trip across the Bay of Biscay. I booked to go on Brittany Ferries Pont Aven from Portsmouth to Santander and then to Plymouth from 12th to 14th August. It is a slightly frustrating trip since there is no return to Portsmouth unless you stay on the ship for another three days, therefore I had to get a coach back from Plymouth. The ship usually leaves at 17:15 but our departure was slightly delayed due to road closures on the motorway. Given the time of departure there was no time for birding, so once we were out of the port I headed down for something to eat and then an early night. 

Day 1 Portsmouth to Santander
The first days birding commenced at 6am by which time we were heading south and into the Bay of Biscay. We had a full days birding ahead as we were due to arrive in Santander at around 18:00. As the light became good enough to bird, the first Great Shearwaters appeared, quickly followed by the first Northern Gannets. A couple of distant large shearwaters were left unidentified before the first Cory's Shearwaters appeared. The remnants of Hurricane Bertha meant that it was a breezy crossing, and the sea state was ranging between 5 and 7 making it difficult to pick up cetaceans.

Great Shearwater - Biscay

The first dolphins of the trip were a distant pod of Bottle-nosed, that in typical fashion, ignored the boat and concentrated on what they were doing. They stayed low in the water and so were difficult to pick up, but those that were fortunate to get onto them got good views. The second pod where much more fun, a group of Common Dolphins. Around 50 animals came into the bow of the ship, to ride the bow wave.

Common Dolphins - Biscay
Common Dolphin - Biscay
We were treated to numerous encounters with Common Dolphins for the remainder of the day with pod sizes varying from 50 to 5. Some of them had very small calves, whereas others like in the image below were much larger.

Common Dolphins, Presumed mother and calf - Biscay

As we continued south the weather conditions began to calm but there was no sign of any large whales. There was however a steady passage of shearwaters with both Greats and Cory's giving excellent views as they flew alongside the ship.

Great Shearwater - Biscay
Cory's Shearwater - Biscay

Occasional Northern Gannets drifted alongside the ship, and where we recorded them plunge diving, dolphins were usually in close attendance.

Northern Gannet - Biscay

As we passed over the deep water, which in places is 4500 metres deep, we encountered our only Striped Dolphins of the trip. Unlike to Common Dolphins they headed for the back of the ship to play in the wake. Approximately 50 individuals were seen on both sides of the ship.

Striped Dolphin - Biscay

There were periods where it was very quiet, but at around 15:00 activity picked up again. Initially it was just the sight of isolated Cory's or Great Shearwaters and then a Great Skua took off from the water to avoid getting hit by the boat.

Great Skua (Bonxie) - Biscay 2014

At 15:15 we encountered a flock of Shearwaters, that appeared evenly split between Great and Cory's. Many birds were sat on the water whilst others were milling around feeding.

Cory's and Great Shearwaters - Biscay

The flock was quite distant so I began scanning and immediately picked up a small, apparent pale faced shearwater milling around. I have seen what is now known as Barolo Shearwater, but previously Little and Macronesian, before so grabbed my camera in the hope of getting a record shot, presuming it to be that species.

Cory's, Great Shearwaters and possible Boyd's Shearwater (far right and top) - Biscay

However, having looked at the images it was evident that several of the features that I would have expected to be visible on Barolo were not present, and in fact the bird appears to show features consistent with Boyd's Shearwater instead. The bird was obviously smaller than a Manx Shearwater, the wings appeared more rounded and it gave the impression of being more long tailed. This feature was accentuated by the longest undertail feathers being dark.  The eye did not clearly stand out as would be expected in Barolo, but the cheeks and side of the head appeared much whiter than in Manx. The bill was obviously short, and in the bottom left photo appears to be pale with a dark tip. The underwing has wholly dark primaries and there is a hint of a dark bar on the underwing coverts, towards the leading edge. Unfortunately I didn't get exact GPS co-ordinates but I do have them from 14:30 which were 44.31.590N  004.03.512W, at the time the ship was travelling at 24knots.

Possible Boyd's Shearwater - Biscay

Continuing south we picked up a couple of flocks of Dunlin, six Arctic Terns and two Grey Phalaropes.

By the end of day 1 we had recorded the following: Great Shearwater 61, Cory's Shearwater 62, Unidentified large Shearwater 4, Possible Boyd's Shearwater 1, unidentified small shearwater 2, Great Black-backed Gull 1, Lesser Black-backed Gull 4, Great Skua 1, Northern Gannet 25, Dunlin 20, Grey Phalarope 2, Arctic Tern 6 and Yellow-legged Gull 100+, Bottle-nosed Dolphin 9, Common Dolphin 120, Striped Dolphin 20.

Day 2 Santander to Plymouth
In stark contrast to the previous day, at dawn on day 2, the sea was flat calm. As expected in such conditions we were immediately picking up Common Dolphins. Unfortunately as we progressed north the sea state got worse, and occasional heavy showers, made viewing very difficult. Several other encounters with Common Dolphins occurred, but that was it for the trip with regard to cetaceans.

Common Dolphins - Biscay

The light was quite poor at times but we were still able to pick out good numbers of shearwaters. Great and Cory's were once again present in good numbers and Manx Shearwaters were becoming more numerous. Balearic Shearwaters were also more numerous and at one point we recorded a mixed flock of 50 Manx and Balearic.

Balearic Shearwater - Biscay
Northern Gannets became much more numerous as we headed back north, and a tight flock of 12 Little Tern headed south. Northern Fulmars also became more frequent, but only ever single birds.

2nd Calendar Year Northern Gannet - English Channel

During one of the brighter periods, several Cory's Shearwaters were flying alongside the ship, giving excellent views. The ship took the inland route between the west coast of France and the Island of Ouessant, and where the calmer waters met the open sea two adult Sabine's Gulls were loitering.

Cory's Shearwater - English Channel 
Cory's Shearwater - English Channel
There was still a steady stream of large shearwaters in view, even with landfall in site, but by this time Manxie's were the most numerous. Three Kittiwakes made a brief past and one British Storm-petrel was a welcome sight.

Manx Shearwater - English Channel
Manx Shearwater - English Channel

By the end of day 2 we had recorded the following: Northern Fulmar 10, Northern Gannet 210, Cory's Shearwater 40, Great Shearwater 42, Little tern 12, Manx Shearwater 46, Balearic Shearwater 35, Lesser Black-backed Gull 2, Great Black-backed Gull 14, Sabine's Gull 2, Shag 1, British Storm-petrel 1, Great Skua 3, Ringed Plover 6, Kittiwake 3, Herring Gull 30+ and Common Dolphin 99.

1 comment:

  1. If you do it again next year Trev I would love to come along :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...