Friday, 30 March 2012

Super- subs!

The first proper rain in over a month brought some lovely fresh air to the morning. By 10:30 in light drizzle I was in a right tizz- I had seen 9 migrant passerines all as silhouettes and all flying away from me- I didn't manage to pin an ID on a single bird! Every time I moved around the ship and rounded an obstruction something was always flying off- so frustrating. Then it brightened up and the birds were gone! During the afternoon as we neared the coast of Libya things started to pick up again with singles of robin, kestrel, wheatear, and pied wagtail putting in an appearance. A small nervous bird then caught my eye. Initially I thought 'whitethroat' but I eventually pinned down a cracking male subalpine warbler. (30th positively ID'd bird species for the voyage- :))). This was joined shortly afterwards by two more- a second male and a female. A very jaunty chiffchaff tipped up 30 minutes later. Walking around some pallets on the deck I heard a thin, waderish- like 'pwee', and was treated to a flurry of wings as a quail burst into the air and circled the ship before heading north! Great stuff!

As I have found out to my chagrin on numerous occasions, it is not possible to use any real 'fieldcraft' on the open decks of a ship. This means that although it is often possible to get close views of some birds, as soon as you lift a pair of bins or a camera they flit elsewhere. Unfortunately this was the case with the subalps. and so I only managed photos. of partially obscured birds- or rather distant shots.

subalpine warbler

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Risso's dolphins make a splash!

typical high, falcate dorsal fin

mature adult showing skin lightening and scarring

female with calf

Cracking weather again today with excellent sea conditions. 800 metres out I noticed a high, sickle-shaped dorsal fin break the sea surface during one of my many binocular sweeps. Five minutes later a nice school of Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus) swam across our bow. As far as I could determine there were a dozen or so- eight or nine adults, including at least two mature males and two or three smaller calves. They closed to within 400 metres of the ship, allowing me to get a few shots off. Mature adults are renowned for their pale skin and scarring- particularly in the head region and the scarring is caused from multiple previous encounters with other sharp-toothed individuals and, to a lesser degree squid.  This species also shows a good deal of variation in the height and shape of their dorsal fins. The individuals here certainly showed these characteristics rather nicely. After watching them for 10 minutes they gradually moved off to the east and were lost from view in the heat haze.

On the birding front a wheatear was a first for this voyage and a nice flock of 10 (Little?) egrets looked resplendent despite the distance, with their pristine white plumage making for a lovely contrast against the  sea!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

'Sunday'- Monday; 'crew change'- Tuesday

sunrise 26/03/2012
sunset 26/03/2012 
Yesterday was dire with the exception that I saw an ocean sunrise and sunset- and absolutely nothing in between these two celestial events. Birds just didn't appear to move in the oppressive heat. I cowered behind factor 30, shades and a wide-brimmed hat. Visions of water droplets sliding down cold beer bottles kept annoying me all day.

Today was crew change day- for some, and as expected for such a day, it was cooler, windier and with a hint of drizzle in the afternoon. The drizzle didn't stop the smiles from those homeward bound though! They even boarded a fancy new offshore crew-change vessel with airline style (business class!) seats, air-con and personal mini t.v. screens. (And it goes at 20+ knots!)

Anyway, I had to console myself with the fact that I probably have another 3-4 weeks at sea so grabbed several choccy biscuits and just cracked on with my work. There were no signs of marine mammals anywhere so I was drawn to feathers again. The day saw 9 tern sp. flying north but too distantly to identify. On deck briefly were singles of pied wagtail, blackcap and a fleeting serin. I also got a photo of a redstart sp. and having given it much scrutiny I am wondering if it is good for a moussier's redstart? (anybody care to make a shout?) It appears rather short-winged, the tail seems short- although admittedly it is rather worn, the flanks seem rather more rufous than on a common redstart and there is a hint of a pale wing panel? Maybe I am just being overly optimistic? - and it doesn't really matter- it's a nice bird whatever!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sylvia's a fit bird!

It has been rather better from a birding perspective over the last two days. The wind dropped and the dust settled yesterday, prompting the 3 resident blackcaps to head north once again. A swallow followed shortly afterwards and a few of the cory's stopped loafing and resumed their endless search for food particles on the seas' surface. Today started nicely with two great skuas, 3 med gulls, and a dozen or so LBB and YL gulls recorded during the morning. At lunchtime a tern sp. flew across the ships' wake but remained rather too distant for me to confirm my suspicion that it was of the whiskered variety. Another swallow, a redstart, a kestrel and a lovely sardinian warbler visited the ship for varying amounts of time today, with the kestrel and swallow doing swift flypasts, the redstart momentarily alighting and the warbler staying for 40 minutes or so- catching flies and moths. This bird took a real interest in fly catching from the pedals of a static exercise bike and even managed to take a moth that was a real beak full.  To be honest this fit little bird spent more time on the exercise bike than many of the people onboard and probably the less said about that the better!

pedal power.....makes me hungry..
just one more snack...

I have no idea what type or species of moth this is but they are constantly flying about the ship and have been useful sustenance for many of the passerines that have stopped off during their northward passage.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Ghibli

The last three days have seen us subjected to a rather awful SE wind, sweeping up from the Sahara. Known as a Sirocco (or Ghibli in Libya) It results in dry, dusty conditions along the north African coast, sometimes creates storms in the Med. and makes for unsettled weather in southern Europe. Although not too strong, at a steady 22-26 knots, it has been annoyingly breezy, (if I had hair it would be blowing in my eyes!). Although the sun is intense, conditions on deck have been uncomfortably cold and very very dry. My nose and throat feel ragged as though stuffed with wire wool and my exposed skin is sore from abrasion by the fine dust and sand particles suspended in the breeze. Feather wear in migrants must be considerable when they are exposed to such conditions!
I had thought the Ghibli would push a few migrants my way but the only birds seen over the last 72 hours have been 3 Blackcaps and these have stayed onboard catching flies and hiding out of the breeze. They   do appear rather reluctant to resume their northward passage despite the fact that we have come about and are now heading south again! Maybe more migrants are attempting to avoid these harsh conditions where possible and are hunkered down along the shoreline waiting for clearer air? On the seabird front I have recorded only 3 Great skuas and a distant Larus sp.
Being at sea, surveying seabirds, is normally a source of great pleasure- when there are birds to identify and count!- but when it is this quiet the days are tedious and very very long. I have found myself thinking of where I would like to be birding this weekend and top of my list is Portland Bill or Dungeness- trying to anticipate where those scarce migrants are going to turn up! 

One of our temporarily resident blackcaps caused me to do a double take this morning due to its' coloration - then I realised that it had been dust bathing and had gone for a very fetching 'Sahara pink' outfit. Perhaps it fancies itself as a bit of a Bullfinch!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Manic morning

large falcon coming out of the sun!
I stepped on deck in the early morning light to be greeted by a Little egret coming up from the south and flying high over the ship. Five minutes later a large, pale falcon sp. came out of the sun like a well trained fighter pilot, went hurtling past the bridge at ridiculous speed and re-appeared some 300 metres ahead of me and just kept going NW- gone in 10 seconds! I toyed with the idea that I had just glimpsed my first ever Lanner?, but I must admit to not really having a clue and don't think I'll ever knowA swallow bravely followed in its' flightpath several minutes later. 
Sea watching was great too! 3 nice lines of shearwaters- 26 Cory's and 5 Balearics came down wind and I also recorded 4 great skuas, 2 gannets, 3 Med. gulls, 4 LBB gulls, and a yellow-legged gull. A distant humpback whale (Megaptera novanglea) was a great distraction for over an hour as it breached repeatedly and lunge fed at the surface. Several schools of tuna sp. also provided additional interest. Then it was 10:00 hours and time for coffee and cake!

large, pale falcon just kept going!
The afternoon was spent watching the shearwaters as they danced over the waves!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Race row?

A quiet weekend with Saturdays' only birds of note being a couple of Balearic shearwaters. Visible migration turned up a couple of LBJ's that remained unidentified due to distance and sunlight in my face. Today was a little more interesting- my early morning sea watch turned up 2 gannets, 2 great skuas, 3 Cory's and the usual larus suspects. Two passerines briefly boarded the ship- a robin and a rather splendid yellow wagtail which alerted me to its' presence with a nice overhead flight call. It landed on the most inaccessible part of the ship, hence the distant photos- grrrr.

Now, I don't intend going off on one, concerning the identification of the numerous races of these splendid birds (because it has all been covered elsewhere) except to say that initially I thought this was a 'thunbergi'. However, looking at it closely it has a white, sub-moustachial stripe (admittedly not too apparent on my wretched photos) and this I believe is a characteristic of the 'cinereocapilla' race found in Italy? I readily admit to struggling with the finer I/D points of wagtail races and would welcome any input on this. When all's said and done it's always a pleasure to see these birds as they are scarce in the north and as I have not seen one on my local patch these birds are a bit of a treat!

Friday, 16 March 2012

The doldrums

I was rather disheartened during the morning, as with a flat calm sea I saw a further 5 migrant corpses floating past- including a larger bird that looked like a kestrel. I'm surprised that such a strong flyer ended up drowning, and have little hope for many of the much smaller, weaker birds that tried to negotiate the sea crossing during the recent bad weather. Anyway with such little breeze today, most of my seabird counts consisted of loafing Cory's and the usual larus sp. gulls sitting about on the sea. With minimal seabird action and fine conditions I had great hopes for some vis mig goodies but this was also rather limited with just 6 Stonechats and a flock of 12 duck sp. heading north. 

All the stonechats adopted the same strategy in that they each dropped onto a part of the ship, hung around for 10 or 15 minutes catching flies and small moths and then resumed their northward passage. At least we were steaming north at 5 knots so it felt good to give them a helping hand! 

With such unusually calm conditions it was possible to see into the water and admire a few medusae so I tried a couple of snaps to pass the time.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


Got onto a huge raptor today! Well actually as we all know a dark bird against a light background looks far bigger than it is, and similarly a light coloured bird against a dark background does too- correctly sizing birds with little visual reference to other objects is often the bane of my sea watching experience. Anyway, at 500 metres range, despite looking the size of a large eagle, the jizz of this bird screamed 'marsh harrier' although thoughts of booted eagle and even black kite initially floated through my head. It stayed on the wrong side of 300 metres and was against the sun as it flew past our port side, so I couldn't get much on it but I think it was a marshy?

This afternoon we had changed our heading by 180 degrees so that the sun was then on the starboard side- and of course this great skua decided to also keep pretty much in the sun by flying down that side!

Finished the day with half a dozen common dolphins too, but again they didn't want to be photographed!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Mortal migrants.

A pleasant morning with much improved sea state (3) and good visibility to the horizon so I decided a couple of hours counting the still sparsely distributed seabirds would be a good option, as I would probably pick up any cetacean activity during the survey as well. The first hour turned up small numbers of Cory's shearwater,  3 Med. gulls, a distant Great skua, and a smattering of the ubiquitous lesser black-backed and yellow legged gulls. As we headed north about 20 nm offshore I noticed a relatively sizeable group of distant larus spp. gulls ahead- about 20 birds in total. They were engaged in typical gull behaviour- some resting on the sea, other small groups of 3-4 birds were squabbling and chasing birds with full beaks, which I presumed was fish or squid. Closer scrutiny however revealed that the birds were engaged in scavenging dead passerines from the sea. I stood at the starboard rail and counted 11 corpses within about 20 metres of the ship over the course of about 10 minutes. As the gulls were busy eating and plucking birds from the sea over a distance out to approx. 400 metres I can only presume that the dead birds were fairly evenly spread over a sizeable area. As some of the gulls were sat contentedly on the sea I had the distinct impression that they were full! It was not possible to quantify how many dead birds were in the wreck - it could have been scores or even hundreds! 

Although this is undoubtedly a natural occurrence it is one that I have never witnessed before on such a scale. I have previously seen the likes of quail crash into the sea and have also seen the occasional meadow pipit and skylark fall into the sea in a strong, persistent head wind. I presume that the long, hard storm over the weekend, coupled with the dense sand and dust caused these migrants difficulties somewhere over the sea. They could have been much further north at one stage and blown back south by the storm. On a brighter note a trickle of northward bound migrants have continued past the ship this afternoon, including a swallow, a blackcap, a black redstart, a couple of alba/yarrellii wagtails and another feral type pigeon.

Monday, 12 March 2012


I had not intended to write anything today, although the morning was spent pleasantly enough counting at least 45 Cory's shearwaters, 5 Med. gulls and 3 yellow-legged gulls. There was also an unidentified passerine that overflew the vessel at great speed in the (still) force 6 nor-westerly. Not sure if it really wanted to go off in a south-easterly direction at this time of year but I suppose you can only battle a head wind for so long when you probably weigh less than 25 grams! It would probably have settled on deck if it had not been so busy with crew using jet-washers to get rid of the last remnants of the sand and dust left all over the ship by the recent blow.

Anyway the afternoon was particularly dull until just after 17:00 local time when a small falcon caught my eye as it approached the ship from the south. I initially thought 'kestrel'. The bird continued approaching, banked in the weakening sun, showing a rusty mantle, black-tipped wings and greyish head so I lowered the camera as I already had reasonable shots of kestrel. The bird disappeared behind the heli-deck, reappeared and perched near the spare paravane on the port side. Getting the bird in my bins showed a uniform pale grey head with plain grey cheek, sparse speckling on the breast and flanks and noticeably long wings- it was a Lesser Kestrel!- and a cracking adult male at that! Being a life tick generated a bit of a rush (casual understatement). Fortunately I don't think anyone saw me as I became a 'transformer' and got myself into an outrageous tangle of arms, head, binocular strap, camera strap and vhf radio as I tried to get the camera operational.  To my complete horror the bird flicked its' wings and tail and looked as if it was about to flit, fortunately it settled again allowing me to take a couple of shots in the less than ideal light. I managed half a dozen shots from 40 metres or so before it flew up, over and around the ship and was lost to view somewhere over the waves. Quite an interesting encounter and all in 4-5 metre swell, 15 degree rolls to port and starboard and under 90 seconds! Phew- I need a lie down! ;)

Lesser kestrel

Lesser kestrel

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Gale force Kestrel

This beauty got blown in this morning and the better light allowed for decent photos. Upon touching down it was really struggling to balance due to the buffeting of the wind and the movement of the ship. This afternoon we passed through a small area of increased marine productivity it seems as there was a flock of 6 Corys' and 1 Balearic shearwater, accompanied by 5 Common dolphins that came in to briefly bow ride our vessel.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Dragons n Poms

Heavy weather all night and a confused sea state all day so I'm a tad tired now. Just two birds seen today- an adult and juvenile Pomarine skua did a brief flypast. Apart from that I spent an hour attempting to photograph the numerous dragonflies that have been blown offshore by the storm. We have started our dog-leg NW and then tomorrow morning we will turn SW to head into the next part of this rotating storm system. Hopefully things will settle back down on monday.....

The closer I look at the fine detail of the wing structure the more captivated by it I become! This got me thinking about life, the universe and everything- subjects which alway ruffle my emotional feathers when I think toooooo much! I suddenly found myself in a far too serious mood, so I had to have a word with myself and went for tea and choccy biscuits and this helped me realise (yet again) that in spite of all my pondering the best answer to those big questions is still 42! ;) (as provided in the 'Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy'- for those of you that never read it!)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Desert storm

The twilight zone- desert dust fills the air
Ballistic gannet
The morning started off reasonable with a fresh NE beaufort 5. By 11:00 the wind had freshened to a near gale (force 7) and by 13:00 wind speeds were a sustained 40+ knots, (severe gale Beaufort 9) gusting to 50 knots on occasion. The sea built slowly but surely with wave heights of 6+ metres throwing us about by the late afternoon. Fortunately we got the more sensitive equipment onboard before lunchtime and then commenced our run east at 4 knots to get away (hopefully) from the dangerous storm centre. A strange eery pinkish/orange light filled the afternoon sky as dust and sand from the Sahara desert was lifted and blown our way. By 15:00 we were in a weird and wonderful twilight zone. With forty five knot winds my effort at taking photos was a joke but I did manage to catch a gannet - probably a 2nd calendar year bird, go rocketing down wind! A Cory's did a really close pass too, but I just couldn't get a shot from the rolling ship and buffeting wind. I got a call from the bosun at 16:30 saying that a very nice bird was resting on the starboard paravane door so I grabbed my camera and went for a look. By this time the sand filled sky made for appalling light conditions but I did manage a shot or two of a very wind-swept kestrel

The blow has kept up all evening so we will not be getting much sleep tonight. The wind should moderate in the small hours and then get even worse tomorrow afternoon before the real serious blow that is due our way on sunday. Of course the forecast may be wrong! 
I almost forgot that I also took a long-range shot of our tanker/support vessel getting roughed up by the sea this morning- before things got too crazy! It's a poor quality photo. but it gives the overall impression of what the sea conditions were like and what a F8 gale can do to a moderate sized vessel!

Sanco Sky in F7/F8 gale

Thursday, 8 March 2012


Deathly quiet on the bird front with a nasty spell of weather on the way and cold northerlies seemingly holding up the migrants along the north African coastline. Just 4 birds noted over the past 48 hours- a white wagtail, a black redstart, a chiffchaff and today a solitary swallow. We took advantage of the 'calm before the storm' today and bunkered at sea. Always a tricky operation with the tanker/support vessel just 150 metres ahead of us. All went smoothly and we loaded just under 700 metric tonnes of fuel which should give us much needed stability over the weekends' anticipated blow. The seabirds have dissipated too, with just a handful of yellow-legged gulls and several Cory's shearwaters recorded. Although I cannot offer any scientific 'proof' I have noticed over the years that seabirds often appear restless and then 'disappear' just prior to a storm! Strange how scanning the ocean for long hours with little seabird and cetacean activity makes me more tired than if I was doing full- on counts!   

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fantastic feathers!

Today has been better. After breakfast I saw a few of the usual Cory's shearwaters ahead of the vessel but as usual they kept their distance. Mid morning saw a flypast of 3 Med gulls- two second winters and an adult, although they too kept their distance and made a mockery of my photographic attempts. Just before lunch I left my elevated viewpoint above the ships' bridge and decided to stroll aft to check the sea behind the ship. As I walked under the heli-deck I caught a flash of black and white and knew I was onto a Hoopoe!! The bird had flown over the side but re-appeared behind me on a railing. Camera out, hands shaking with excitement saw me rattle off a number of dismally ill-focused shots. Fortunately the bird was rather confiding and sat there for 20 seconds or so which allowed me to settle down and get a better shot.  I have only ever seen one of these birds in the UK- Portland bill, April 1981, although I have seen a number on Gran Canaria since then. This bird was visible on the heli-deck this afternoon for a couple of hours- one of the few places that are 'out of bounds' to me so I did not manage any further shots. It eventually came down a deck and although I tried for a number of flight shots I couldn't get the exposure and shutter speed right as the camera seemed confused by the blizzard of black and white and I could not get a decent focus. (Well maybe I was confused by the blizzard of black and white). Eventually I got one blurry image which shows the general plumage layout of this cracking bird. Later a Black redstart on deck seemed rather low-key although a week ago the first one was really exciting too.